How a false story about “ethnic cleansing” of Russian language speakers spread from social to traditional media
On April 16, Aleksandr Gaponenko, a well-known pro-Kremlin activist in Latvia, published a Facebook post, suggesting that American special operations forces will carry out ethnic cleansing of Latvians that are native Russian language speakers during a military exercise that begins on May 12.
Why did the ruling Latvian elite suddenly become brave and started forced assimilation of Russians? [..]Unexpectedly, I received the answer to this question tonight, during a meeting with an American friend. He enlightened me that on May 12–15, large-scale exercises of NATO troops will be held in Latvia. Nearly a regiment of the American special operations forces will take part. The fighters are already arriving in Riga in small groups by civilian planes, dressed as civilians. They settle in the hotel “Latvia” and other expensive hotels, go around the city in groups of five.
In the course of the forthcoming exercises on the streets of the capital, the American special forces will obviously play the scenario of a “Russian rebellion.” One part of Americans will depict “Russian insurgents”.[..] The other part of the special operations forces will play “the forces of democracy and progress.”
For the environment, the Anglo-Saxons will come up with a half-dozen tires by the Latvian Parliament building, and spray chloropicrin from yellow cylinders with the inscription “Chlorine”. They will later take a video of snot-stuffed and tearful deputies and will show these scary shots on the BBC’s channels and EuroNews. It will be announced that this is the realization of hybrid threats from Russia.
Early in the morning, the American Special Forces and the local security police, apparently, will hold demonstrative arrests of fifty Russian activists and place them in a temporarily equipped concentration camp. The friend did not speak about the location, but I think that this is an indoor stadium “Skonto”. I played football in there other days, it is very fit for this purpose.
I spoke with several leaders of the Russian movement. They said that the scenario I described is very likely to be true.[..]
At least 366 Facebook users reacted to the post with like, anger, or surprise emojis. The post garnered 88 comments and was shared 415 times.
For comparison, his post about Latvian media coverage of protests over Russian language schools being made to teach in Latvian, a hot topic for the local Russian language community, garnered just 71 impression and 11 shares.
Facts and Fakes
However, the Facebook page of the Institute of European Studies is completely blank, and the organization has no other presence on the internet besides a record in the Latvian State Company Register and mentions in Gaponenko’s title.
As for the BSA, the results of an advanced Google search mention Gaponenko as a member of discussions and events organized by the BSA’s “Russian Center”, an organization financed by the Kremlin soft power foundation “Russky Mir”.
@DFRLab did not identify any courses taught by Gaponenko, but could confirm that he was at some point affiliated with the academy.
Second, Gaponenko mentioned an unknown, but allegedly reliable source of information — his “American friend”. From the information made available, it is impossible to determine who that friend is, or whether this person even exists. Instead, the reader is expected to trust Gaponenko as a reliable source.
Gaponenko also mentioned a NATO exercise on May 12–15 with participation of American special operations forces. No NATO exercise is scheduled to take place in Latvia during that time, nor is any U.S. Army Europe-led exercise. The Latvian news agency LETA published an article with a list of six multinational military exercises on Latvian soil approved by the Latvian government.
The only exercise that fits the timeframe is a large Estonian exercise Siil 2018, which will kick off on May 2 and last until May 14. According to LETA, around 2,000 allied soldiers from 15 countries, including the United States, will take part in Siil 2018. The exercise will take place in southern Estonia and partly in Latvia. According to Estonian Defence Forces, it will consist of two parts.
During the first four days the abovementioned mobilisation mechanisms of the Estonian Defence Forces will be tested together with territorial defence of the whole of Estonia. The second part of the exercise will focus on tactical manoeuvres in the Southern part of Estonia.
There is no open source evidence that suggests that it is an exercise to fight against terrorism or rebellion.
Nevertheless, Gaponenko suggested that U.S. special operations forces will secretly arrive by civilian planes and allegedly stage the “Russian threat” before cameras for the Western media. This narrative is similar to that spread by the Kremlin about the “White Helmets” in Syria. On April 19, the Russian version of Sputnik Latvia published an article about an interview with a boy, who allegedly was an actor in video footage circulated after the chemical attack in Duma (Douma) on April 7.
Therefore, Gaponenko’s suggestion may sound trustworthy to those who agree with the Kremlin narrative. In fact, on April 21, the Russian media outlet NewsBalt published an interview with Ruslan Pankratov, another Russian Language community activist in Latvia titled, “Hollywood a-la ‘White Helmets’ will be introduced in Latvia with chlorine.”
The next day Gaponenko republished his post as an opinion article on IMHO Club, a website in Latvia and Belarus that describes itself as an interactive portal for special opinions. It did not gain any significant traction before the Latvian tabloid Jauns.lv published an article titled, “Disloyal to Latvia Gaponenko is setting panic on Facebook: Americans will do an ethnic cleansing in Riga — Russians will be brought to ‘Sconto’ stadium and poisoned.” At the time of this report, the article was shared at least 525 times on Facebook, 68 times on Twitter, and 66 times on Latvian social media portal Draugiem.lv.
The chairman of the Parliamentary Commission on Defense, Corruption, and Internal Affairs Ainars Latkovskis noticed the article and tweeted that he had submitted an complaint to the Latvian Security Police.
Esmu vērsies ar iesniegumu Drošības policijā.
Latvijai nelojālais Gapoņenko feisbukā sēj paniku: amerikāņi Rīgā veikšot etnisko tīrīšanu – krievus sadzīs "Skonto" stadionā un noindēs https://t.co/5yOHsmrY9q
— Ainars Latkovskis (@a_latkovskis) April 18, 2018
On April 20, Latvian Security Police detained Gaponenko. According to LETA, the grounds for his detention was the criminal proceeding opened on April 4 for activities targeting Latvia’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and state power in an anti-Constitutional manner. As the Facebook post in question was published on April 16, it was not the main reason for his detention.
Nevertheless, Gaponenko’s story began to spread throughout Russian media that same day.
First it was published on the Russian media outlet Svobodnaya Pressa on April 20. It was then republished by five other news outlets in Russian. Next day, pro-Kremlin Media outlet Russkaya Vesna published an article about the false exercise with information about Gaponenko’s arrest. It was then republished by three media outlets in Russian. On April 22, Kremlin funded mainstream media outlet RIA Novosti published an article, suggesting that there will be a provocation in Latvia. Finally, Russian Army media outlet Zvezda TV also published the article about the false exercise.
The most engaged article on social media was by RIA Novosti. According to data gathered by social media tool Buzzsumo, it was shared 742 times on Facebook and 301 times on Twitter. The article by Svobodnaya Pressa was shared mostly on Facebook — 909 times — and just 71 time on Twitter. Russkaya Vesna’s article was shared just 283 times on Facebook and Twitter combined, whereas Zvezda TV’s article was shared mostly on Facebook — 234 times.
Gaponenko’s post suggesting that American special operations forces were planning to detain Latvian Russians and putting them in a concentration camp during the alleged exercise in Riga proved to be false on two counts, as there is nothing that would verify the plans and or the exercise itself.
In total, the post was shared at least 2,936 times on Facebook and at least 643 times on Twitter in both Russian and Latvian online information space.
Conventional media outlets gave a major boost to the post.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor relevant developments after the fact that Latvian Security Police detained Gaponenko.
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