Online Campaign Calls for Latvian Boycott of EU Parliament Election

A group of Facebook accounts targeted Latvian Facebook users, calling for a boycott of the May 25 European Parliament elections

(Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via Facebook)

A small group of Facebook pages consisting of both private accounts and public groups encouraged the site’s users to boycott the European Parliament (EP) elections in Latvia next month.

The anti-election content produced by the group in mid-March was shared 46,166 times on Facebook. Although most of the traction looked organic, the case highlights digital strategies — sharing via groups, coordinating live videos, as well as other tactics — on Facebook that may be used to depress real-world political engagement as well as undermine the integrity of the electoral process.

The Facebook pages promoted a number of themes, in addition to calling for a boycott. Other topics that drove engagement included protests against the State Revenue Service and the Latvian government, Latvians emigrating to other countries, and general calls to oppose the ruling political elite.

A Viral Post

On February 3, 2019, Latvian political activist Valentins Jeremejevs posted an image on Facebook with the hashtag #velesanuboikots (“#electionboycott”). As of the time of this report, the post had garnered 678 reactions, 184 comments, and 43,749 shares. While the shares outnumbered other engagement by a factor of over 50:1, preliminary DFRLab analysis indicates that the engagement was likely organic.

A screenshot of the post, translated from Latvian, reading: “Politicians are too expensive for our country. I would like to reduce their salaries, take away all privileges and goodies. Our taxes should not be used to make these people millionaires on peoples’ expense anymore! IF YOU AGREE, PLEASE, SHARE!” (Source: Valentins Jeremejevs/archive)

The number of shares was very high for Facebook in Latvia, a nation of just under 2 million people. For comparison, a false story about a collapse of a shopping center in Riga that sparked mass hysteria received 7,800 shares on Facebook.

A reverse image search revealed that the text in the post was translated from a similar image uploaded on the meme discovery site me.me on January 20, 2019. The Australian flag in the bottom left corner of the original image indicates that this post was initially created to target the Australian public.

Screenshots of the memes for Australian and Latvian audiences. (Source: Meme/archive, left; Valentins Jeremejevs/archive, right)

While no signs of inauthentic activity were detected and all of the accounts that shared Jeremejevs’ post publicly were from Latvia, the DFRLab identified a degree of coordination among the Latvian Facebook pages, groups, and personal accounts that amplified similar content calling for a boycott of the EP elections.

A Centralized Facebook Page for Multimedia Content

Jeremejevs is a political activist and a former head of the Latvian Green Party’s regional office in Riga. He was also a leader of a social-media campaign to boycott high fuel prices at Circle-K gas stations. The campaign’s Facebook group garnered 18,701 members by April 9, 2019. In this cohort of accounts, Jeremejevs served as an administrator of six public Facebook groups that were linked to a single Facebook page: Tautas Varas fronte (“The Nation’s Power Front,” translated from Latvian).

The list of groups that are connected to the page Tautas Varas fronte and their administrator and moderator lists. Valentins Jeremejevs is included on all of the lists. (Source: Tautas Varas fronte/archive, left; right top to bottom: Vēlēšanu #boikots! Tieša Tautas vara./arhive; #boikots LATVENERGO bezatbildīga ricība. Problēmas. Risinājumi./archive; Nedrīkst ļaut varai mūs dalīt latviešos un krievos!/archive; Dzeltenās vestes/Жёлтые жилеты LATVIA/archive; Boikots/archive; Dzeltenās vestes/archive)

The page also had nine video streams of Jeremejevs addressing viewers that had been broadcast via Facebook Live.

Screenshot of videos posted to the Tautas Varas fronte Facebook page. The pink boxes highlight video streams featuring Jeremejevs. (Source: Tautas Varas fronte/archive)

Tautas Varas fronte, a nongovernmental organization established on December 11, 2018, has a stated mission of informing the public about the “nation’s rights,” while its webpage calls for the public to “join the frontlines” of the fight against LGBT pride demonstrations and the “arbitrariness” of private banks. The webpage also champions lower fuel prices and advocates for the conversion of the state electricity company into a publicly traded company.

At the time of this analysis, the pinned post on the Tautas Varas fronte Facebook page called for an election boycott. The post used an image of the European Parliament as well as the #velesanuboikots hashtag and garnered 1,354 shares.

The post, translated from Latvian: “Why did they desperately call you to the elections? Because before the elections, YOU ARE THE POWER, but after — the system is again! Keep the power to yourself — stay home! SHARE, PLEASE, IF YOU AGREE! #electionboycott. (Source: Tautas Varas fronte/archive)

Since March 15, 2019, the page has shared other visual posts calling for a boycott of all elections, especially the EP elections.

Other posts, translated from Latvian: “A total EP election boycott is necessary for the powerful to hear the nation, especially now, and the one that has emigrated!” (at left); “In 2014, 30% of citizens in Latvia turned out for the EP elections (in the Czech Republic, for instance, the figure was just 13%). Those who are desperately calling on the public to vote have forgotten that the votes were spread proportionally between economic groups and a frightened nation. IT’S ENOUGH TO GIVE THE SYSTEM ADVANCE PAYMENTS! I WILL STAY HOME AND WILL NOT GO TO VOTE! #ElectionBoycott #YouAreThe Power #VoteForTheNation (Source: Tautas Varas fronte/archive, left; Tautas Varas fronte/archive, right)

The page had a Russian-language counterpart as well, but the content in Russian garnered less traction than it did in Latvian.

Similar posts in Latvian (at left) and Russian (at right). The first reads, translated from Latvian: “The people of the nation should win the EP elections! Do not go to the elections, vote for yourself! #EPboikots.” The second (at right) reads roughly the same, translated from Russian: “The people of the nation in Latvia will win the Euro parliament elections! Stay at home and vote for yourself! #electionboycott.” (Source: Tautas Varas fronte/archive, left; Tautas Varas fronte/archive, right)

Amplification Strategy

The page was created on January 30, 2019. By April 3, 2019, it had 2,092 followers and was engaging 748 Facebook users with four posts daily on average, according to an analysis conducted using CrowdTangle, a Facebook analytics tool that measures engagement. If each post engaged 187 users on average, this statistic would translate to a 11.2 percent engagement rate per follower. Given that anything above one percent is considered good, this is a significant engagement rate.

A CrowdTangle analysis showing that the majority of the page’s content consisted of photos and live videos. Furthermore, 70.47 percent of all user interaction consisted of shares. This number suggests that the page had strong amplifiers within the community, as well as a strong amplification strategy. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via CrowdTangle)

Cross-posting Between Groups, Pages, and Accounts

One of the most common amplification strategies was cross-posting: sharing the same posts to multiple groups, pages, and accounts. On March 6, Jeremejevs posted a live video explaining why people should not participate in the EP elections. At the time of this analysis, the video had garnered 3,200 views, 58 reactions, and 117 shares. A proportion of this traffic was amassed after Jeremejevs shared the video on seven of the Facebook groups he manages, six of which target members of the Latvian diaspora community and six others that target those living in Latvia.

Shares of Jeremejevs’ live video posted to multiple groups. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via Facebook)

Jeremejevs was not the only Facebook influencer who promoted idea of boycotting EP elections. Two other Facebook user accounts, Arvis Abramovics and Roberts Klimovics, also administered the largest Tautas Varas fronte group, Bojkots, and a Facebook Page, Acgarni.com, that also promoted EP election boycott.

On March 24, 2019, Abramovics posted a live video with the accompanying text: “An example how voters are fooled in Latvia! #BOYCOTT #EUROPEAN #PARLIAMENT #ELECTIONS. I will broadcast in two languages! Press LIKE and share as much as we can!!!” The video garnered 1,800 views, 34 reactions, and 53 shares. The DFRLab identified three cases in which Abramovics shared his live video to a public group. The fourth share was made by another Facebook user.

A screenshot of a live video posted by Arvis Abramovics, a video which was shared on multiple Facebook groups. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva via Facebook)

The DFRLab also identified cases in which the Facebook accounts for acgarni.com and Jeremejevs, together with Abramovics, co-hosted live videos.

Screenshots from live videos by the acgarni.com page and Jeremejevs, together with Abramovics. (Source: acgarni.com/archive, top; Facebook, bottom)

Similarly, on March 29, 2019, Klimovics posted a live video in which he said that the EP elections are part of a corrupt system, because the candidates have been in the “system” for a long time.

Klimovics’s video was shared to Facebook groups or by other Facebook pages multiple times. (Source: Facebook)

Klimovics did not share his own video, however. The DFRLab identified four cases in which Jeremejevs shared his video in public groups and two cases in which pages shared the video. One of the pages was the Tautas Varas fronte page and another was acgarni.com (“upside-down,” translated from Latvian). The idea behind the name, as described in the page’s “About” section, was to turn mainstream news “upside-down” to reveal an alternate reality.

Acgarni.com publicly disclosed its connection with Tautas Varas fronte and Klimovics after posting a schedule of Tautas Varas fronte’s live videos from a new studio.

The post, including a schedule of upcoming live videos posted to acgarni.com, translated from Latvian: “I have promised this schedule before, because the studio is getting ready very soon, so here is the preliminary schedule, which is subject to change, but here it is for your awareness:” (Source: acgarni.com/archive)

Conclusion

The coordinators of this campaign used Facebook pages, individual Facebook accounts, and public Facebook groups in tandem to encourage the Latvian public to boycott the EP elections.

The Facebook page Tautas Varas fronte functioned as a central hub for multimedia content, such as photos as well as livestreams, disseminated by at least four private Facebook accounts and one Facebook page.

The private Facebook accounts used public groups that they managed or to which they belonged in order to spread content that promoted the EP election boycott.

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

Read more DFRLab #ElectionWatch posts here.

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