Five anti-NATO “expert” personas coordinated to amplify their opinion pieces on fringe media outlets
A small group of personas — accounts with unverified operators — from Latvia and Lithuania amplified anti-NATO and anti-establishment opinions about the Baltic states on fringe English-language media outlets beginning in August 2018.
While the subset of accounts was small and achieved little engagement overall, the operation nonetheless demonstrated a multi-platform approach to online content amplification. The outlets on which the personas published claim to present an “alternative” perspective to mainstream outlets, and several have previously been implicated in spreading disinformation.
The personas first posted content promoting Kremlin narratives about NATO and the Baltic states on various fringe news sites, such as The Baltic Word and OpEdNews. They subsequently reposted the same content, at times modifying it to better suit a different format, on self-publishing platforms such as Reddit, Live Leak, and Quora.
In some cases, there was consistency in the personas across different platforms. This consistency could suggest that the personas belonged to real people; it is also possible, however, that the accounts were inauthentic but managed with some degree of sophistication so as to avoid detection because of biographical inconsistencies.
NATO deployed troops to the Baltic states in early 2017 as part of its defense and deterrence posture known as the Enhanced Forward Presence. The Russian government considers that deployment an act of aggression, despite the small number of troops involved, and has launched an anti-NATO messaging campaign in response.
The Anti-NATO “Experts” and Their Network
The DFRLab identified five “expert” personas — two with Latvian names and three with Lithuanian names — that published articles critical of NATO as well as of the national governments of Latvia and Lithuania on the niche English-language media outlet The Baltic Word.
The Baltic Word aggregates content both from credible and from biased or unreliable sources, in part by reposting articles without permission from reputable news websites such as Defense News. Aaron Mehta, Deputy Editor and Senior Pentagon Correspondent for Defense News, confirmed directly to the DFRLab that he has had at least one piece copied wholesale and reposted to the website without permission from his publication to do so. The effect of including credible content alongside more biased “original” content is a dilution of objective reporting, giving the website a veneer of veracity that does not hold up under scrutiny.
The Baltic Word had no presence on Twitter, VKontakte, or Odnoklasniki, but it did have a Facebook page with 144 likes and a Facebook group with five members. Three of the members in the group were the Lithuanian expert personas: Jonas Dringelis, Lukas Ramonas, and Adomas Abromaitis. The remaining two were the Baltic Word Facebook page and a user account that had no obvious connection to the personas. All Facebook profiles of Lithuanian expert personas had very few or no publicly available posts at all, and those public posts were links to their articles on the websites under analysis.
Jonas Dringelis identified himself as the “editor of balticword.eu” on OpEdNews, a fringe media outlet that republished articles by all five experts.
Adomas Abromaitis, meanwhile, was listed elsewhere as affiliated with Geopolitica.ru, a fringe media outlet whose “mission is to promote a multipolar world.” He was also an author on 14 additional fringe media outlets. One of them, Eurasia Review, described him as a Lithuanian living in the United Kingdom who primarily writes about Lithuania. On the same site, Viktors Domburs was described as an “engineer, born in Latvia who now lives in the United Kingdom.”
Domburs’s description and photograph appeared consistently across other open sources online. In contrast, Vairis Godmanis had few mentions aside from his bylines in The Baltic Word, and the DFRLab could not find a public biography of him anywhere online. Another of the experts, Lukas Ramonas, often republished Vairis Godmanis’s articles as his own, a tactic explained in further detail below.
Publishing on Two Websites
A great majority of the articles by the authors were republished on OpEdNews. The DFRLab previously identified OpEdNews as the source for an October 2018 disinformation narrative claiming that NATO planned to invade Belarus. OpEdNews was also implicated spreading a disinformation narrative in April 2019 alleging that Lithuanian Minister of Defense Raimundas Karoblis had received a bribe. The Lithuanian Ministry of Defense debunked the latter claim.
In several cases, OpEdNews author Ramonas republished his own articles that had been published on The Baltic Word as recently as the same day or the day prior. Additionally, some of Godmanis’s articles from The Baltic Word were republished to OpEdNews under Ramonas’s byline while Godmanis also had an author profile on OpEdNews with a single article to his name.
Similarly, many of Jonas Dringelis’s articles appeared both on The Baltic Word and OpEdNews, with The Baltic Word having published first (as indicated by the pink highlight on the image below).
The same pattern also appeared with Viktors Dombur’s and Adomas Abromaitis’s articles on OpEdNews. Most of their articles appeared on The Baltic Word prior to appearing on OpEdNews, according to Google Search.
Additional Fringe Outlets Targeted
Many of the articles that originated on The Baltic Word and were republished on OpEdNews later appeared on a third fringe English-language website, 15 Minute News.
Similarly, OpEdNews articles from most of the authors also appeared on International Organizations News Today (EIN), a platform that allows users to publish articles for a fee.
Although 15 Minute News and EIN republished the personas’ articles often, the publication pattern does not suggest automation, as not every single article was republished. Automated activity tends to involve an indiscriminate republishing pattern on an inhuman scale, which these accounts did not demonstrate.
The DFRLab identified several additional fringe media outlets on which the expert personas’ OpEdNews articles appeared more than twice: sNewsi, One News Page, Newz.lt, South Africa Offshore, Offshore Companies, ArticleBiz.com, #Follownews, Ocasion2B, and ChinaDaily Forum. All of these media outlets report in English but focus on different regions of the world. One of the outlets focuses on South Africa, for example, while another focuses on China: countries quite removed from the Baltic states’ affairs.
Authors On Many Media Outlets
Three of the experts — Viktors Domburs, Jonas Dringelis, and Adomas Abromaitis — had author profiles on other non-mainstream media outlets, such as BlogActive.eu, The Duran, Eurasia Review, Modern Diplomacy, and Global Research, among others.
The Iraq File — Viktors Domburs;
Geopolitica.ru — Adomas Abromaitis;
International Policy Digest — Adomas Abromaitis;
New Europe — Adomas Abromaitis;
The European Sting — Adomas Abromaitis;
Open Democracy — Adomas Abromaitis;
Katehon — Adomas Abromaitis;
Online Opinion — Adomas Abromaitis; and
Vocal Europe — Adomas Abromaitis.
The DFRLab has previously identified Global Research as a key amplifier of disinformation about the U.S. military deployment to Eastern Europe, as well as The Duran as one of the amplifiers of Kremlin propaganda about U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three organizations for charges related to election interference.
Using Unconventional Amplification Platforms
Most of the experts amplified their articles on Reddit. All of them, with the exception of Godmanis, shared their articles on a Balticword.eu subreddit. (Subreddits are topical communities dedicated to a particular topic on Reddit.) The most popular article posted on the subreddit garnered only six upvotes.
Viktors Domburs, Jonas Dringelis, and Lukas Ramonas all created their Reddit accounts within the narrow timeframe of April 23–26, 2018. This timeframe suggests a coordinated attempt among the personas to amplify one another’s articles on Reddit.
Three of the personas — Lukas Ramonas, Jonas Dringelis, and Vairis Godmanis — also used Live Leak, a self-publishing news platform. Dringelis created his Live Leak account on August 10, 2018, and has posted 13 articles that had been viewed 2,480 times at the time of writing. He had also been blocked by 11 users. Dringelis’s last activity was on June 13, 2019, at the time of this investigation, signaling that he used the account recently.
Ramonas joined Live Leak on January 21, 2019, and had published 11 articles at the time of writing, garnering 2,232 views in total. He had been blocked by eight users. Ramonas also used his account recently, as his last activity was listed as June 4, 2019.
Godmanis was less active on the platform. Though he created his account prior to Ramonas on December 26, 2018, he had posted only one article and had no record of subsequent activity at the time of this report.
In a more creative approach, the Viktors Domburs persona rephrased the headlines of his articles on The Baltic Word site as questions, which he later posted on Quora, an online question-and-answer forum. He employed this strategy for 22 articles, receiving, on average, 0.6 answers on Quora for each question he posed: a relatively low response rate.
The scale and reach of this particular operation were small — the number of accounts engaged in coordination was modest, and the content did not reach a large audience online. This operation stands out, however, in its scope: its multi-platform nature required the operators of the accounts to tailor content to suit different forums, which sometimes required modifying the format to fit the platform. This level of customization suggests a human-run, rather than automated, information campaign.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Latvia.
The research was done in collaboration with Latvian investigative journalism TV show “De Facto”.
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