Last February, as coronavirus numbers began spiking across Europe, the surge in cases was accompanied by another troubling phenomenon: a flood of misinformation. In many countries, social media platforms swelled with conspiracy theories and other distortions about Covid-19. The World Health Organization soon labeled the problem an “infodemic.” If any organization should have been prepared for the moment, it was Debunk EU. The Lithuanian group is dedicated to tracking down and exposing false claims shared online in Eastern Europe, particularly those emanating from Russia.
But sitting at their computers, Viktoras Daukšas and his team were soon overwhelmed. The head of Debunk EU had never seen anything like the wave of misinformation that came with Covid-19. “I would compare it to wartime,” he told Rest of World. “And in wartime, crisis mode is always on.” Daukšas estimated that Debunk EU’s staff members were putting in more than double their usual amount of work, often up to 20 hours a day. It was the most intense period Daukšas had experienced since he began the organization, in 2017, and there was no end in sight.
Before the pandemic, the group was heralded by news outlets like The Financial Times, The Independent, and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, which called its AI-assisted approach an “innovation” that “sets a precedent.” They praised Debunk EU for ingeniously addressing one of the core imbalances with disinformation: It’s cheap to create and spread, while fact-checking is time-consuming and expensive. In 2017, Debunk EU received a nearly $400,000 grant from Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund, and the group also began working in conjunction with Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Rather than identifying individual claims or news articles by itself, Debunk EU relies on artificial intelligence and a massive team of volunteers known as “elves,” who act as a kind of counterforce to Russia’s state-backed army of bots and trolls. Elves are tasked with tracking the spread of harmful conspiracy theories — like that NATO is secretly preparing to invade Belarus, or that Covid-19 vaccines are a way to enrich Bill Gates — as they bubble up on social media and dark corners of the internet.
Debunk EU’s algorithm monitors more than 2,000 news sites, including Russian state outlets such as Sputnik and RT, as well as less obvious sources like news-front.info, which publishes pro-Russia articles by what it says are “volunteer” correspondents. Elves sift through stories that have been automatically flagged and classify them according to the type of disinformation present and where it was spreading. Debunk EU can then post an alert before the article has traveled very far.
To raise awareness about the propaganda it found, Debunk EU partnered with Lithuania’s biggest digital news portal, Delfi. The outlet not only provided an initial grant to Debunk EU, but also published counter-narratives based on the organization’s research that dispelled false claims and strengthened the public’s ability to spot them. Unlike other similar initiatives, Debunk EU’s main selling point was that it could operate at a massive scale.
Lithuania is uniquely equipped to deal with Russian disinformation. A small nation of less than three million people, the former Soviet state has long endured military threats and propaganda campaigns from its eastern neighbor, which it regained its independence from in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed. “Our citizens are much more resilient to disinformation because we have had experience with it for at least 100 years,” said Daukšas.
In 2014, after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, the Kremlin began ramping up its propaganda efforts in the neighboring Baltic states, including Lithuania. It was a pivotal moment for one Debunk EU elf, who asked to be referred to by his screen name, Hawk, to protect his safety. Together with a group of around 40 other concerned citizens, he organized the country’s first volunteer effort to counter pro-Russia narratives, which had begun appearing more frequently online. The stories and posts were often designed to sow doubt about Western organizations like NATO and the EU.
The team started small, said Hawk, by debunking comments that spread false, pro-Russia narratives on Facebook. By the time Debunk EU was formally created, three years later, the elves’ ranks had swelled — Hawk now estimates that there are 4,000 of them. The volunteers eagerly supported the organization, which promised to streamline the fact-checking work they were already doing.
Vaidas Saldžiūnas, a defense correspondent at Delfi, helped create Debunk EU alongside Daukšas. Before the organization launched, Delfi built a big red button on its website that readers could click, allowing them to send an email to alert the site to conspiracy theories they had seen. In practice, the feature was mostly used to troll reporters. “People just wrote hate mail — that this is not disinformation and Putin is the greatest man in the world,” Saldžiūnas told Rest of World. Even when Delfi received helpful tips, it was hard for the news outlet to act on them effectively.
Debunk EU allowed Delfi to rely instead on AI technology and the elves, who helped create more efficient tools to track disinformation. “When those guys at Debunk showed us the capability that the Google funding helped to create, it was a bit like science fiction,” said Saldžiūnas. Then the coronavirus pandemic happened.
Suddenly, Debunk EU was encountering new conspiracy theories, disseminated in ways it hadn’t seen before. Saldžiūnas said that Russian trolls were using email spoofing, a method similar to phishing, which allowed them to masquerade as prominent individuals, like the secretary general of NATO, and send messages filled with false claims. Even Saldžiūnas’s email account had been targeted, and Debunk EU had no way to detect the threat.
There was another glaring obstacle: Debunk EU’s mission was to identify foreign propaganda, not misinformation spread by Lithuanian’s own citizens. “We are not a fact-checking organization that fact-checks political claims,” Daukšas said. “Our work is more to educate than shame.” But the line between foreign and domestic disinformation had now been blurred. As in the United States and elsewhere, many Lithuanians were unknowingly sharing fabrications about the pandemic.
Additionally, disinformation was no longer concentrated primarily in outlets affiliated with Russia. Instead, it was spreading through private social media groups, especially by users who had faced backlash for posting their views in public forums. “We started to notice these wild, crazy stories about the coronavirus [on Facebook], and the amount of people clicking and sharing those stories was just staggering,” Saldžiūnas told Rest of World.
The problem spilled over into the real world. People in Lithuania showed up at hospitals in an effort to prove that the pandemic wasn’t real. In response, medical centers hosted special events with media organizations for the public to witness “dying patients and the dead,” said Saldžiūnas.
During the Covid-19 crisis — in the words of former Trump adviser and disinformation connoisseur Steve Bannon — the zone was flooded with shit. Around May, Debunk EU expanded its efforts into Latvia and Estonia. In late 2020, it began tracking disinformation on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Still, it wasn’t enough. Even with Debunk’s AI tool and an army of elves, it couldn’t keep up.
Saldžiūnas and Delfi also took a step back from their partnership with Debunk EU. They continued to use the organization’s tool and analyses but ceased funding it directly. By that point, Debunk EU had evolved into more of an independent organization. In 2020, it began publishing its own analyses and articles, a task that previously fell to Delfi. Debunk EU still works with the portal, the elves, and other NGOs, but for the most part it operates autonomously.
Now, as a second wave of Covid-19 engulfs Europe, Debunk EU hopes that its elves and algorithm will be more prepared to handle the flood. Last summer, as the country’s case count dropped, the organization made a series of changes to better deal with the crisis. The pandemic was no longer new, making it easier for Debunk EU’s software to recognize conspiracy theories that had appeared previously. The organization also continued expanding into other countries, including Poland; it currently operates in 26 languages. It also launched the Lithuanian version of an online game called Bad News that trains people to spot disinformation. It’s been used by more than 100,000 people, according to the group.
“Our model is fully scalable,” said Daukšas, although the organization’s future still depends on the generosity of outside backers. The disinformation-tracking space is crowded with dozens of similar projects, all vying for the same grants from tech companies and nonprofits. (Debunk EU plans to add a public donate function on its website soon.)
Funding challenges are a symptom of the larger problem facing Debunk EU. Because disinformation comes in so many forms — foreign and domestic, traditional media and social media, email spoofing and Twitter bots — it’s nearly impossible for any one organization to keep up. It’s also unclear whether debunking always makes a difference. A recent literature review conducted by a University of Alberta researcher found that evidence supporting debunking’s ability to change minds is uneven at best, though the study noted that efforts like Debunk EU should certainly still continue.
No single organization can hope to address the central challenge with disinformation: that so many people are willing to believe it. Even if Debunk EU were to find and discredit every propaganda campaign online, many Lithuanians would still fall for them. Saldžiūnas thinks the government should do more to improve education in skills like critical thinking. “That’s part of the problem,” he said. “The whole disinformation thing will not go away anytime soon.”