How Czech elves are fighting Russian disinformation
The Kremlin is relying on an armada of internet trolls to spread false information and propaganda. Now, some brave people in the Baltics and the Czech Republic are fighting back in the digital space: the elves.
Armies of brave elves taking down dark hordes of ugly trolls in an ideological conflict over the future of humankind. No, this is not the beginning of a thrilling phantasy novel. This is a description of everyday reality in the international virtual space since about 2015 when the first battle group of elves - a voluntary group of people countering Kremlin propaganda and disinformation on the internet - was established.
Starting as a small group of twenty enthusiasts in Lithuania, the elves’ movement has now established stable structures with hundreds of volunteers in four European countries and is expected to grow further. The newest addition to the troops of these not so mythological warriors? No surprise, it is the regional leader in countering hybrid warfare practices: the Czech Republic.
A brief history of elves and trolls
For those who are for some reason not over head and ears into the newest trends of hybrid warfare and hostile propaganda, this whole terminology might be a bit confusing. Let me start by telling the ancient and violent history of conflict between trolls and elves.
It all dates back to 2014 with the Russian occupation of Crimea. In order to manipulate the minds of Ukrainians and to make others believe that occupation of foreign territory is actually a legitimate thing to do, the Kremlin renewed its old practices of manipulation and propaganda, which became to be known as the Gerasimov doctrine.
A crucial part of this doctrine is to manipulate the minds of people by malicious practices such as the spread of disinformation, fabricated information and meddling with public narratives. This is done by different amplifiers like unethical journalists and corrupt politicians. One of the most efficient means, however, turned out to be internet trolls – supported by increasing funding from the Kremlin. These trolls are creatures of chaos who prey on frustration and anger of others by deliberately disrupting, attacking or generally causing trouble within the community by posting certain comments, photos, videos, GIFs or some other form of online content.
Since every good story needs to have a hero, this one is no exception. Our hero works as an investigative journalist in Finland and her name is Jessikka Aro. In early 2014, Aro discovered a main troll lair - a building in Saint Petersburg, which was later nicknamed by the media as a troll factory. She delivered a first proof of trolls being not only very well organized but also connected to the Kremlin as part of a broader strategy. Aro suffered for her heroic act. Trolls stalked and harassed her with various threats.
As a response to the creeping threat of trolls, the Baltic elves were established. They grew slowly but steadily and soon their organisation gradually proliferated into other Baltic countries and eventually into the Czech Republic.
About Czech elves
Czech units unofficially established themselves in late 2018. However, the group announced its official existence only a few days ago by launching its webpage, which should serve as an archive of all indicated hostile narratives.
Even though the Baltic elves have served as a role model for the Czech group, neither the structure nor the mission copies the Baltic strategy completely. As the Kremlin hybrid strategy gets better and more tailor-made to the specific media and cultural landscape of each targeted country, so does the elves’ one.
While the Baltic elves are primarily focussing on publicly countering the pro-Kremlin narratives and engaging in discussions on social media or commentary sections below articles, the Czech approach is more subtle.
They primarily concentrate on monitoring the media landscape, analysing the different narratives and mapping hostile influence. The results of their work are for the most part publicly available on their webpage. However, some of their internal databases are believed to be confidential and even though it has not been, for obvious reasons, officially confirmed by neither party, they are believed to cooperate with the Czech authorities.
The other difference is the Czech social media environment. For example, Twitter only has about 300.000 Czech users, which does not make it a prominent territory for trolls to be active in. Therefore, one of the main channels for Kremlin propaganda in the Czech virtual space has come to be the infamous chain emails.
The universal definition of a chain email is an unsolicited e-mail containing false information for the purpose of scaring, intimidating, or deceiving the recipient. Unlike the usual ones, the Czech emails do neither offer time limited business proposal on investing into diamond mines in Libya nor do they sell new pills for permanent erection or instant loss of weight.
Czech chain emails are an important amplifier of pro-Kremlin propaganda disseminating fear and distrust among its recipients. The main problem is the lack of transparency. Legally speaking, chain emails are still part of private email communication. There are no tools, which would allow control or monitoring of this channel of false news.
To make the situation even more complex, chain emails in the Czech Republic are typically targeted to the elderly, who lack digital media literacy and therefore more vulnerable to false information. Older people are also much more likely to forward emails. Even emails, which are teaching senior citizens how to forward other emails to all of their contacts, were discovered.
So what do the Czech elves do? They primarily focus on monitoring hostile influences, identifying the main sources and amplifiers, creating large databases of pro-Kremlin trolls and archiving the chain emails they discover. This data is being made available to NGOs as well as state officials.
We all need to be elves
How can one join the elves’ mission, you may ask? Journalists, analysts, NGOs and academics are doing an even more important job: educating the broad public. Media literacy and critical thinking are the most powerful weapons, which can be employed to fight malicious foreign narratives.
However, fighting Kremlin propaganda is like fighting the mythological hydra. The moment one head is cut off, there are two more popping up, each smarter, more sneaky and better financed than the previous one. I am not sure whether this story of ultimate bravery and sacrifice will have a happy ending.
We are all potential heroes and victims in this ideological fight over values, hearts and minds. We all need to fight our battles by verifying information, acting politely in the virtual space and not reproducing simple lies told by populists. However, it is good to know that there are hundreds of unpaid, enthusiastic and brave warriors out there in digital space.
Adéla Klečková is program manager for the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Central Europe and the Baltics.