Around the world, disinformation-spreading websites receive a large portion of their income by showing advertisements. The ads of companies and their brands most frequently appear on these sites through automated advertising platforms. This problem is also prevalent in Lithuania. According to Debunk.org data, across four Lithuanian disinformation spreading sites there are more than 300 advertisements of various brands.
Source: Būkime Vieningi
According to the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), high-risk websites could generate hundreds of millions of US dollars in revenue each year. Last year, during their hearings, the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation (INGE) paid special attention to the financing of disinformation-spreading sources through advertising and election-interference carried out by these malicious entities.
These disinformation sites use over 60 different advertising platforms, the largest of which is the Google Display Network, but also including Adform and Digital Matter (Adnet) in Lithuania. These systems are used by various companies and organisations, which can lead to situations where advertisers who do not have appropriate advertising settings (blacklists of websites) may indirectly fund the disseminators of false information and help them to continue their malicious activities.
Debunk.org monitored 4 pages spreading falsehoods and detected 324 advertised brands on these sites, which were advertised via advertising platforms. 510 unique screenshots were collected as pieces of evidence. As mentioned above, it is likely that the ads are being delivered to these sites because blacklists of portals are not in place and there is not enough attention paid to non-English language misleading content by the advertising platforms.
Debunk.org analysts monitored four portals: Musutv.lt, Bukimevieningi.lt, Ldiena.lt and Minfo.lt. It is worth noting that there are as many as six clones of Ldiena.lt: 3min.lt, 20min.lt, 60min.lt, Netiesa.lt, Pogrindis.lt and Blogorama.lt. These sites are identical copies, as they publish the same content and most of them also display advertisements.
These portals were selected based on our analysts' assessment, as well as the findings of the Office of the Inspector of Journalists' Ethics and other publicly available information, such as reports from the State Security Department. These sources and the people who run them are repeatedly mentioned in these reports. More information about them is provided below.
It should be noted that these portals have also come under scrutiny by fact-checkers - Lithuanian journalists have repeatedly refuted the conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and disinformation on other topics spread by these sources.
In order to show the diversity of companies whose advertisements appear on disinformation pages, Debunk.org has grouped them into 14 categories according to their main activities: commerce, manufacturing, information technology (IT), construction, healthcare, entertainment, real estate, education, recreation and leisure, insurance and banking, automotive services, transport and logistics, communication and other. The table below shows the distribution of enterprises in these categories.
The most frequent brands were classified under the commerce sector, with consumer electronics stores (17 cases), clothing and furniture stores (16 cases each) and e-commerce platforms (11 cases).
Full database is available here:
We see that disinformation websites display ads of both local and international, small and large entities from a variety of industries through real-time programmatic marketing automation technologies. This once again highlights the scale of the problem, where different companies and brands indirectly financially support misinformation spreaders.
Debunk.org proposes to raise awareness of this issue and encourage companies to take the initiative and adjust their advertising settings by blacklisting portals to prevent ads from appearing on pages that spread falsehoods. We have sent 322 emails to the brands or the companies that own them that have been identified during this investigation, informing them of the problem and the ongoing investigation. All major advertising agencies were also informed.
About the observed disinformation pages
Musutv.lt and Bukimevieningi.lt
Both portals are run by Vaidas Lekstutis-Žemaitis. According to the LRT Investigation Team:
“The ideas of this group are disseminated through the platforms (a portal and a Youtube channel) of the organization "Būkime vieningi" [Let's be united], which is registered by V. Žemaitis Lekstutis and others. They regularly speak out against NATO and the EU, and express favourable opinions about Putin and Lukashenko. However, the activist himself says that the activities of the above-mentioned public organization have been suspended and the domain of the portal, bought in his name, has been transferred to his associates in England. However, he is sharing material produced by the Youtube channel "Būkime vieningi".
The public organisation "Mūsų TV", founded at the end of September, is also linked to V. Žemaitis Lekstutis, where he holds half of the votes (50%). The online television it operates is actively involved in the implementation of the "100,000" referendum initiative.” (LRT.lt, 2021-11-23) V. Žemaitis was convicted of "publicly despising and inciting hatred against a group of people distinguished on the basis of nationality, sexual orientation, beliefs and opinions: by posting an article on a social networking site, spreading false information about the Jewish people and inciting hatred towards them; publicly inciting hatred towards Jews, homosexuals, and members of the Conservative and Liberal parties in his comments, and by despising persons belonging to the aforementioned groups; and, by his public statements, insultingly and offensively denying the crimes committed by the Soviet authorities and denigrating the victims of those crimes." (15min.lt, 2017-07-07)
V. Žemaitis is also mentioned in the 2016 VSD [State Security Department of Lithuania] and AOTD [Second Investigation Department under MND] National Threat Assessment: “In 2015, political and social organisations and movements calling themselves the "non-systemic opposition" gained momentum. The most active of these organisations were: the political party „Socialistinis liaudies frontas“ (SLF), the informal movement „Mūsų gretos“, led by Rolandas Paulauskas, and the group promoting the above-mentioned “concept of public security” [“Visuomenės saugumo koncepciją“], represented by the "Būkime vieningi" gathering, coordinated by Vaidas Lekstutis. These organisations have focused on spreading pro-Russian propaganda on the Lithuanian internet.” (Bendras VSD ir AOTD grėsmių nacionaliniam saugumui vertinimas 2016 [Joint VSD and AOTD national threat assessment 2016])
Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission "on the basis of the complaint, monitored the website musutv.lt and found that it was disseminating information in violation of the Law on Public Information of the Republic of Lithuania, i.e., it was disseminating disinformation." (rtk.lt, 2022-10-19)
"Vaidas Lekstutis, who was brought to the attention of the VSD [State Security Department of Lithuania] and convicted of denying the occupation, and the website bukimevieningi.lt, which is associated with him, have taken up new activities. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this website, which previously actively disseminated disinformation about COVID-19, is now publishing a large number of pro-Russian propaganda messages." (15min.lt, 2022-04-16)
"23 March 2022. The Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission (LRTK) has imposed a fine of EUR 500 on Plunsta UAB, which broadcasts the radio programme "Spindulys", for spreading disinformation.
The monitoring of the above-mentioned programmes clearly shows that Vaidas Lekstutis Žemaitis, a participant of the programme "Spindulys", tries to present information in such a way as to form a favourable opinion of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, discrediting the Lithuanian authorities, their legitimacy, independence and democracy.V. Žemaitis Lekstutis emphasises that information dissemination is suppressed in Lithuania. He also undermines and disparages the peaceful resistance of Lithuanian citizens to the invaders on 13 January, 1991. It [the programme] also gives a biased account of the events in Donbas and Luhansk, essentially questioning Ukraine's sovereignty and its territorial integrity, and justifying the military aggression of the Russian Federation in these areas. The audience is given the impression that, in the military conflict with the Russian Federation, Ukraine is the aggressor, which uses military action against civilians in a targeted manner. When discussing Lithuania's foreign policy, it is implicitly suggested that economic relations with Russia and Belarus should be developed, regardless of the human rights and other violations committed by these states and the sanctions imposed on them. At the same time, Lithuania's dependence on other states and lack of independence are emphasised. The foreign policies and actions of NATO governments are presented as potentially inciting war and strife in Eastern Europe." (rtk.lt, 2022-03-23).
“In 2015, political and social organisations and movements calling themselves the "non-systemic opposition" gained momentum. The most active of these organisations were: the political party „Socialistinis liaudies frontas“ (SLF), the informal movement „Mūsų gretos“, led by Rolandas Paulauskas, and the group promoting the above-mentioned „Concept of public security“, represented by the "Būkime vieningi" gathering, coordinated by Vaidas Lekstutis. These organisations have focused on spreading pro-Russian propaganda on the Lithuanian internet. This information was mainly disseminated through the websites "ekspertai.eu", "ldiena.lt", "sauksmas.lt", "revoliucija.org", "slfrontas.lt", "sarmatas.lt", "versijos.lt" and "laisvaslaikrastis.lt". Social networks, Youtube, etc. have also been a major focus in the dissemination of this information
Laurynas Ragelskis, who promotes the ideas of the "Concept of public security" in Lithuania, curates Ldiena.lt, a platform for anti-Western and pro-Russian articles from various websites in Lithuanian. Some other supporters of the "Concept of public security" have actively participated in anti-US and anti-NATO protests." (Bendras VSD ir AOTD grėsmių nacionaliniam saugumui vertinimas 2016 [Joint VSD and AOTD national threat assessment 2016])
"Pro-Russian activist Laurynas Ragelskis is on trial on charges of incitement and desecration of a place of public respect, which is how the prosecutor's office assesses his actions at the Belarusian Embassy in Vilnius.
According to the criminal case, in October 2020, the Vilnius resident allegedly filmed himself and his taunts in front of the embassy building on Mindaugas Street, filmed videos disparaging a group of people and uploaded them to a social network." (LRT.lt, 2022-08-28)
"The portal Stalin.lt, which has recently been launched in Lithuania, is, according to the data gathered, run by the same L. Ragelskis. Only Starikov's books on Stalin are available here. Ragelskis also promotes them on his Youtube channel.
Ragelskis and his associates, who have been repeatedly mentioned in the State Security Department's reports on threats to national security, administer more than 40 Facebook groups and pages. All of them glorify the former Soviet Union, Russia, and disparage Lithuania, other Western countries and international organisations. In addition to L. Ragelskis, V. Ž. Lekstutis, A. Paleckis, Kristoferis Voiška, K. Juraitis, E. Švenčionienė, J. Kovalskis and others are active in these groups. And one group, called "People's Journalism", was formed by L. Ragelskis, V. Ž. Lekstutis and M. Jonaitis at the end of March this year. As the presentation of the group says, "free press died - people's journalism was born". The group was founded right after some of Ragelskis' Youtube channels were blocked." (lrt.lt, DebunkEU.org, 2022-05-24)
"PressJazz is considered to be a distributor of the “Concept of public security” developed by the Russian special services. This concept is presented as a typical conspiracy theory about world governance. It is also disseminated by Laurynas Ragelskis, who runs the portal ldiena.lt. His portal is mentioned in the VSD [State Security Department of Lithuania] threat assessment report as spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda.” (LRT.lt, 2021-11-23)
"L.Ragelskis, who introduces himself as a journalist, was one of the most active participants in the protest on 10 August, which turned into a riot. He is cited as one of the main persons who attacked and obstructed the work of journalists." (15min.lt, 2021-08-19)
“According to 15min, SAM's information that it is impossible to be infected by the COVID-19 tests is not false, as reported on minfo.lt and ldiena.lt. Moreover, the tests produced by the CDC were intended for the US domestic market and therefore could not and cannot be used in Lithuania.” (15min.lt, 2020-04-23).
“Businessman Marius Gabrilavičius-Maksimalietis described himself as "one of the main organisers" of the "Great Family March" on social networks. He owns the website minfo.lt, which he manages through the public organization "Society for Maximalist Psychotherapy". In addition, his name is associated with the Facebook page "Family Movement", which is full of radical calls for protest." (LRT.lt, 2021-11-23)
"And businessman Marius Gabrilavičius-Maksimalietis stated bluntly on the Minfo channel, which he owns, that if at least 50,000 people don't gather on 10 August, "I won't try any more for the sake of the well-being of the indifferent, and I won't finance any more rallies!" (LRT.lt, 2021-11-22)
“Another runaway post [the second and biggest disinformation attack was recorded] appeared on April 5, the day after the world learned about atrocities against civilians in Bucha. The Facebook page of Minfo.lt posted a video in which Artur Sita – a self-identified wellness and consciousness guru – shares his thoughts about the war in Ukraine. He alleged that closed-door peace negotiations were focused on economic issues rather than peace and that, unbeknownst to them, Russians and Ukrainians were killing each other for money.
The post garnered 121,000 reactions, which is three times more than the Minfo page has followers and an unusually high number for any Lithuanian Facebook page. There were some 4,400 comments under the post, but most of them appeared to be automatically generated from fake profiles.”
(LRT, DebunkEU.org, 2022-05-26)
“For example, [in FB account “UNFOLLOW 15MIN.LT – Lithuania Real”] alongside a false post about a paedophile clan of famous figures that has allegedly encircled the world, there is a statement by former presidential candidate Mindaugas Puidokas on the topic of children's rights, and among the false news about 5G connectivity, links to misleading Minfo.lt articles on this topic are published. This website [minfo.lt] is run by the founder of the page, Marius Gabrilavičius.
For almost €3,000, 250 advertisements on politics, various social issues and elections were published. They were published both on Minfo.lt and on Gabrilavičius' personal account, which is followed by over 185 000 people. In terms of the amount of advertising, Gabrilavičius, who openly supports conspiracy theories, outperformed the biggest Lithuanian news portals, political parties and EU institutions in Lithuania for almost 3 months. With the lifting of the quarantine, Gabrilavičius continues to be one of the biggest Facebook ad buyers in Lithuania.” (LRT.lt, 2020-08-01)
"Jonas Valaitis, the editor of the human rights website jarmo.net, has for some time now been personally appealing to the General Prosecutor's Office with a request to open a pre-trial investigation into the Facebook postings of Marius Gabrilavičius, who was notorious for his statements during the March of the Families and other actions.
He runs a news website called minfo.lt, and posts on social networks that Ukraine is currently undergoing a "cleansing of Leftists"; thousands of people see his posts.
Mr Valaitis is convinced that such statements should lead to criminal liability under Article 170 of the Criminal Code, which provides for liability for the denigration and denial of international crimes. The Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation, but closed it after Gabrilavičius gave an explanation that he did not know there was a war in Ukraine.
It was also explained that there was no way to establish what Gabrilavičius's motives were for creating the social media posts.
Gabrilavičius's page still publishes known narratives promulgated by the Russian government. This includes claims that Russia will win the war or that there is an undergoing "world transformation"; he is also known for spreading a large amount of misleading information about the COVID-19 pandemic.” (LRT.lt, 2022-08-25)
“At the end of February, Gabrilavičius's Facebook account showed a statement that the war started by Russia in Ukraine was, in his words, not a war at all. The outcry was sparked by Gabrilavičius's statement that it was merely "the cleansing of the power structures of the Leftist scoundrels who serve not the people, but the corporations that are harmful to humanity".” (15min.lt, 2022-04-14)
“Minfo.lt actively publishes false information about COVID-19. The website claimed that the outbreak is a planned ‘depopulation’ programme, virus was brought to China from Canada, outbreak of the disease is a lie. The owner of the website, M.Gabrilavičius, questioned the reality of the outbreak on Facebook because he did not see personal videos of people dying. Gabrilavičius has tagged some of his Facebook posts with the hashtag "QAnon", which expresses support for the conspiracy theories of the US ultra-right." (15min.lt, 2020-03-26)
Other COVID-19 disinformation spreading Minfo.lt publications which were deconstructed by journalists.
“According to 15min, SAM's information that it is impossible to be infected by the COVID-19 tests is not false, as reported on minfo.lt and ldiena.lt. Moreover, the tests produced by the CDC were intended for the US domestic market and therefore could not and cannot be used in Lithuania.” (15min.lt, 2020-04-23)
“As noted in the text used by minfo.lt, the discrepancies in data marking inflated the number of tests carried out, not the test results. The number of tests and the results of tests or surveys are not the same. This means that the headline of the minfo.lt publication is misleading.” (15min.lt, 2020-06-16) “According to minfo.lt, "over 20,500 people in the EU have died and 1.9 million people have suffered serious and moderately serious injuries as a result of vaccines against COVID-19". The publication points out that these figures are published by VAERS and EudraVigilance, organisations that collect "data on the adverse effects of vaccines", which "speak of the huge number of deaths and injuries caused by vaccines". This is not true.” (Delfi.lt, 2021-08-25)
“With the mass vaccination with COVID-19 vaccines taking place around the world, the focus is on all the side effects and deaths. While scientists are investigating the direct link, the spreaders of falsehoods are not resting. This minfo.lt publication is no exception.” (Delfi.lt, 2021-03-16)
“The minfo.lt portal reported that COVID-19 vaccines caused 800 heart attacks in the United States of America (USA), but this data is incorrect. In fact, the responsible authorities have received almost 800 reports of heart problems after vaccination, but all these cases are currently under investigation and cannot be directly linked to the vaccines.”. (Delfi.lt, 2021-06-15)
“Misleading information is posted on Facebook alleging that US officials in Philadelphia have arrested billionaire George Soros for interfering in the country's presidential election. This is not true.
"George Soros has been arrested and is currently in federal custody in Philadelphia. According to a recent indictment filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania, Mr Soros committed a number of serious crimes in the run-up to the US presidential election," minfo.lt claims.
Apart from the forged document, minfo.lt and the sources cited on the website do not provide any other evidence to substantiate the information published. Meanwhile, representatives of the Open Society Foundation (OSF) told US journalists that the claims of detention are fiction.“ (15min.lt, 2020-11-24)
“The Minfo portal has recently been openly supporting the "International Forum for Good Neighbourhood", founded by Algirdas Paleckis, a politician convicted of espionage, and his comrades. He managed to set up the organisation while still in prison. Minfo actively shares videos of pro-Kremlin speeches by the founders of the "forum". "Erika Švenčionienė, the leader of the Forum, was announced by Minfo as the winner of Minfo's "most useful person for society" vote.” (Siena.lt, 2022-10-09)
Report prepared and first time published on the DebunkEU.org web page.