When the dark acts of the trolls became particularly harmful, the Elves felt they had no choice but to get together and fight back, and the fierce battle which then began has since been waged with no sign of ending.
Industrial-scale spreading of disinformation; manipulating elections; undermining democratic institutions; orchestrating racial and sectarian strife have become potent weapons of modern hybrid warfare.
Lithuania is along the frontline in this conflict between Russia and the west. The European Union’s Cyber Rapid Response Force has its headquarters in the country and the region, with the other Baltic states, is a focal point for Nato strategy.
Thus, it is not surprising that it was in Lithuania that the citizens’ online army of the elves started five years ago to take on the Russian trolls. It now has an international force of thousands of volunteers. The vast majority of them are based down the length of Russia’s border from the Nordic states to Armenia. But there is also rising interest from countries in the west, including Britain, as the arena of the internet warriors continues to spread.
“It really began during the Ukraine conflict five years ago, when we realised the sheer scale of Russian propaganda. This use of false information has been there for a long time of course, but that was the first time we saw the effect it was having and we felt we must do something instead of just worrying about it,” says one of the founders of the Elves.
The middle-aged former e-commerce businessman does not want his identity disclosed for reasons of safety. He wants, instead, to be known as Hawk, his online nom-de-guerre.
Hawk accepts that “if the GRU [Russian military intelligence] really wanted to find out my identity they would be able to, but we try to minimise the risks, especially for the sake of our families. One thing about this type of work is that we can keep in touch with other Elves without having to be face to face.
“We needed to organise and that’s what we started to do, a few of us at first, but then it started to get bigger and bigger and now there are many people in many different countries.
“I am not saying all the trolls come from Russia. We know a lot of them are based here in Lithuania and other countries in eastern Europe. They have their motivation which they are entitled to, what we are trying to do is stop them from spreading lies.”
Sitting in a hotel in the capital, Vilnius, Hawk stresses that the Elves were a strictly defensive force, seeking out and countering fake news, but not carrying out cyberattacks or disseminating counter-propaganda.
“We want to highlight the false news and we do the work in our own time: we are not paid by the government, we are a group of individuals,” says Hawk. “It is important that we do not put out false news ourselves, we do not want to get into that game.
We have seen so many reports of [fake news] in the elections in the US, in elections and referendums in countries in Europe, one cannot ignore it
Asta Skaisgiryte, Lithuanian Foreign Ministry
“We began after Ukraine because is important for us, so near us. It is the countries close to Russia which are most aware of the disinformation. But the concern is also elsewhere now because of what’s been happening. We saw the interest from the UK, for instance, after the Skripal attack. The false news being put out by the Russians may have surprised people in England, but it was not surprising for us.”
The Kremlin’s narrative on Salisbury – especially the claim by the two GRU officers accused of the novichok poisoning that they were just tourists who wanted to see the city’s cathedral – was widely viewed as risible. And the accounts put out by Russian trolls of what allegedly really happened – pointing the finger at officials in nearby Porton Down, the Ukrainians, the Czechs – have not been backed up by any credible evidence.
There have been other tales about major issues in Britain emanating from Russia – ranging from claims that the UK intelligence services murdered former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko to frame Moscow, to that of a “deep state” conspiracy behind the murder of the MP Jo Cox, with the supposed aim of discrediting Brexiteers.
“But proving something is false does not mean it will not be endlessly repeated,” says Aurimas Kleveckas, an officer in the Lithuanian armed forces strategic communications department. “You see the same stories appearing, with the same storyline, in different countries, often using trolls.”
There are banks of television screens on the walls of Kleveckas’s office in the Ministry of Defence displaying the most popular stories in Russian media, what is trending on social media, and examples of the most pervasive fake news.
Kleveckas points out how a version of the case of Lisa, an untrue story about how a young girl of Russian and German background was raped by Muslim men in Germany, has been retold several times in countries where Nato was holding exercises – the “victim” always a local girl and Nato troops the perpetrators.
“We had the Lisa story in Germany in 2016, which was part of the Russian narrative about the west letting in Muslim immigrants, but we have had versions of this in Ukraine and Lithuania as well. Here it was a girl from an orphanage who was raped by German-speaking soldiers. The fact that it was false in each case did not stop them from putting them out,” says Kleveckas.
“There are other stories about Nato troops getting into fights, tanks destroying properties, water supplies being damaged, that sort of thing is pretty standard, but also stories that biological weapons have been tested, depleted uranium etc… They also target individuals, currently our defence ministe,r for example, with all kinds of false allegations.
“We are fighting an information war. There are things we are doing, other government departments are doing, but also what ordinary people are trying to do, like the Elves, and that is very helpful in exposing damaging propaganda.”
Asta Skaisgiryte, the political director of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador to London, believes there is now more recognition in the west about the destructive nature of orchestrated disinformation.
“We have seen so many reports of this in the elections in the US, in elections and referendums in countries in Europe – one cannot ignore it,” says Skaisgiryte.
“It has always been the dream of some people in power in Moscow to re-establish the Russian Empire. They are trying to do it physically, but also by other means like cyber and propaganda. Along with that, there is the aim of weakening western institutions, like the European Union and Nato.
“I do not want to say too much about Brexit, it is a decision of the UK, except to say we are very sorry it is happening. But we need to recognise that when such an important country like the UK leaves the European Union it is damaging and Brexit is something, let’s not forget, Mr Putin has been supporting.”
The umbrella group Debunk.eu brings together, journalists, Elves, civic society groups and the armed forces dealing with cyberwarfare.
The organisation is funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative and the Baltic media organisation Delfi. And it is in regular communications with a number of western foreign services including the Foreign Office in London.
“We have organised ourselves to take on propaganda and fake news, we saw the problem we were facing,” says Vaidas Saldziunas, the defence editor of Delfi and a member of Debunk.eu. “We realise that we need to be united in this, so we have competing media organisations which have come together for this. We know we have a common problem.
“We are helped by the Elves, but we make sure that the ones who are with us are vetted and do not have ulterior motives. This is all about teamwork, we scan around 20,000 articles a day from more than a thousand sources. We look out for false stories from trolls and stories that are trying to damage Lithuania.”
The targeting of suspected fake news, Saldziunas explains, was led “quite a lot by what we call the ‘two gs’ – Google and gut feeling – but we make sure there is a good checking mechanism in place before an article or a post is debunked”.
We needed to organise and that’s what we started to do, a few of us at first, but then it started to get bigger and bigger and now there are many people in many different countries
Hawk, a founder of the Elves
Debunk.eu say their work is reaching 90 per cent of Lithuania’s population of around 2.85 million and, with those figures, it can claim to be highly successful in what they do.
But the suppression of disinformation leads to questions about whether legitimately held political views are also being suppressed in the process, however good the checks to prevent this are claimed to be. There must also be concern about how much the media should work hand-in-hand with state authorities.
“These are worries for liberal democracies which need to be discussed,” a western European diplomat acknowledges. “But the fact is that we are a bit more distanced in the west and these countries in the Baltic are experiencing the force of a country, Russia, which has weaponised disinformation, we need to bear that in mind.”
Saldziunas insists that there is no conflict of interest and the Lithuanian media would criticise the state and the military when necessary, adding: “But we have to be in this together, there is no alternative to what we are doing.”
For Hawk it is a matter of facing a national threat. “We have the right to form a resistance, that is what we are doing, trying to defend against propaganda – we’ll stop when they stop telling lies,” he says as he leaves to continue his mission – taking on the trolls.