Fringe influencers exploit COVID-19 disinfo for political gain in Latvia
One influencer mobilized an anti-government protest in Riga while several fringe political figures peddled COVID-19 conspiracy theories
Latvian Facebook influencers who regularly produce and amplify COVID-19 disinformation mobilized their supporters to attend an anti-government protest against COVID-19 prevention measures. These influencers have all dabbled in Latvian politics before, and the pandemic has provided them an opportunity for increased visibility and attention.
In the United States, Spain, Germany, and elsewhere, activists have organized protests against government-imposed measures to combat COVID-19, such as mandated mask-wearing and physical distancing requirements. These protests have often been organized online, fueled by the spread of COVID-19 misinformation on social media platforms.
On Saturday, December 12, 2020, one such protest took place in Riga, Latvia. One of the main organizers of the protest, Janis Plavins, is an entrepreneur who previously ran unsuccessfully in Riga’s municipal elections. Plavins has frequently amplified two other fringe influencers previously involved in local politics: Aldis Gobzems, who live-streamed the protest, and Sandris Tocs, who filmed it while driving by. These influencers have used the pandemic as an opportunity to spread falsehoods and discourage public health measures to undermine the current government.
In various Facebook livestreams of the event, numerous attendees were interviewed expressing disdain for social distancing measures and the wearing of facemasks in public places, echoing falsehoods about COVID-19 and public health previously amplified by the organizers of the event. While organizers claimed there were at least 5,000 people in attendance, the crowd seemed to be closer in size to several hundred.
COVID-19 disinformation narratives
At the protests, many people interviewed by Tautas Varas Fronte, a movement that advocates for direct democracy in Latvia and previously called for the dissolution of the Latvian parliament, expressed their dissatisfaction with government restrictions introduced to combat COVID-19.
For instance, one woman said on camera, “They write down that it is COVID. There is no such thing as COVID and there will not be. It is a simple flu.” (1:02:25). Another man similarly expressed disbelief in COVID-19, adding, “I have an offer for Latvian Television to do a show. If you want, I can lick ever public door lock, because I am not afraid of the virus.” (1:16:26).
Many people interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with requests for children to wear facemasks. One woman said: “It is a scientific fact that if kids wear masks for so long, their brain cells get damaged, which is an irreversible process.” (31:51) The woman repeated a common false claim that face masks allegedly “cause terrible damage to the brain by depriving it of oxygen.”
Similar opinions were expressed in a video produced by the video production team Edarttv.
A man in the video cited a false story about a kid in Germany who suffocated on a bus because of a face mask. “I am tired of political theatre, which is unnecessary,” he said. “Masks for kids. I was in Germany and I saw. Not I saw, but people knew what they were talking about. A kid suffocated while riding in a bus. Germany wanted to flip the story that he had health issues, but the mask was the reason. People knew it.” (5:01)
Many people at the event protested against mandatory vaccination, despite the fact that Ilze Vinkele, the Latvian Minister of Health, told media on December 1, 2020, that vaccination would be voluntary. Media repeated this statement by using it in headlines on December 11, 2020, as well. A few people expressed skepticism about the safety of vaccines. For instance, one man said: “Remember, you must not take a vaccine shot. First of all, the vaccine was developed in a few months.” (26:29) As WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan explained, though, the vaccine was developed quickly because vaccine developers “were thinking ahead and doing things in parallel,” instead of doing “one thing at a time,” as is typical of most vaccine development processes.
Several people interviewed at the protest claimed that a microchip would be inserted along with the COVID-19 vaccine: “These are not vaccines, these are chips. It is chipping to control people.” (7:33) This is a viral conspiracy theory that started circulating around the world in the spring of 2020.
Other people also mentioned global conspiracies as the reason why they are protesting. For instance, one man said: “This all is a conspiracy by Soros. They want to constrain us to reduce global warming and CO2, so they came up with this idea.” (1:50:03). Another man said: “This is a big plan by globalists to enslave humanity interdimensionally.” (36:49)
The attendees of the event echoed false stories, disinformation narratives, and conspiracy theories that have spread on social media since the start of the pandemic.
Disinformation authors express political goals
Disinformation about a kid in Germany dying from wearing a face mask was published on a page called Mainampasauli.news, managed by Janis Plavins, an entrepreneur who sells “structured water,” a term often used in health marketing scams, under the brand Memory Water. In April 2020, Plavins posted false claims on Facebook alleging that Bill Gates is using compulsory COVID-19 vaccination as a pretext to insert microchips in people that can be controlled via 5G networks. His post was debunked and marked on Facebook as false; nevertheless, people at the event on December 12 repeated the falsehoods.
Plavins previously ran in Riga’s municipal elections but was not a seriously competitive candidate. He frequently promotes Aldis Gobzems, a politician in Latvia who is an independent member of the parliament who broadcasted live on Facebook from the event on December 12. Some attendees of the event asked, “Where is he Gobzems, who was talking?” (00:02) This suggested that some of those at the demonstration saw Gobzems as a political leader.
Despite his following — Gobzems’ Facebook page has 53,714 followers — Gobzems has had trouble breaking into the political mainstream in Latvia. In February 2019, he was excluded from the KPV LV’s faction in parliament. He attempted to establish a new party in November 2020 but was not successful due to restrictions on campaigning to comply with COVID-19 social distancing measures.
This is not the first time Plavins has promoted Gobzems. The DFRLab previously reported about inauthentic tactics Gobzem’s party at the time, KPV LV, used on Facebook ahead of the Latvian parliamentary elections in 2018. One of these tactics involved using Plavins’ brand’s Facebook page, Memory Water, to promote the party.
Gobzems has previously encouraged people to disobey the requirement to wear face masks indoors in public spaces, including in shops.
Both Plavins and Gobzems promoted posts by Sandris Tocs, a political commentator who used to be press secretary for Nils Usakovs, the former Riga mayor and a leader of the Saskana party, which was previously closely linked with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Tocs was not at the protest organized by Plavins — but he filmed a portion of it from his car while he was driving by and posted the footage on Facebook. Through the pandemic, Tocs has advocated against COVID-19 prevention measures and sowed distrust in vaccines by falsely claiming that vaccines would infect people.
Mainam Pasauli, a website that regularly shares COVID-19 conspiracy theories, posted about an NGO that Tocs established in August 2020, the Democracy Protection Union. The NGO associates itself with Raimonds Rublovskis and Raimonds Nitis, former elected city representatives in Riga, both of whom were mired in a recent corruption scandal. Elina Dreimane, the former director of the Latvian State Chancellery, is also among the members. Dreimane has been denied access to state secrets, and is now a board member at Latvijas Gaze, a company that buys gas, mostly from Russia, and sells it in Latvia and abroad. The NGO has a Facebook page that previously amplified Sandris Tocs’ activities, including video interviews and live Facebook broadcasts.
Cite this case study:
Nika Aleksejeva, “Fringe influencers exploit COVID-19 disinfo for political gain in Latvia,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), January 8, 2021, https://dfrlab.org/2021/01/08/fringe-influencers-exploit-covid-19-disinfo-for-political-gain-in-latvia.