The Russian government is spreading propaganda disguised as news using three websites in the Baltics, a news investigation has found.
The Baltnews sites in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were supposedly neutral, independent news websites that avoided tricky political territory, but an investigation found the sites were funded by companies created by Russian state media company Rossiya Segodnya.
The websites, launched in late 2014, appear to be just one of the ways Russia is attempting to influence world politics online. This time, the aim was to turn the Baltic regions back to the East by publishing select stories.
The discoveries were made as part of an investigation by BuzzFeed News, Estonian newspaper Postimees, and Re:Baltica. Journalists acquired Skype transcripts showing regular communication between Aleksandr Kornilov, a member of an NGO for Russian people in Estonia who set up the Baltnews sites, and Aleksandr Svyazin, an employee of Rossiya Segodnya.
In many of these communications, Svyazin dictates issues for Baltnews in Estonia to cover, such as a United States Navy battleship entering the Black Sea, Greece possibly leaving the Euro and the conflict in Crimea.
The pair also discussed upcoming events, with Svyazin asking Kornilov for a weekly list, according to the Skype conversations.
One 2015 conversation published by Buzzfeed reads:
Svyazin: "Aleksandr, show up please!"
Svyazin: "San, hello! I have a task. Every day you need to report on three of the five topics that we will suggest."
After being given a list of topics, Kornilov agrees, replying, “understood”.
Svyazin denied any links to Baltnews when contacted by Buzzfeed.
As well as ordering topics to be covered, Svyazin also sent material to be published on at least one occasion. This included five surveys sent to Kornilov by Svyazin on December 18, 2014.
Although the Skype conversations and other documents obtained by journalists relate only to the Estonian version of Baltnews, it is thought other portals are run in a similar way.