Anti-government activists in Latvia openly recruit anonymous trolls
Previous activities involved active amplification of COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracies.
Anti-government activists in Latvia openly recruit anonymous trolls
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BANNER: People queue up outside a mass vaccination centre as Latvia opens walk in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination scheme in Riga, Latvia, April 16, 2021. (Source: REUTERS/Janis Laizans)
Two anti-government political activists in Latvia publicly called for help establishing a network of fake social media accounts, with the objective to fight an “information war” and create a “troll farm” on social media.
While engagement on the social media posts comprising this case study was not particularly high, engagement on one of these accounts was high enough within Latvia to outpace that of the country’s most popular media outlet, Delfi.lv. Given the nature of these accounts, this raises the possibility that incorrect information from dubious sources could be spreading farther than more fact-based reporting from a respected mainstream news source. Access to accurate, high-quality information is of particular concern in a country that has hovered near the top of the list of countries with the highest new daily confirmed COVID‑19 cases per capita.
The two users identified by this investigation appear to have acted independently, and neither took steps to obscure their identities. The first, Kristine Barbare, runs Brivibas Platforma, which regularly spreads mis- and disinformation about many topics including, COVID-19. The second, Janis Sondars, is a fringe political activist who regularly collaborates with Tautas Varas Fronte, a populist anti-establishment collective previously covered by the DFRLab.
Both activists seem to follow the anti-government movement that some more visible political and opinion leaders with business interests are actively promoting and exploiting in Latvia. The act of recruiting fake accounts publicly shows that both Barbare and Sondars seek to proliferate their preferred narratives online through artificial amplification.
Public calls to create a “troll farm”
Kristine Barbare is the owner of various assets spreading mis- and disinformation under the name Brivibas Platformas Biedri (“Members of Platform of Freedom”). She runs a Telegram channel, a Facebook page and a Facebook group, all of which are used to amplify stories published on the Brivibas Platforma website. On September 15 and 16, 2021, Barbare used Telegram to ask her followers for assistance in creating realistic, but fake, Facebook accounts. She asked for advice on how to avoid detection by Facebook’s automated systems, seeking information about VPNs and how to mask an IP address when creating an account. “Can someone apply to me privately to help in making believable fake facebook accounts?” she wrote. It would be very necessary in joint information war for the Light side.”
Over a month later, a similar public call appeared on Janis Sondars’s Facebook account in which he made a vague request for people to join him in “political activities,” insinuating that they would be part of a troll farm. “You will need to cast spells by the computer…for the common good,” he wrote. “I want to make a gang of people who want to changes something…We will build a troll farm..so that NATO STRATCOM is not the only one with its troll farm.”
While the two are friends on Facebook, there was no evidence to suggest that both individuals coordinated their efforts before or after their respective posts.
Conspiracy aggregator and amplifier
As the co-creator and administrator of Brivibas Platforma, Kristine Barbare curates and amplifies misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19, vaccinations, 5G mobile networks, an alleged global governance cabal, and other topics.
On March 20, 2021, Barbare published a post on her Facebook account that explained how to contribute to the site. The post called on people to join her Facebook and Telegram groups, send in videos and articles for publishing on the site, share and amplify Brivibas Platforma’s posts, and donate to the project via her personal bank account.
The call to help create the network of fake social media accounts seems to be another means by which Barbare intends to amplify the malign content aggregated by Brivibas Platforma.
The Brivibas Platforma Facebook page has operated since September 20, 2020. According to a query using social media listening tool BuzzSumo, its total traffic is relatively small compared to pages in other countries, but it nevertheless garners almost four times more engagement on average on any single article than those of Delfi.lv, the most popular online news site in Latvia. Its content is also seven times more engaged-with on average than content published by LSM, Latvia’s public broadcaster, and six times more engaged-with than Kremlin-owned media outlet Spuntik Latvia.
A Facebook group hosted by Barbare has 2,026 members, and its administrator list features other well-known Latvian disinformation and conspiracy pushers as moderators of the group, including Andris Ciekurs, Aivis Vasilevskis, and Kristine Liepina.
Andris Ciekurs, one of the group’s administrators, is known for his Facebook page Gaismas Timeklis (“The Web of Light”), which started off posting on esoteric topics before later turning to amplifying disinformation about 5G mobile networks, COVID-19, and “lawlessness” within the Latvian legal system, among other topics. For instance, his page published a translation of a conspiracy originally pushed by British conspiracy theorist David Icke claiming that COVID-19 does not exist and that it is, in fact, 5G cell towers that are making people sick.
At the time of its creation, Ciekurs publicly posted that he was going to be a central part of Brivibas Platforma’s operations.
As Ciekurs explained in his video about the launch of Brivibas Platforma in September 2020, Gaismas Timeklis remains focused on “more spiritual” topics, while Brivibas Platforma covers “practical aspects” of life. In another post to the page, Ciekurs mentioned that Barbare is the page’s co-creator, but Barbare later publicly acknowledged that they are no longer working on the page together as their visions about its development did not match.
Aivis Vasilevskis is another author and amplifier of conspiracy theories in Latvia. The Facebook page he manages, Patiesiba ir visapkart — atver acis (“The Truth is Everywhere — Open your Eyes”), is also listed as a moderator of the Brivibas Platformas Biedri Facebook group. More recently, Vasilevskis has turned to creating video content, hosting his own alternative news show on Facebook called Brivibas Modinatajs (“The Freedom Alarm”) and appearing on episodes of Brivvalsts TV (“Freestate TV”). At least one video on the Brivvalsts TV Facebook page has a disclaimer noting that Facebook fact-checkers found it contains false information. Barbare has been amplifying Vasilveskis’ content on Facebook since 2017.
Kristine Liepina, another of the listed administrators for the Brivibas Platformas Biedri group, is known for pushing disinformation as well. In 2017, the DFRLab reported about false information Liepina shared on social media citing a taxi driver who said that NATO soldiers are living on Latvian society’s expense while in fact the costs were “covered by the defense budget of NATO or a Canadian-led combat group, depending on the specific cost position.” When the global pandemic broke out, Liepina wrongly suggested that activated charcoal and a cold shower would cure COVID-19. Barbare has been sharing Liepina’s posts since 2016.
Barbare is an online-only activist and has no history of participating in offline political actions. She maintains a low-profile and avoids public appearances. Her personal online history reveals that she sells handmade rugs, writes poetry, and often posts inspirational quotes.
A fringe political activist
Janis Sondars is best characterized as a fringe political activist whose methods of expression include harassment, provocation, and vulgarities. Sondars also has a history of promoting an alternative worldview through his writing for the now defunct Tautasmediji.tv, an alternative news site which operated from 2013 until 2017. In 2013, he proposed an initiative to demolish the Latvian Monument of Freedom, an important symbol of the country’s independence so that Latvian society could “stop lying to itself about Latvian democracy and independence illusion.”
Of late, he has actively participated in activities with the Tautas Varas Fronte anti-establishment movement. Valentins Jeremejevs, one of the leaders of Tautas Varas Fronte, was detained by the police for spreading false news about doctors poisoning patients on purpose and for stating that hospitals were empty, when in fact they were near capacity treating COVID-19 patients. Jeremejevs was later released on a bail of 50,000 Euros.
Most recently, Sondars faced charges for harassing Juris Puce, a member of Latvia’s parliament who is a member of the Attistibai/Par political party, part of Latvia’s governing coalition.
In the incident that led to the charges, Sondars publicly followed Puce with a video camera and tried to provoke him to react by calling him vulgarities such as “son of a bitch.” He also threatened Puce by saying,“You will all face trial, by the highest penalty, I hope that by that time hanging or shooting will be renewed.” The video was first published on one of Sondars’s social media accounts before being republished on Twitter; Sondars later removed his own post of the video, but the re-published video continued to circulate. The tweet tagged the official Twitter account for the state police, who then replied that a department investigation was started. On October 29, 2021, police detained Sondars but released him on November 1. Now Tautas Varas Fronte leader Valentins Jeremejevs is among those raising money for Sondars’ lawyer around the Puce case.
This is not the first time Sondars has faced possible prosecution. In December 2019, Re:Baltica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, went public about a person that harassed journalists by calling them on phones, including by sending vulgar and inappropriate messages and bringing a funeral wreath to Re:Baltica’s newsroom. A couple days later, after the police announced that they had started criminal investigation, Sondars published his version of events in which he refuted accusations of harassment and persecution.
Sondars’s and Barbare’s previous and most recent public-facing activities show that both share an anti-government worldview and seek to disseminate similar sentiments potentially through the use of fake social media accounts.
Cite this case study:
Nika Aleksejeva, “Anti-government activists in Latvia openly recruit anonymous trolls,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), November 10, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/anti-government-activists-in-latvia-openly-recruit-anonymous-trolls-3fb5b0f42e74.