In April, the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats released a paper, “Deterring Disinformation? Lessons From Lithuania’s Countermeasures Since 2014”, by Vytautas Kersanskas. Focusing on the challenge of Russian disinformation and other hybrid threats, Kersanskas assess the “application of deterrence principles to non-military threats” and in short “attempts to challenge the notion that disinformation cannot be deterred”. Fully dissuading hostile actors from engaging in these malign activities is more effective and efficient a strategy than trying to counter them once they are underway or repair the damage afterwards.
Lithuania has a long memory for Russian disinformation: between 1940 and 1990, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, with only a brief interruption in the early 1940s when the Soviets’ Nazi allies turned on them and invaded through the Baltic states. Even during the Communist period, Kersanskas explains, most Lithuanians did not believe “the Soviet story”, but everyone had to act as if they did and a minority really did believe it. In the aftermath of the Soviet occupation, about 20% of Lithuanians, most of them older, continue to believe in “the Soviet story”, at least to the extent of believing that life was better under Soviet rule than it has been since independence.
There is a Russian minority of about 5% in Lithuania, a total of something over 150,000 people in a total population of three million, and more than half of them watch Russian television daily and consume information that way. Troubling as this is, the general legacy of Soviet times is that it has made the Lithuanian population resilient to Russian disinformation, says Kersanskas:
For example, Kremlin propaganda about the Maidan revolution being ‘fascist’ was naturally rejected by the majority in Lithuania, including the older generation, because such narratives were constructed following the same patterns as those used by the Soviets against the National Independence movement in Lithuania when it was still occupied. Therefore, this vivid memory, coupled with widespread solidarity with the historically related Ukrainian nation among Lithuanians, mobilized society and made recognition of the severity of the disinformation threat much easier.
In this sense, Lithuania was quite well-placed in 2014, when it was exposed to an “unprecedented” wave of Russian propaganda after Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. But it was still a challenge.
The Russian information war against Lithuania was very sophisticated: it targeted communities within the country with specific and different messages, attempting to gain sympathy for Russia’s view or at least to discredit the Western view; the Russians sought to create cleavages between minority populations in Lithuania and the majority, and between the population and the state; and it sought to tarnish Lithuania’s image among allies and ultimately divide the Lithuanian state off from the wider West by focusing on contentious historical matters such as the “double genocide” of Jews during the Second World War and promoting the idea of Lithuania as an antisemitic country.
Lithuania too rapid action. Having already identified Russian disinformation as “a challenge”, says Kersanskas, Lithuania now moved to recognizing the hybrid threats posed by the Kremlin “as a pressing national security threat”. Lithuania “mobilized not only the government, but also civil society and the private sector”, Kersanskas goes on. “Although the main actor in countering disinformation was the government, the latter two also played an important supportive role in enabling a robust response to an acute challenge.”
Resilience-building measures are usually at the core of any debates on countering disinformation, but when it comes to an actual response, a much wider spectrum of tools and measures were employed in the Lithuanian case. It was already recognized in an early phase of the response that an immediate effect requires measures to be taken that either deny benefits, or impose costs for inappropriate behaviour. Over time, the counter-disinformation strategy crystallized, and involved elements of both resilience and deterrence.
Kersanskas stresses that, despite the various quantitative strategies adopted for measuring the impact of disinformation, and counter-measures, it is actually quite difficult to be sure of the reality. Nonetheless, it is suggestive that the increase in consumption of Russian-origin media in Lithuania was increasing between 2007 and 2017, and that trend reversed thereafter. Less tangible but no less real, social attitudes have shifted sharply to disapprove of people who appear on television networks judged to be purveyors or Russian disinformation. “These indicators need to be analyzed together,” says Kersanskas, “and the regular assessments are really helping policy-planners to come up with the most cost-effective counter-disinformation strategy.”
“The measures taken by the Lithuanian authorities and supported by various initiatives taken by the media, NGOs and civil society have yielded considerable results”, Kersanskas concludes. The high level of awareness about disinformation among the Lithuanian population, the government’s hawkish stance toward eliminating subversive outlets, and changes in institutional practice, state and society, meant that when the Russians made another attempt to foment an information operation in April 2020, the information space in Lithuania essentially rejected it.
The principles pursued by Lithuania, says Kersanskas, and some of the practical measures—like regulation, defining “disinformation” sufficiently broadly, and preventive strategic messaging—can be helpful in an era when many states are threatened from within and without by disinformation.