#BalticBrief: The Kremlin’s Loudspeaker in Latvia

Russian language media outlet in Latvia adapts pro-Kremlin content for local audience

Source(@DFRLab via Vesti.lv)

Over a half of the content about NATO soldiers in the Baltic states published by a Russian language media outlet in Latvia, Vesti.lv, comes from Kremlin-owned or pro-Kremlin media outlets.

NATO deployed troops to the Baltics in early 2017 as part its defense and deterrence posture known as Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP). The Russian government portrays the move as an aggressive one, despite the small number of troops involved, and has conducted an anti-NATO messaging campaign, especially targeting Russian speakers in the three countries.

Vesti.lv’s editorial practice makes it, in effect, a loudspeaker of Kremlin propaganda for Russian language speakers in Latvia, despite the fact that it claims to be independent.

Vesti.lv is the eleventh most popular web page in Latvia. @DFRLab has previously reported on how the outlet enlarged its audience online by acquiring the “infotaiment” website Focus.lv. The content analysis on NATO’s presence in the Baltic states which @DFRLab carried out for this report shows that the number of articles about this topic has grown.

The Kremlin’s Voice

@DFLab analyzed Vesti.lv’s articles that mentioned NATO from the beginning of 2017, when NATO eFP multinational forces started to arrive,until the end of October 2018. Overall, 85 articles about NATO were identified.

Vesti.lv mentions the original source of a publication on the left side at the top of an article.

The title translated from Russian: “The worst scenario for NATO”. Note the source of the article — RIA Novosti — a Russian state-owned news agency. (Source: Vesti.lv)

@DFRLab verified the sources by pasting the wording of each lead paragraph into Google’s search engine.

More than a half — 58 percent — of the articles published since January 2017 came from Kremlin-owned or pro-Kremlin media outlets. Only one in five, or 21 percent of the articles about NATO, were originally written by Vesti.lv.

The share of the articles by the attribution of their original sources. Note that Kremlin-owned or pro-Kremlin articles make 58 percent of the all articles that mentioned NATO in almost two years. (Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

Every third article (34 percent) about NATO originated from Kremlin-owned media outlets like RIA Novosti, Sputnik, RT, and versions of RT for the audience in Russia — INO TV and Inosmi.ru. Meanwhile, 24 percent — or every fourth article — came from pro-Kremlin media outlets like Rubaltic.ru, Lenta.ru, and others.

The share of the articles by their original sources. Though Vesti.lv produced 21 percent of the articles itself, the next most popular sources were other Kremlin-owned RIA Novosti or pro-Kremlin Rubaltic.ru and Lenta.ru. (Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

The Voice Gets Louder

The frequency of the articles about NATO increased over time. In the beginning of 2017 Vesti.lv published one or two articles per month. The quantity of articles about NATO increased significantly since June 2018 and spiked in October 2018. In October Vesti.lv sometimes published two or three articles a day.

The frequency of Vesti.lv’s articles about NATO. Note the significant increase in last five months of the analysis period. (Source: DFRLab via Google.com)

@DFRLab conducted a manual narrative analysis using Grounded Theory, a content analysis approach that induces content categories “on the go”. The loudest narrative during the monitoring period was NATO is an occupying force.

The comparison of the narratives throughout the whole monitoring period and the last five months. (Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

The narratives NATO is aggressive and NATO is weak were represented less, but intensified during the last five months, becoming as strong as the narrative NATO is an occupying force, which was represented throughout the whole analysis period.

Distribution of narratives by their original sources. (Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

Most of the articles under the narratives NATO is aggressive and NATO is weak were published in 2018.

The Most Shared Stories

The most shared article under the narrative of NATO is an occupying force was titled “NATO soldiers are humiliating the Latvian population.” It garnered 934 shares, according to social media analysis tool BuzzSumo. It was originally published on pro-Kremlin media outlet Rubaltic.ru with the original title “What do NATO soldiers dare to do in the Baltics?”

Another article from Vesti.lv titled “Get out of the way! U.S. military equipment is riding in Latvia” garnered a significant 720 shares on social media.

The most shared article under the narrative that NATO is aggressive garnered one tenth of the shares. The article, titled “U.S. will deploy an aircraft carrier to the Russian coast,” was shared just 61 times and was originally published on Lenta.ru, a pro-Kremlin media outlet in Russia. The original title of the article was “U.S. will deploy an aircraft carrier to a Russian neighbor’s coast.” Vesti.lv’s headline missed out the vital “neighbor.”

Left title translated from Russian: “U.S. will deploy an aircraft carrier to the Russian coast” (Source: Vesti.lv). Right title translated from Russian: “U.S. will deploy an aircraft carrier to a Russian neighbor’s coast“ (Source: Lenta.ru).

Both articles had an identical lead paragraph mentioning that the aircraft carrier would be deployed to the Norwegian Sea. The change in title by Vesti.lv turned it into a disinformation piece, since Russia has no coastline by the Norwegian Sea.

Finally, the most shared article under the narrative NATO is weak titled “Suwalki Corridor: Russia can capture Latvia overnight” garnered 232 shares, according to BuzzSumo. The original title published on Kremlin-owned media outlet Inosmi.ru was “The Times (Great Britain): Suwalki Corridor — Route of Russia’s Invasion to Europe”. The original story published on The Times was behind a paywall, but the title of its publication matched with the one Inosmi.ru used. Vesti.lv’s version of the title made it more relevant to its audience in Latvia.

On February 1, 2018, the Centre for East European Policy Studies presented a study on how international events are portrayed in Latvian online news portals. The centre concluded:

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.

@DFRLab observed the same behavior with content Vesti.lv has republished from other sources.

Conclusion

Vesti.lv published 58 percent of its articles about NATO from Kremlin-owned or pro-Kremlin sources.

Vesti.lv continues to adapt the headlines of the articles to make them more relevant for its audience in Latvia. @DFRLab identified at least one case when an omitted word from the title turned a vesti.lv article in a disinformation piece.

The number of articles about NATO increased over time and spiked in October 2018. Most of the articles during the five latest months of the analysis period built narratives as NATO is an occupying force, NATO is aggressive, and NATO is weak. The articles under the narrative NATO is an occupying force were shared the most, making it not only the most dominant, but also the most engaging narrative.


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

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