#BalticBrief: Vesti Investing in Pro-Kremlin Audience Online

How pro-Kremlin online media in Latvia is consolidating and growing its audience

(Source: @DFRLab / License: CC0 1.0 via Pixabay)

Vesti.lv is part of a media network that shares pro-Kremlin narratives in Latvia. The outlet was recently engaged in an effort to ban a mobile app released by the Latvian State Language Center that allows users to report good and bad examples of Latvian language use. Vesti.lv is now making moves to consolidate its hold on pro-Russian and digitally native outlets in Latvia.

One outlet which was involved in the anti-language app campaign and now under vesti.lv is focus.lv, which now redirects its readers to Vesti.lv via a subdomain at ru.focus.vesti.lv. The effort is a natural growth for a media company, as consolidating heavily trafficked websites allows Vesti.lv to grow its online readership statistics and rank higher on content discovery tools, like Google search. However, the strategy also adds to an already polarized political debate across the Baltics.

(Source: @DFRLab)

Vesti.lv

On February 1, the Centre for East European Policy Studies presented a study on how international events are portrayed in Latvian online news portals. The full report concluded that Vesti.lv was the only Russian language media outlet in Latvia out of six surveyed that was clearly pro-Kremlin. The other two Russian media outlets — the Russian language versions of Delfi.lv and Tvnet.lv — were categorized as “hybrid”.

The authors of the study concluded:

The content analysis data suggests that Russian-language portal editors are generally more likely to interfere with the original headings of the republished articles, i.e. along with stylistic changes, they tend to introduce ideological adjustments, for example, localizing international news, presenting opinions as facts or reducing the emphasis on the causation and consequences, which can contribute to the negative image of Russia. Such ideological interventions are most often seen in Vesti.lv publications.

One aspect that remains unclear is who owns Vesti.lv. In March 2017, the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism (Re:Baltica) published an article, which suggested the outlet’s parent company Media Nams Vesti is officially owned by Ludmila Kalashnik. However, Russian-language journalists in Latvia believe the true owner is her partner Eduard Yanakov, a wealthy former member of the Russian State Duma.

The current editor-in-chief of Vesti.lv Pavel Kirillov was previously editor-in-chief of two major Russian print newspapers in Latvia — Chas and Vesti Segodnya. The outlets merged in 2012 and later rebranded to simply being Segodnya.

Currently, Media Nams Vesti is printing nine media outlets, including the daily newspaper Segodnya.

Though no direct Russia-state ownership was identified, the content analysis carried out by the Centre for East European Policy Studies suggest that Vesti.lv systematically spread pro-Kremlin narratives in Latvia.

Digital audience growth

As of November 2017, Vesti.lv had 229,802 unique visitors. It placed it among the top ten Latvian news sites according to market research agency Gemius Latvia. In December, Gemius Latvia reported that Vesti.lv achieved 283,644 visitors, which was the largest audience increase among top 25 websites with Latvian domain names.

Title translated from Latvian: “Audience percental change of Top 25 web pages”. (Source: Gemius.lv)

Continued increases in views throughout January 2018 made Vesti.lv rank as the 27th most visited website in Latvia according to a website analysis tool SimilarWeb.

(Source: Similarweb.com)

According to SimilarWeb, focus.lv is the fifth most common search term to drive organic traffic to the vesti.lv website. Focus.lv used to be a Latvian clickbait news site, but it now redirects to the Vesti subdomain focus.vesti.lv. This subdomain makes up over 22 percent of overall Vesti.lv traffic.

(Source: Similarweb.com)

The history of Focus.lv

Internet archive data suggested that the website Focus.lv and its Russian version ru.focus.lv were launched in February 2017. The website changed its domain to the Vesti.lv subdomain on November 30, 2017.

(Source: WayBackMachine)

There is not much information about the current owner of the focus.lv domain. The only publicly available information about the owner is an e-mail address latviafocus@gmail.com and a phone number. While this is not much to go by, the domain’s historical data suggested that it was hosted on a server together with a few domain names of interest to the @DFRLab — including nozagts.com and ukradeno.com, and tomajoki.com and shutkitoma.com.

Nozagts.com

Nozagts.com is a clickbait site in Latvia. On December 2016, Latvian blogger Janis Polis published a blog post on the people behind the nozagts.com website. The blog post claimed that the sites owner was Ivan Stalnoy, a former leader of a youth organization Solidarity, who organized protests against secondary education taught only in Latvian language in 2001.

In 2008, Stalnoy worked as a real estate broker at a company run by a Russian citizen Valery Engels. Engels’ organization The World Without Nazism was later accused by the Latvian Security Police of promoting Russia’s propaganda in Crimea.

In 2009, Stalnoy defended a former journalist and current European parliamentarian Andrejs Mamikins, who was accused of promoting hate on television between ethnic Russians and Latvians. @DFRLab previously reported about Mamikins’ activities defending so-called “Russian schools” in Latvia.

Shortly after Polis’ investigation, Latvian investigative journalism TV show De Facto discovered that Stalnoy consulted Riga municipality-owned public transport company Rigas Satiksme for three years and was employed in another Riga municipality-owned real estate company Rigas Namu Parvaldnieks. The show suggested that Stalnoy was employed in these companies thanks to his connections with the Concord party — the most popular party promoting the Russian language community’s interests in Latvia.

Most recently, as investigated by Re:Baltica, Stalnoy worked as a consultant for Vesti.lv to help promote the site’s content online.

Nozagts.com + Tomajoki = Focus.lv

The current traffic acquisition from Focus.lv followed a similar pattern to what Nozagts.com did in December 2016.

According to a Google search, the first publication with the nozagts.com domain was on November 3. It used the subdomain tomajoki.nozagts.com.

(Source: Google)

Tomajoki or tomstv.lv was the 15th most popular webpage in Latvia in 2016. Its content was mostly clickbait entertainment and internet jokes.

It is difficult to verify whether the domain tomstv.lv redirected to tomajoki.com (a domain hosted on the Focus.lv server), nevertheless, the Wayback Machine web archive showed the webpage tomstv.lv existed until June 8, 2017.

(Source: WayBackMachine)

The Nozagts.com domain functioned at least until September 8, 2017, so it is likely that tomstv.lv redirected to nozagts.com domain after it was acquired by Ivan Stalnoy on December 4, 2016.

Since February 2017, Focus.lv created at least five new subdomains using variations of the Tomajoki and Nozagts.com brands.

(Source: WayBackMachine)

The most popular Focus.lv subdomains were Tomajoki and Ukradeno (“nozagts” translates as “stolen” in English and “ukradeno” in Russian).

(Source: SimilarWeb)

Nonetheless, the network of websites and increased traffic showed the main functionality of Focus.lv domain now is to increase Vesti.lv digital rankings.

Conclusion

The pro-Kremlin media outlet in Latvia Vesti.lv started to acquire the readership of clickbait site Focus.lv since at least November 30, 2017. Historically, Focus.lv accumulated the audience of two clickbait sites Nozagts.com and Tomajoki. While Tomajoki was publishing entertainment and internet jokes, Nozagts.com was writing about social and political meters with a bottom-line that everything was bad in Latvia. Nozagts.com became well-known after Latvian journalists discovered its connection with pro-Kremlin activist Ivan Stalnoy, who recently consulted Vesti.lv to help promote the site’s content online. The data by the web analytic tool SimilarWeb showed that Vesti.lv traffic is growing.

While the strategy of domain consolidation and audience growth is natural for any media company, particularly a digitally native outlet, moves by vesti.lv demonstrated potential for more coordinated content on politically polarizing topics across Latvia.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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