‘We’re at war’: The ‘Lithuanian Elves’ who take on Russian trolls online

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For “Hawk”, Russia declared war against Europe already seven years ago, when it first threatened Ukraine and invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula. Since then, the war never really ended, at least not online. In Lithuania, Russia’s neighbour and the first Soviet republic to declare its independence from the bloc in 1990, an online army of volunteers take to the internet every day to fight the constant stream of Russian fake news and propaganda.

During the day, he works normal hours, at a normal job with a normal title. But after hours, and during pretty much any break he gets, this 50-something father-of-two turns into an online warrior, fighting Russian trolls under the nom-de-guerre Hawk from his phone or laptop in Vilnius.

“I monitor toxic pages and try to find fake news, mainly on Facebook, because that’s where most Russian trolls are,” he said in a telephone interview with FRANCE 24.

“Disinformation is really dangerous: It poisons brains, and tries to divide people – especially in free societies – lately with lies about the [Covid-19] vaccine and stuff like that.”

More recently, he has also been dedicating some of his time to sharing memes of the Russian army “to show that Russia isn’t as big, scary and terrible as it makes itself out to be.”

Defending Lithuania’s freedom

Hawk began his mission in the summer of 2014, just months after Russia suddenly invaded and annexed Crimea. “It was a wake-up call,” he remembers. “It was a real sign that everything is possible, in a bad sense,” he said, referring to Lithuania’s own proximity and painful history with Russia.

“Look, we were occupied [by the former USSR] for 50 years, and that memory is still pretty fresh over here. A lot of Lithuanian families have relatives that were killed during that time or sent to prison camps in Siberia. So for us, the freedom we have now is very, very important. What we have done in this country in the past 30 years is kind of magic.”

Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, and a year later, just before the USSSR collapsed, it joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC). In 2004, the small country of just under 3 million people, made a further rapprochement to the west – along with its Baltic neighbours Estonia and Latvia – by joining the transatlantic military alliance NATO and the European Union.

But the fear of Russia is still real to this day, and since 15 percent of Lithuania’s population consists of Russian-speakers, Lithuania – like Estonia and Latvia – has become an easy and frequent target for any fake news stemming from its much larger eastern neighbour.

Seeing what was happening in Ukraine in 2014, Hawk and a few of his friends got scared, and decided to found an online resistance movement: The Lithuanian Elves.

“With what was going on, we felt it was not enough to just sit and watch TV and discuss things. We felt like we needed to do something, and decided it was quite easy to put up a fight on the internet.”

‘I don’t tell anyone I’m an Elf’

Although the grassroots movement started out small – “a small group of friends, and then friends inviting friends” – the Elves now have an army of around 4,000 volunteers in Lithuania.

“Most of us are really dedicated and spend every free minute we have on the Elves, searching and monitoring,” he said, estimating his own weekly input with the Elves at around 20 hours.

“We are really a pain in the ass for the Russians because they have to pay for their troll farms, but we’re doing this for free, meaning we’re decreasing their efficiency a lot.”

Like Hawk, most Elves try to stay under the radar, rarely revealing their links to the group to avoid coming under personal attack from the trolls. “I don’t tell anyone I’m an Elf, and I don’t talk about the Elves at all. If someone asks me about them I say ‘yes, I’ve heard about the Elves’, but that’s it.”

Throughout the years, the Elves have witnessed all kinds of fake news seep through into Lithuanian social media, targeting politicians, diplomatic policies or trying to sow general social discord on important topics such as Covid-19, but also frequent attempts to undermine and instill distrust in NATO.

“NATO is the No. 1 target for Russian propaganda here. And it’s always the same type of narrative: that NATO has occupied Baltic countries. And they recycle that fake story about a NATO soldier raping a girl.”

The reason for these consistent troll attacks on NATO, Hawk explained, is because “for the Baltic states, becoming NATO members was our only chance to survive.”

Hawk describes his job with the Elves as a passion mission. “Absolutely. We’re at war. And we will win. I don’t know when, but one day we will win.”