When COVID-19 swept into Lithuania, conspiracy-oriented Facebook groups bulged with disinformation: U.S. soldiers brought the virus to Lithuania, dark forces invented the virus to dominate the world, vaccines will contain nanochips to let people be controlled by 5G cellphone signals.
Then something happened.
New people suddenly started filtering into the Facebook groups, attacking the conspiracy theories. Group administrators blocked them. But the interlopers kept coming. New names and accounts kept appearing, each fighting the false narratives in its own way.
There was nothing accidental about the arrival of these new voices. Behind them was a coordinated effort by the “elves,” a team of Lithuanian activists who have been fighting disinformation for six years. Team members worked together to penetrate the groups. They reported to each other who had been blocked and deployed new assets as needed, a team spokesman said.
Lithuania’s elves are just one branch of a surprisingly complex and creative network across Europe that is combating disinformation from local sources, Russia, and elsewhere. (The elves organized themselves after Russian forces entered Ukraine.) While most news media have focused on the tide of disinformation sweeping the continent, the growing forces fighting it have received far less attention. Their work may suggest some strategies for the United States, where disinformation has threatened to intensify the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic and attempted to spread panic over the past week’s rioting.
Some activists work in secret teams to challenge trolls directly on social platforms. Others map entire networks of trolls and bots to help Facebook and Twitter shut them down. They campaign for advertisers to boycott sites that promote racist and conspiratorial narratives. They jump onto newspapers’ comment boards to push down hostile comments under dozens of moderate posts. Some even lure particularly active promoters of conspiracy narratives into private chats where they try to change their views. Alongside the most militant campaigners stands a corps of investigative journalists armed with artificial intelligence tools for deeply detailed investigations, along with fact-checkers who are learning to expose disinformation with increasing speed.
When false information about the virus started circulating in Slovakia, members of the new Digital Infospace Security Initiative swiftly created a website, a campaign on Facebook, and another on Instagram to debunk the most dangerous rumors. In the course of a month, the shares and “likes” attracted by their warnings propelled their posts into the Facebook feeds of more than 130,000 people. Tomáš Kriššák, one of those behind the coronavirus website in Slovakia, says he has seen clear results from years of pro-democracy campaigning. “Little by little, over time, we have seen people become more aware of disinformation, more suspicious,” he says. Slovakia’s population has been the most pro-Russian of any NATO country. But its populist-oriented ruling party was defeated in elections this year and the nation’s leadership has now pledged itself to a pro-NATO and EU course.
Some journalists and fact-checkers fighting disinformation would bridle at the idea that they are political actors, arguing that they simply expose wrongdoing and falsehoods from any source. But the effect of their work heavily favors democratic forces struggling against fake news, hate, and conspiracy theories. Some journalists openly focus their work on Russia, untangling in detail its money laundering, military movements, and intelligence activity.
These private actors fighting disinformation are particularly significant at a time when democratic governments are often hesitant to engage in the battle themselves. Some governments fear such efforts would be politically disastrous because they could be portrayed as directed against rightwing parties in their own countries, whose messages often coincide with the Kremlin’s. Officials also fear being accused of engaging in their own “propaganda,” even if they only advocate for facts and democratic values.
Non-government activists have few such worries. They also are quicker and more agile than governments, where bureaucratic delays can slow responses to disinformation to the point where they are useless. Activists are often young, with a deep appreciation of the power of social networks. They are brave as well. Often their work results in threats to themselves and their families. Still, said a spokesman for the Lithuanian elves, “A lot of people are fine with using their own names. They feel there’s nothing to be afraid of, that we’re in our own country, that we’re fighting for real values.”
The activists’ commitment and courage have attracted increasing attention and funding from major Western governments and foundations. Some groups resist money from outside, proud of their private, volunteer status. Bohumil Kartous, a spokesman for Czech elves, said taking money, especially from donors abroad, opens activists to accusations they are agents of foreign interests. “The whole idea of the elves is that we do this voluntarily,” he said. “It’s your decision to do it, it’s your time and energy. You do it for your country, not for money.”
However, money makes a difference in reacting quickly and reaching large audiences. Veronika Špalková of the European Values Center in Prague estimates that a response to disinformation must come within two hours to have a chance of success. Many groups acknowledge they need training in quickly identifying false narratives, creating memes and videos to counter them, and targeting audiences for the greatest effect. Even those reluctant to take money acknowledge that funding for a few full-time employees would help with organization, recruitment, and technology.
The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center said last year it had arranged to train civil society actors in 14 European nations to respond to disinformation “in locally relevant ways.” The United Kingdom is spending £18 million over three years to counter disinformation and fake news across Eastern Europe and strengthen independent media in the Western Balkans. Many other funders, such as George Soros’ Open Societies Foundations, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the European Endowment for Democracy, support grassroots civil society and independent journalism efforts. Facebook contributes millions of dollars to subsidize fact-checking projects. U.S. and German funders support Trolless, a Moldovan group that tipped Facebook to some 700 accounts and pages trafficking in disinformation and false identities ahead of elections in 2019. Facebook responded with its own investigation and removed nearly 200.
Perhaps the activists’ most powerful tool is international cooperation. Funders have supported a series of conferences to spur cross-border collaborations of civil society activists, journalists, and fact-checkers. The more aggressive activists exchange tales at such meetings of how they have exposed Russian disinformation and even hoaxed Russian soldiers online. The Informnapalm investigative group publishes the names of Russian servicemen who have fought in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria, working largely from clues on social media.
Other conferences, for fact-checkers, have helped create a standing mutual-aid network aimed at countering false information from any source. As an example, a fact-checking group in France asked fellow members of the International Fact-Checking Network in May about a supposed Italian breakthrough that could lead to curing coronavirus at home. Within 45 minutes it received detailed responses from fact-checkers in Britain, Italy, and Spain describing how the same rumor had spread in their countries and sharing detailed evidence that it was not true.
In many ways, the anti-disinformation movement is still struggling to reach critical mass. Many groups have only a few dozen activists. Members who lose courage or interest must constantly be replaced. Activists’ posts struggle for visibility against sensational, highly shareable content from disinformation and conspiracy sites. Some of the most aggressive and innovative work is going on in new democracies in East and Central Europe; in West European countries, the struggle over disinformation has largely become a subtheme in existing political conflicts.
Funding is probably the area where activists can use the most help. The millions of dollars available for their work often trickle down in small grants, awarded after long application processes and for limited periods. Grants often fall in the $10,000-$50,000 range—hardly enough to hire staff and get major projects underway. Real breakthrough projects might be big-ticket items like opening radio and television stations to compete with broadcasters controlled by authoritarian governments and corrupt financial interests. Projects of this scope are almost impossible given the way funding is handled now.
Just as important as funding pro-democracy groups is reducing the financial incentive for disinformation. Many disinformation and conspiracy sites exist not out of deep ideology, but simply to make money. According to the Global Disinformation Index, they reap a quarter-billion dollars a year, much of it by running ads from Google and other U.S. advertising networks. The Global Disinformation Index, Konšpirátori.sk in Slovakia, and the Czech Elves are trying to persuade businesses to order networks not to send their ads to disinformation sites, and to get networks to cut off such outlets entirely.
Not all activists agree on tactics. Should they copy the same aggressiveness and snark that disinformation sites use—seeking to anger people in a pro-democracy direction? Or instead, should they work to create more thoughtful, rational public dialogue that might discourage conspiracy theories and extremism?
Emblematic of the softer approach is the “I Am Here” movement, an initiative in Europe and North America that describes itself as non-political and focused on fighting hate speech. The Swedish founder of the campaign, Mina Dennert, says teams patrol the internet looking for groups and comment boards where hate content is prominent. Members point out these locations to each other and then try to submerge angry comments with more moderate posts of their own.
“We don’t answer trolls,” Dennert says. “We ‘like’ each other’s comments to increase their visibility in algorithms and create a healthier conversation. If trolls discuss our comments, it helps to push them up further.” Sometimes just two or three people can change the tone of conversation, she says. At times it may take 100.
Lithuania’s elves are known for a more pointed tone. When Adidas in 2018 marketed a Soviet-retro sportswear line bearing the letters “USSR” and the hammer and sickle, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry accused the company of abetting Soviet “imperial nostalgia.” The elves were among many Lithuanians who took up the campaign. By the next morning, they had created a #StopAdidas hashtag and began posting to the Adidas Facebook page memes showing an Adidas logo on a Soviet labor camp and images of Adidas’ clothing with the Soviet imagery replaced by a swastika. After more than 6,000 #StopAdidas posts had appeared, Adidas stopped selling the products.
Pro-democracy groups face challenges in breaking out of the urban, upscale bubble many of them inhabit. Rural voters are often targeted by social posts and email chain letters that claim democracy means liberal social policies that will undermine their conservative way of life. Some activists have launched their own chain emails to debunk the claims, but they find they are shared much less than the conspiracy-filled emails with their dire predictions.
Sometimes activists despair that their efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to the deluge of disinformation and propaganda they seek to confront. “Our organization is very small compared to all the hate. I’m not very optimistic,” Dennert says. However, in the absence of stronger government action, activists and journalists—if properly supported—could grow to become a significant counterweight to disinformation.
Civil society groups “are going to be the heroes of counter-disinformation techniques,” Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and now an Atlantic Council fellow, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year. “They, not government bureaucracy, are going to be able to expose, in real-time, Russian and other disinformation operations. We ought to put our trust in them. We ought to put some of our resources behind them.”
The coronavirus pandemic could help clarify where the battle for trust goes from here. Will people believe ever more lurid conspiracy theories, and act and vote based on them? Or will fake narratives start to collapse, the victims of their own illogic as well as the efforts of anti-disinformation warriors? The outcome will help determine whether Europe’s broad but still-emerging coalition against disinformation has a fighting chance of success.