Latvian FM discusses how Latvia combats disinfo in the age of COVID-19
In the latest installment of #DFRLabCoffeeBreak, the DFRLab welcomed Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. He spoke with DFRLab Director Graham Brookie about fighting disinformation in the Baltic states and how it has evolved since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can view the video and read the transcript below.
Graham Brookie: Hi, my name is Graham Brookie and I’m the director and managing editor of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Welcome to coffee talks with the Digital Sherlocks, with the DFRLab. I’m so happy to be joined today by the Foreign Minister of Latvia Edgars Rinkevics, a tremendous friend and ally of the Atlantic Council, a tremendous partner of the Atlantic Council. And we’re going to have a few questions here. But again, this is meant to be informal; I have to admit to everybody that I don’t typically wear a blazer in my apartment. But we’re doing this from a safe social distance. And so we’re so happy to be joined today.
The first question is that the Baltic states have long been a target of, and frankly a leader in responding to, and building resilience around foreign influence operations or attempts from external actors to interfere with internal affairs. So, the first question is, what can the world learn from the experience of Latvia?
Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics: Well, first of all, thank you for having me and great to be back this time in a bit different, I think, in a distant coffee drinking and discussion. But [I] very much also value cooperation with the Atlantic Council and you are doing great work in promoting transatlantic relations. Answering your question, indeed, Latvia has been under the kind of information warfare attacks from our immediate neighbor, the Russian Federation, for many years. Subjects are changing, but the narratives are always almost the same. Failing country, security issues, also issues that are related with other minority treatment, policy and so on and so on and so on.
If we compare the COVID-19 years with let’s say the history of the last two years, or some other period in the history and I would say that narratives are not changing. It’s again about a failing state that is not able to work efficiently to counter coronavirus, and of course, what we all are struggling now is the economic consequences of this health crisis and, of course, there are many stories about rising unemployment and that the government that is not able to counteract that. But there is also a big difference. And the difference is that up until around the middle of April or even a bit earlier than the middle of April, that kind of propaganda message was in full swing. We didn’t hear or watch stories about pandemic, you know, in the Russian Federation, we were hearing that everything is just fine. But when there was a change in Russia’s policy, when they started to implement lock down policies and other restrictions. Then we saw also that actually that propaganda narrative was changing and actually decreasing. That is something that I would definitely admit.
However, there is another part. And that’s social media, and that is where we have seen the spread of fake news. I would say that there is kind of two categories in this fake news operation. One is clearly state sponsored, but then the other is very much created by all kinds of conspiracy groups. By the way, we see also the Russian Government itself is not fighting some of fake news. So I think that to some extent, now everyone is affected by the stories that coronavirus was created by 5G networks, or created in Chinese, American, Latvian, or Russian labs or wherever else that has no virus. But there is a great conspiracy by some boards, hidden governments, or Bill Gates is mentioned, or George Soros is mentioned. You can find all sorts of those things. And I think that to some extent we are experiencing also that for the first time, many governments that were using fake news are actually now confronted by fake news. And I wish them good luck to find what they were using so efficiently nowadays are.
Brookie: You touched on something particularly interesting for us. At the DFRLab we think about disinformation many times in three broad buckets. One is a geopolitical bucket. And that’s where we kind of consider foreign influence operations. Another is an ideological bucket. Like spreading false information intentionally for ideological gain, whether that’s international actors or domestic actors? And then one other that we’re seeing a lot in the context of coronavirus is economic disinformation and that’s the spread of, you know, snake oil cures for coronavirus or large scale market manipulation.
…In the context of coronavirus we’re facing what the World Health Organization has dubbed as an “infodemic,” an over-abundance of information, some accurate and some not, that leads to a situation in which we’re over inundated and have less of an ability to figure out and sort fact from fiction, especially in the face of a public health crisis. And so the question is, how has that changed your role or how has that changed your duties in the course of a public health response noting something that you touched on a little bit earlier, in that the narratives aren’t necessarily different, the disinformation narratives aren’t necessarily different, just the news cycle and the news of the day is different.
Rinkevics: I think here that we have an interesting pattern. On one hand, when the government was confronted with a health crisis, we introduced a so-called emergency situation on the 12th of March, when we didn’t have many cases, where most of the cases were originally the abroad people who were coming from occasions, from visits, and it was detected that more and more are getting ill, the government decided to act closing schools and also introduced some restrictions. But actually, we had a very balanced policy, we didn’t, let’s say, introduce a full lockdown. Cafes and restaurants were still open throughout the whole day, but they had to observe some restrictions.
However, we also immediately started the massive information, and here I would say that it was not only the government that did it, but also a lot of those professionals were recording some video pledging to the public, asking them to stay at home and to have the distancing. Also, not only politicians or Prime Minister or Minister of Health, but also, let’s say, experts elaborated on that. It is interesting that we have one very good public health expert, especially on infections, who is Russian, and another was Latvian, let’s say, addressing both communities. So, all those messages asking people really to be serious. They worked.
We also noted that, for the first time, also, many of those who were very much influenced by the Russian media, they were also starting to pay attention to what the government is advising. And, we also see that there was even further change when Russia was introducing those measures and to that extent, I would say that we see an interesting pattern. On one hand, we saw those messages from Sputnik, from RT, from Russian propaganda, still trying to say that you guys are failing as always. On the other hand, they themselves said “Look, this is serious,” and they are not able to hide that there are problems with coronavirus, or economic problems in Russia, or a medic squad not receiving pay as promised.
And so, to that end, I would say that rule number one: what we saw as the need to communicate from government on a daily basis. There are press conferences briefings broadcasted by public TV broadcasting, by many private TV stations and also online, and people are watching. And basically, up till easing of those restrictions, things were observed by general public. Of course, there were cases, but the general public really understood the gravity of our problems.
Second, we also decided that we need to inject financial resources so that there are news and also coverages and experts being interviewed all the time. So you need to inject in the public media. Still they are critical of government, still they don’t like many things, but at least we shall sense that not only public TV and radio, but also private media outlets, they need to get financial support and backing so that they can work on informing public. We are not censoring anyone, but the money is essential here and our independent board was working there.
And the third saying, look, I think that I can only praise both our public health officials who are coming out telling what to do there and they appear on video were very, very emotional, but also it is Trump and also general public, people on Facebook and Twitter were sharing the information. Social media was actually doing great work by labeling what they saw as fake news, suggesting that is that, let’s say, source that you should search for information in our days out on National Center for preventing and controlling diseases and so on. So also general public was very helpful also say: you know, guys, you are sharing misinformation or you are sharing fake news. The other hand you’re still trying to get into those groups that are still true believers that versus black and and believes that Coronavirus was originated by 5G. Unfortunately, that is going to be never-ending. Right, right.
Brookie: The way that we think about responding to that challenge is by building resilience. By all measures on the challenge of disinformation, Latvia and the rest of the Baltic states have a large degree of digital resilience against that disinformation because there’s been such a long history of it.
…Another topic that we’ve touched on is the fact that disinformation is designed to drive us apart, rather than closer together. And so in the face of a public health crisis when external actors are seeding disinformation, and then frankly calling into question any assessments of disinformation — for instance, there were recent reports that the nation of China tried to influence the wider European Union in order to kind of draw down or water down the assessment of Chinese influence operations about coronavirus itself — how do we maintain the ability to speak with one voice in free and open societies in the face of disinformation that doesn’t really recognize our national borders or one specific social media platform or one specific news outlet in your role as Foreign Minister? How do you conceptualize that challenge and work with other foreign ministers and other countries in order to meet that challenge?
Rinkevics: Well, I think that since we are meeting online as the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, and also as NATO foreign ministers, we had an online meeting on April 2. In most of those online meetings that are more frequent than normal, [we meet] at least twice a month. We normally meet once a month, but in an online format, at least twice a month. The issue of what we call infodemic or disinformation is always one of the topics. It was never the case before, even when we were raising that six, five years ago. It was not that we were using each and every meeting when we were touching upon current issues that we need also to counter disinformation. That’s a good sign, because that’s what we tried to coordinate already our policies and also to task European External Action Service to work out proposals. They have great theme which is called StratCom East. That probably is not widening their work. It’s not only Russia, but also other actors. Also, you mentioned China, but I think that also, it is very important that we are not trying to influence what experts are writing.
In this country, part of the success was [that] the government always was listening to what public health experts are suggesting, not one or another politician is suggesting how to counter COVID. It’s the same with infodemic. Let’s listen to what experts are suggesting, let’s read our policy options and let’s respond. But let’s not try to suppress what they are reporting. That’s the first step. If you do that, that’s the first step to a big disaster because at one point, if you are saying to your experts, no, no, I want to have that, say, my other report or don’t write this or don’t do that, then we are losing as decision makers, a sense of where we are heading.
So from that point of view, I would say that we definitely would love to see strengthening of the Stratcom in the European Union or NATO Stratcom here in Riga is doing great work for NATO. And then I believe that we need actually to get NATO a huge cooperation. It was already good before COVID, but it was very narrowly oriented. Now we need to broaden the scope of the work to include also how we are responding to Russia, how we’re responding to China, how we are responding to those who are not state-driven forces but are still very dangerous. And then finally, look, censorship, doesn’t work if people really think that you are trying to suppress something and to delete the Council, the time or report them. Sometimes, you must do it, then they will not believe, also, the government information.
So the only ways that the government tries to work with public [is to] send concise, clear, strong and logic message why we do that or why we don’t do this, that opening of economy is needed, but opening can happen only if you are reaching a certain level of, let’s say, success in in fighting COVID. And we all understand that we will not eliminate this virus before a vaccine is created or medicine is created, but at least we must live with it in a way that doesn’t harm so much our normal way of life, or at least doesn’t influence it. I would say that realization of infodemic was much quicker than when we had the similar issues back in 2014, 2016 the fairing and elections about using public when it comes to what happened in Europe and happened in eastern Ukraine or what happened in Crimea. We are learning much quicker. And that’s a good sign, but still a lot of things for policymakers to understand that you need to listen to advise, you need to implement the advice of your experts, and then probably also you can tackle those kinds of problems.
Brookie: Completely understood, and we’re here to help with that challenge and work with partners around that challenge, including with our staff that is based where you are in Riga. With the last question I will note that I have my coffee right here in the mug says “what good have I done today?”
That’s a guide question that guides our work at the DFRLab and at the Atlantic Council. But I would note that I’m also about six hours behind where you’re at right now from a safe social distance. So it’s probably not time for coffee, where you are…The last question is: is it time for a Latvian Balsam where you are? Is coffee not appropriate at this point in the day?
Rinkevics: For me to answer this way, it’s tea time. Still some work to do. It’s my tweets online meeting today. I had great day, but let me just say two things. I think that regardless where we are right now, what you are doing through these online meetings and interviews and also keeping transatlantic ties and links alive and strong is extremely important. This government got through revolution because now all government and parliament meetings are digital online all the voting is online. In Europe we are working also through online conferencing and I think that is going to be a very efficient way.
But when this is over, still, the human touch and need to meet in person on discuss those things will be prevailing so I just want to thank you, for keeping this, let’s say, format alive, drinking coffee what 5,000 miles or so. Keeping that kind of physical distance is, of course, great. But I think that we need to meet, and we need to discuss, and we will do that. Definitely when this is over, and also in person. I drink normally coffee black. I also drink my tea with no sugar, no milk. But, very much for that we will be able to resume all of our interactions, very soon. And then all those lessons will be applied on both sides.
Brookie: Well, I can’t thank you enough, again. And I look forward to doing this again and staying connected, but also having that coffee in person, whenever possible, sometime very, very soon. Thank you again, Mr. Rinkevics. We’ll talk very soon.
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