ERNESTAS TARANAS, ANALYST OF THE EUROPEAN SECURITY PROGRAMME
The Kremlin has long employed conspiracy theories to support its foreign policy goals. In Lithuania such manipulation of social fears and anxieties can be considered as a soft power strategy used to implement Russia’s foreign policy goals. The period from mid-March shows an increase in the frequency of articles with keywords “plot” and “COVID-19” and “COVID-19” and “NATO” in both Russian and Lithuanian language outlets. The articles aim to portray NATO as weak, dangerous or obsolete while playing on various broadly circulating conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic’s origins and consequences. The common undercurrent is casting doubt in the effectiveness of the Transatlantic relations between U.S. and allies in Europe, the efficiency of NATO forces as well as integrity and viability of the West.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES – A TOOL OF SHARP POWER
The dissemination of false theories serve to justify the Russian nationalist worldview portraying the structures of the West (such as EU and NATO) as disruptive outsiders, impeding Russia’s progress on a global stage or that perceived US global hegemony is threatening Russia’s existence.
When discussing the issue of conspiracy theories as a tool used to further foreign policy we should understand the anatomy and functionality of it. From the Kremlin’s perspective conspiracy theories serve as part of the arsenal of disruptive tools that carry a political dimension. The following paragraphs will briefly discuss the structure and reasons why certain groups are persuaded by conspiratorial ideas. Additionally, they will briefly explore possible ways to combat malign conspiracy theories and illustrate cases with examples found using >versus< media monitoring tool.
WHAT IS A CONSPIRACY THEORY?
In the world of politics, the word “conspiracy” can be defined as a secretive arrangement between several actors to seize either political or economic power or violate the status quo. Therefore, conspiracy theories are “political” explanations that feature compelling narrative structures and are appealing to individuals who generally tend to express signs of anti-government attitudes in their daily lives.
In the current information age, conspiratorial collusions are quickly losing their political dimension and are more frequently used as tools to explain the unknown or seen as scientific or technological projects, carried out in the name of greater evil (e.g. the spread of COVID-19 and other “bioweapons” via 5G mobile network towers or the spread of condensation trails, meant to alter weather conditions or control human population).
While conspiracies (or collusions) do not generally have the power to influence formal decision-making or sway the wider public to the point of major societal disruption, conspiratorial ideation among certain societal groups may be disruption by inspiring civic unrest such as riots, physical damage to the infrastructure or chaos-inducing conflict of ideas.
WHY PEOPLE FALL FOR CONSPIRACY THEORIES
There is no unilateral answer on why certain groups of people fall for conspiracy theories. Usually, two main motives could be outlined that drive the spread of false beliefs among individuals:
Existential – This motive usually stems from the notion that average people can never take responsibility for their fate, and that the world is doomed to be dominated by the big and powerful without a possibility to influence the state of affairs.
Social – This motive usually develops as a result of exclusion from a society or group due to one’s experience with financial and educational inequality. Victimised or ostracised social groups tend to sincerely believe that it is they whom evil forces chose as targets. Hence, the only way to relieve the sense of one’s disadvantaged position is to align with conspiratorial ideas and receive a feeling of pleasure caused by the false sense of control and power-giving “knowledge” of something that is secret.
HOW TO COMBAT CONSPIRACY THEORIES?
The sense of power that a conspiracist is “given” when subscribing to a set of beliefs is extremely hard to combat.
Firstly, due to a possibility of backfiring caused by personal biases being too strong to challenge false ideas. Secondly, due to repetitive attempts to correct misinformation which will most likely lead to stronger endorsement of a conspiracy.
However, by developing counter-misinformation measures in a steady manner it is possible to sway one away from developing strong conspiracy ideation. This could be done by inducing a sense of skepticism through either “debiasing” or “cognitive infiltration”.
– The process of “debiasing” involves the use of repetitive retraction of false information while affirming one’s worldview in the face of clashing facts. Affirming one’s worldview is extremely important in such situations as it will most likely help to build trust and reduce chances of confrontation, hence preventing backfire from occurring.
– The process of “cognitive infiltration” usually consists of introduction of diverse science-based facts into tight online clusters of conspiracy theorists, either through chat rooms, social networks or face-to-face groups.
CONSPIRACY TYPOLOGY: ORIGINAL, CARBON-COPIED AND HYBRID
Articles collected during the period March 9 to April 19, 2020 through monitoring of Russian-language and Lithuanian-language media using IRI’s >versus< tool provide examples of three different conspiracy typologies that co-exist in the media space: original*, carbon-copied** and hybrid***.
*expressed ideas carry no ideological traces of globally known conspiracies; created and distributed inside the country; relevant to local political events.
**ideas presented in such conspiracy theories are already known on a global scale; similar theories can already be found on major news websites; use of similar tone or linguistic structures is also prevalent.
***a mix of original and carbon-copied conspiracies; conspiracists focus on globally known conspiracies but intertwine it with locally-spread conspiracies to make it more relevant to local audiences.
CONSPIRACY I – “POLAND WILL USE COVID-19 CRISIS TO ITS ADVANTAGE TO ANNEX KALININGRAD”
According to data collected over the six-week period – from March 9 to April 19, 2020, five articles focused on a “Kaliningrad Annexation” conspiracy. All articles followed a similar structure and were distributed in several major Russian-language media outlets a day its initial appearance.
The main goal of this conspiracy theory is to show that Poland, and therefore NATO, poses a real existential threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. As a matter of fact, several media outlets (e.x. Rambler, Svobodnaya Pressa) have jumped on the bandwagon to promote this conspiracy to the public and thus reinforce the notion that Poland is the enemy of the Russian Federation.
“Coronavirus May Deprive Russia of Kaliningrad”
“Viral Annexation of Kaliningrad Will Result in Collapse of Poland”
CONSPIRACY II – “CORONAVIRUS IS A MAN-MADE DISEASE AND THE U.S. HAS BEEN PLANNING IT ALL ALONG”
Both articles describe conspiracies that have already been circulating around the Internet for months. Looking from broader perspective it seems that Sputnik News and minfo.lt simply copied both stories and adapted them to local audiences by translating into Lithuanian. Although it is difficult to say when or where these conspiracies rose to Russian media’s attention, it would be safe to claim that perpetrators of such ideas had a clear aim to demonise U.S. and thus portray it as an evil power wanting to control the human population and using COVID-19 as a bioweapon.
“Viral 9/11 – Another American Plan?”
“Roger Stone Claims Bill Gates May Have Spread the Coronavirus to Start Human Microchipping”
*This chart indicates the overall volume of articles with keywords “plot” and “COVID-19” in both Lithuanian-language and Russian-language media. It is clear that Russian-language media outlets focused far more resources on the distribution of articles meant to seed confusion and skepticism among Russian-speakers in Lithuania.
HYBRID (CARBON-COPIED CONSPIRACIES WITH A REGIONAL SPIN)
CONSPIRACY III – “COVID-19 CRISIS WILL DESTROY THE WESTERN MULTILATERAL ORDER AND NATO WILL FALL AS A RESULT.”
“Foreign Forces Are Bringing Coronavirus to the Baltic Countries Instead of Security”
“Article 5 Did Not Work: NATO Collapses from Coronavirus Blows”
Both articles aim to portray NATO as either weak, dangerous or obsolete. The first article focuses on NATO’s susceptibility to the disease and supposed dangers (e.g. viral infections spread by troops) that it might bring to the Baltic states. Therefore, readers of this article were most likely left with an impression that NATO forces possess an existential threat to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The second article shares conspiratorial ideas about a rapidly decreasing Euro-Atlantic unity due to NATO’s supposed refusal to help Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
*An increase of Lithuanian-language articles mentioning “NATO” and “COVID-19” starting on March 16th could be explained by the fact that on that exact date Lithuanian media announced U.S.’ decision to roll back Military Exercise Defender Europe-20 due to coronavirus outbreak. As a result, pro-Kremlin media rushed to mock such decision and present the U.S as unreliable and untrustworthy when it comes to U.S commitments to NATO, European Allies and Partners.
*A considerable increase in Russian-language articles mentioning “NATO” and “COVID-19” over period of 23rd and 29th of March can be seen in the chart. This could be explained by the fact that on March 23rd, 2020, Russia sent its medical personnel to Italy. Later, this move of “solidarity” was needled with criticism by the international press as it appeared that 80% of the convoy with aid was unusable and was most likely just a PR stunt to advance Russia’s geopolitical goals.
– Pro-Kremlin media continuously employs conspiracy theories to support its foreign policy goals, portray NATO as weak, dangerous or obsolete and inflict distrust in the Western world.
– Russia is actively using wire-services to spread anti-U.S and anti-NATO articles in Lithuania in attempts to change public attitudes.
– Pro-Kremlin media adapts conspiracies depending on on-going issues in different regions and and thus allows different conspiracy typologies to co-exist in the Russian and Lithuanian media spheres.
– While some globally-known conspiracy theories may seem humorous, one’s spread by the Kremlin are way more malicious as they target structures that ensure social and geopolitical stability.
This report has been written by Ernestas Taranas in cooperation with the International Republican Institute as part of the Beacon Project.