Comprehensive analysis of the networks of profiles, pages, and groups on social media has shown that Facebook pages and groups, which shared false or misleading content about the migration crisis on the Belarusian border with the EU, were also actively publishing disinformation on other topics, e.g., Covid-19 vaccines. Moreover, the research has indicated coordinated behavior between users which created and spread disinformation.
In 2020-2021 Belarus became a focal point of the international discussion. After violent suppression of citizens’ protest in Minsk against rigged presidential elections and the hijacking of a Ryanair plane with two opponents of the regime on board, the EU responded with heavy-hitting sanctions against Minsk. Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to “flood Europe with migrants and drugs”. His words have resulted in the number skyrocketed number of illegal migrants, especially from the Middle East, crossing from Belarus to the European Union. It is important to emphasize that certain evidence may lead to believe that the weaponization of migrants by Minsk may has been planned well before.
Between August 2021 and January 2022, DebunkEU.org monitored and analyzed pro-Kremlin media channels and the false or misleading content they disseminated. Alongside these domains, social media spreading false or misleading information about migration crisis were also observed. For the purpose of analysis, the network graphing program Gephi was used. The dataset was collected from 18th August 2021 to 12th January 2022 and consists of 327 Facebook groups which shared 1010 disinformation articles from 75 domains.
Examples of Facebook pages that are social media channels of pro-Kremlin media outlets
As assumed, the Facebook groups that published the most disinformative content were the social channels of leading pro-Kremlin portals such as Sputnik, TASS, RT, or RIA. It should be noted, however, that the large amount of disinformation content published did not always translate into a large audience – some official pro-Kremlin Facebook groups have a relatively small number of followers.
It is noticeable that there are groups on Facebook which publish similar content (from the same domain), while it seems that most often the language of the group determines the membership of a given cluster. However, certain Facebook groups connecting different clusters (acting as “bridges”) should be investigated, as possible transferring disinformation from Russian-language propaganda into local language (i.e., Lithuanian) sphere.
The analysis also showed that often pages/groups on Facebook sharing false or misleading content about the migration crisis were also actively publishing disinformation on other topics, e.g., anti- Covid-19 vaccines. This shows that the channels created on social media not onlyu connect different disinformation narratives, but also their recipients.
The analyzed examples of articles from Respublika.lt indicate that this medium is one of the Lithuanian-speaking centers that spreads content inscribed in pro-Kremlin narratives. Materials published on Respublika.lt were shared on various anti-government and/or pro-Russian Facebook groups and received a relatively high number of user reactions.
The high convergence of sharing certain content on many Facebook groups and pages indicated the coordination of users, publishing on various groups, including those which main topic is not officially related to the issues that are the subject of disinformation. These users could be described as spammers or trolls, as they repeatedly share the same article on different groups, thus playing a key role in spreading malign and misleading information (and in broader scope: pro-Kremlin propaganda) on Facebook platform.
The most active disinformation Facebook groups
In this visualization we selected groups that shared at least 10 disinformation articles. This restriction was implemented to capture only those Facebook groups that systematically and consistently published misleading or false information about the migration crisis.
Top 5 Facebook groups and pages by largest number of shared publications (10 or more articles)
It can be seen that the first places are clearly occupied by Facebook pages which are the social channels of the main propaganda media sources: Sputnik Lietuva: Baltijos Naujienos (290 articles), Sputnik Litva: Novosti Baltii (97 articles), RT na russkom (69), Belarusian News Agency, Belta (55) ad RIA Novosti (45). Although some groups shared a lot of disinformation content about migration crisis, they have relatively small number of followers, e.g. “Sputnik Lietuva: Baltijos Naujienos”, which posted 290 articles has 3,690 followers. It is worth to notice, that only two Facebook groups: “RT na russkom” (2,393,067 followers) and “RIA Novosti” (2,245,903 followers) shared a large amount of false or misleading material about the topic and simultaneously have a significant number of users.
Networks of pro-Kremlin Facebook groups
One of the more important objectives of the analysis was to investigate the network of links between Facebook groups reinforcing pro-Kremlin messages. A graph showing the connections of Facebook groups if they published at least one same disinformation article was generated. The algorithm of the software hence classified Facebook groups into different communities (or clusters).
Breakdown of Facebook groups and pages by sharing the same articles
Analyzing the communities, it was possible to observe that they were linked mainly by the language of the shared content.
The cluster of Facebook groups in Lithuanian language is marked in green. It is worth to signalize, that two of disinformation groups (“Už Lietuvą be landsbergistų ir jų surogatų!” and “Už Didinga Lietuva!”) are administrated by the same person, Agnė Jonaitytė, who visibly identifies herself with pro-Russian ideas (surprisingly, these groups did not share the same content at all). It is also worth to mention that some groups combined two or more problematic topics, e.g., “Pabėgėliams-ne! Demografiniam lietuvių bumui ir šeimos rėmimui – taip!” stresses opposition to refugees and the support to the “defense of the traditional family” movement in Lithuania (often constituting a platform for proclaiming pro-Russian propaganda). It should be noted as well that the group “Už draugystę su Baltarusija” acts as a bridge between clusters, providing problematic content about migration crisis both from Russian (e.g., “RIA Novosti”, “RT na russkom”) and Lithuanian media outlets (e.g. “Respublika.lt”).
Facebook groups and pages which share disinformation in Lithuanian language
To deepen the analysis, a filter was used to select Facebook groups that shared at least five of the same articles. The visualization presented below allowed to see that a very strong link between the two groups is outlined: “Už didingą lietuvą!” and “Susitelkimas”. Both groups shared articles on the migration crisis from the blog of Lithuanian doctor Algimantas Lebionek on the same day. It is worth mentioning that the main topic of the blog is disinformation reports about Covid-19, among other the author compares the measures taken by countries to limit the pandemic to those used by the fascist regime in the Third Reich. The problem of disinformation on Lithuanian Facebook groups was also pointed out by fact-checkers from the Lietuvos nacionalinis radijas ir televizija (LRT).
Facebook groups and pages that shared at least 5 of the same articles #5
Next, we analyzed Lithuanian Facebook groups that have published articles from at least two different sources. In this way, we wanted to see groups that do not constitute artificial extension of propaganda outlet and connect recipients of different domains, potentially increasing their influence.
The network of Lithuanian disinformation Facebook groups (grey) sharing content from at least from three different domains (red)
As can be seen, many groups share material from different disinformation sites – the size of the nodes in the graph above reflects the number of domains cited. It can therefore be hypothesized that members of the groups visible in the graph are finding a variety of content on these sites and may be choosing the content that suits them better. One of the groups that shared content from the largest number of domains (including respublika.lt, sputnik.news.lt, lebionka.blogspot.lt) is the “Susitelkimas” group, which also publishes anti-system content and from the anti-vaxxers movement.
As part of the study, we have conducted an in-depth analysis of several articles published on the Respublika.lt, which is a Lithuanian media platform with a conservative, Eurosceptic and nationalist profile. A deeper analysis of this source was due to the fact that many Lithuanian-language disinformation groups on Facebook published content appearing on this portal. Moreover, this news agency is important actor in Lithuanian media sphere and its Facebook page of Respublika.lt has the largest number of followers among the Lithuanian-language groups and pages included in the analysis.
The detailed analysis of most exemplary, problematic articles is provided in the full report. However, the key take-away is that the Respublika.lt portal shares criticism of the government as well as Euroscepticism. Some statements in the analyzed articles were in line with pro-Kremlin narratives on the migration crisis, especially those blaming the West for bringing migrants to Europe. What is more, some of the publicists of Respublika.lt were identified as pro-Russian agents by the Lithuanian security services. It is difficult to determine though, to what extent the editors of Respublika.lt portal act as ‘useful idiots’ and to what extent as hostile agents of pro-Kremlin propaganda.
Key users in spreading disinformation
Visualization of the data in time makes it possible to observe that certain articles were published the same day by large amount of different Facebook groups. In this context some users sharing disinformative materials seem especially suspicious.
During the analysis it turned out that the article Migranty – oruzhiye Putina: v NATO uvideli novyy sposob “okkupatsii” Rossiyey Pribaltiki (Migrants are Putin’s weapon: NATO sees a new way for Russia to ‘occupy’ the Baltics) originally published on the rubaltic.ru website was shared 40 times on 34 Facebook groups. As many as 21 times the article was shared by the same user, Maya Athma Green, who shared this piece on series of Facebook groups within few minutes. The second most active user was Aleksey Yevstigneyev, who shared it 14 times, 13 of which within 4 minutes.
These two users played roles of spammers, publishing within very short period of time articles from Rubaltic.ru (officially analytical center, while in fact Russian propaganda tool engaged in disinformation warfare against the West and especially against Lithuania). According to information in social media, both users are from Kaliningrad. Furthermore, both were professionally connected with the Rubaltic.ru agency: Maya Athma Green was worked for Rubaltic.ru as a photographer, see: EUROPE CENSORED. Suppression of Freedom of Speech in the Baltic Countries and Ukraine, Rubaltic.ru, Moscow 2019, p. 14. Aleksey Yevstigneyev was an author of one interview published on the Rubaltic.ru platform, see: A. Yevstigneyev, Sovetskiye deportatsii iz Pribaltiki ne nosili etnicheskiy kharakter, Rubaltic.ru, 28.03.2017.
Shares of the article Migrants are Putin’s weapon: NATO sees a new way for Russia to ‘occupy’ the Baltics on Facebook groups
In the context of Lithuanian-language materials, it turned out also, that other frequently shared article referring to the migrant crisis was Astravo baimės mokesčių mokėtojams kainuos 18 milijonų (Astravyetsfears to cost taxpayers 18 million) originally published by Respublika.lt. The piece was shared mainly by the author of this publication – Marius Jonaitis, who posted it on 17 Facebook disinformation groups (out of 19 in total).
Shares of the article Astravyets fears to cost taxpayers 18 million on Facebook groups
This analysis was carried out by DebunkEU.org analysts Aleksandra Michałowska-Kubś and Jakub Kubś.