Lithuanian ‘Elves’ Wage Online War Against Russian Propagandist Trolls

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By Ian Miles Cheong | 11:31 pm, December 28, 2016

Trolls are the bane of social media. From leaving ugly comments on Facebook obituaries, to astroturfing support for political candidates, trolls have severely impacted discourse on the web. While we’re not calling for a “safe space,” trolls undeniably out of control.

Anyone involved in politics and journalism is no stranger to Russian trolls—politically-driven fake Twitter and Facebook accounts farmed out by the Russian government to disseminate pro-Russian propaganda to European and American audiences.

To that end, Lithuanian citizens are fighting back against pro-Russian propagandist trolls. Calling themselves “elves,” in tribute to The Lord of the Rings, a Lithuanian named Ricardas Savukynas has created an anti-troll army to counter the proliferation of Russian online hate speech and propaganda.

Lithuania is a Baltic nation formerly under the rule of the USSR. In the two decades since the dissolution of the communist empire, Russia under Vladimir Putin is once again flexing its military might to intimidate the former satellite states. It annexed Crimea in 2014 and continues to back pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Savukynas said he noticed large congregations of pro-Russian messages on Facebook.

“Seeing this I thought that it cannot be a natural thing,” he said.

Savukynas and his elves patrol social media, coordinating their efforts through social media channels to expose fake accounts as Russian operatives. His group reports as many as 20 trolls each day in order to get their accounts suspended. Per the AP, the anti-troll activist writes a personal blog deconstructing conspiracy theories put forth by the trolls.

The US intelligence community discovered that Russian trolls disseminated “fake news” during the 2016 election, writing and promoting stories in favor of Donald Trump. During our own investigations, Heat Street discovered that Russian Twitter bots and troll accounts were boosting alt-right voices, including Jared Wyand and Ricky Vaughn, two prominent users that have since been banned.

German domestic intelligence states that Russia’s next operation will be the upcoming elections in Germany, with anti-government propaganda that plays on popular angst over the migrant crisis.

Lithuanian analysts say that the elves’ efforts in opposing Russian trolls will require a more complex counterstrategy if they hope to beat Kremlin-backed propaganda, which has begun to surface on news websites and broadcasters. In response, Lithuanian news organizations like Delfi are stepping up their moderation policies and deleting the most extreme messages.

“We recognized, especially recently, that we have a pretty huge and long lasting disinformation campaign against our society,” Tomas Ceponis, a Lithuanian military analyst, told the AP. He adds that Russian propaganda is aimed at “really a very huge variety of targets,” and not just a single issue.

To curb the spread of hate speech, the Lithuanian government recently issued a temporary ban of Russian state-owned news channel RTR Planeta after a Russian politician made anti-US comments.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius is unapologetic about the country’s efforts to diminish Russian influence.

“A lie is not an alternative point of view,” he told the AP. “One can say it’s freedom of speech … But if it’s a resourced propaganda machine brainwashing people, it’s not just an alternative point of view—it’s a weapon.”

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken game critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.