#ElectionWatch: Influencers on Facebook Pivot to Support a Latvian Party
Facebook pages and groups started to promote a single political party prior to Latvian elections without explanation
Several influential channels on Facebook pivoted from their primary topics — engaging memes, selling water and providing an informal marketplace for people living in a Latvian city — to promotional material for a new Latvian political party “Kam Pieder Valsts” (KPV LV).
The channels built a large follower base by sharing engaging, nonpolitical content, shifted to political content ahead Latvian parliament elections scheduled for October 6.
This strategy was reminiscent of one used by another political party in Latvia “Saskana”. @DFRLab reported about the party’s attempt to mislead the followers of a Facebook page Riga Online, by renaming it and merging the follower base together with the party’s official page.
In the case of KPV LV, pages and groups did not bother to rebrand. Instead, the Facebook channels just pivoted to support a single political force.
The political party “Kam Pieder Valsts” (KPV LV), which translates into “Who Owns the Country” from Latvian, is running one of the most active pre-election campaigns on social media.
The party was founded in May 2016, by Artuss Kaimins, a Latvian actor and parliamentarian who was originally elected in 2014 from the Latvian Association of Regions. He became well known for his radio show “Sunu Buda” (dog kennel), in which he invited Latvian politicians and celebrities, then made fun of them. In the Latvian parliament, Kaimins also gained a reputation for filming parliamentary sessions as reality shows.
Another leader of KPV LV and the party’s Prime Minister candidate, Aldis Gobzems, joined the party in May 2018. Before he was best known as attorney for many civil cases against a local supermarket chain, “Maxima.” One if its supermarket buildings collapsed in November 2013, leaving 54 people dead.
In June, Kaimins and another member of his party, Atis Zakatistovs, were arrested on suspicion of unlawful funding of KPV LV. On June 21, Kaimins and Zakatistovs were released, but the investigation was still ongoing as of the time of this report.
The party’s Facebook page has over 12,700 followers. Its leaders also have influential Facebook profiles. As of August 2018, Kaimins had 52,833 Facebook followers, and Gobzems had 13,756 followers. For comparison, this is less than the leader of the party “Saskana” Nils Usakovs (217,015 followers), but more than the President of Latvia Raimonds Vejonis (19,607 followers).
Additionally, at least 30 other KPV LV candidates have Facebook pages.
<<KPV LV has also some influential online supporters that are not fully transparent in their support for the party.>>
A musician named Robert Ox (Roberts Memmens), who claimed that he had no prior affiliation with the party, released a song that indirectly promoted KPV LV on June 25. In the video, Robert Ox walked around Riga city and the coastline of Riga Bay, wearing a t-shirt with KPV LV’s slogan “The country has to start with itself” in Latvian. The back of the shirt featured the KPV logo.
This song is dedicated to our nation because this is us, who own our country! Please share your emotions. Only together we can stand for our nation and change the future.
Two factors cast doubt on this narrative. First, as noted above, his T-shirt carried the party logo and slogan, a piece of direct party branding. Second, KPV LV leader Gobzems shared the video six minutes after it was published on Facebook, late at night on June 25. This suggests that KPV LV’s leadership knew or was notified about the song and helped promoting it.
Another KPV LV supporter that was not transparent about its motivation to promote KPV LV on Facebook was “Memory Water,” a company that sells drinking water for office water dispensers.
Its Facebook page, which has 16,033 followers, shared a video mocking the way the Parliament Coalition Council worked. The Coalition Council is a formation of elected parliamentarians from the parties that formed a coalition.
The bottom line of the video was that the Coalition Council was in fact a group of corrupt parliamentarians who were selling the country to each other.
The video message was a clear outlier from the messages the page shared previously to sell its products. Many of its posts promoted the company’s marketing campaigns or suggested more general advice to change the surrounding world by changing one’s inner world.
The video did not mention KPV LV directly. However, the suggestion to eliminate the Coalition Council is one of the party’s top proposals. KPV LV is the only party that proposes that. The post of the video also used the #ValstijJasakArSevi hashtag, which is KPV LV’s slogan, as featured on Memmens’ T-shirt.
Some Facebook users noticed it and addressed it in the comments about the post published on August 2. The Memory Water Facebook page replied, but did not provide any explanation about any political affiliation with KPV LV.
The use of the KPV LV slogan, accompanying a video promoting one of KPV LV’s main electoral proposals, resembled an undeclared political campaign on behalf of the party. This could be a principled decision by the company to support the party; if so, however, it appears unusual that the company did not declare its decision.
Facebook Pages and Groups
Some influential Facebook pages and groups also pivoted from their primary topics to promoting KPV LV, without providing any explanation to their audiences. Again, this lack of declared support gives the impression of a covert campaign.
Both pages posted about KPV LV simultaneously, according to screenshots posted by @luara_ak.
The page “Esi atbildigs!” had 20,425 likes from people who followed Gobzems’ posts at the time he represented the families of the victims of the Maxima tragedy in court. The page is allegedly owned by Gobzems and it shared relevant information on the legal proceedings oftentimes shared from Gobzems’ private account.
One of the most recent posts shared on both pages with a gap of one minute was a video published on Memory Water’s Facebook page. In the video, the Founder of Memory Water, Janis Plavins, suggested that the current ruling elite is serving foreign interests of the European Union and United States, while increasing taxes and forcing people to leave the country.
This suggests a connection between the three pages, at least in terms of political interest, as KPV LV’s priority is to facilitate remigration to Latvia.
An influential Facebook marketplace group for the city of Liepaja also started promoting KPV LV against its own community guidelines, that forbid posting content from other pages or spam. Its administrator announced a meeting with KPV LV to 45,760 group members.
The same group administrator who posted the invitation also invited the party’s leader Artuss Kaimins to the group a week prior to the post and most likely made him an administrator too.
There were some other smaller Facebook pages that also pivoted to promote KPV LV. A Facebook page “Cita Ogre” that has 5,347 followers started sharing Gobzems’ posts and mocking competing parties while also posting about events and news for the city of Ogre. Another page “Balts Foundation” with 675 followers that previously shared posts and links critical of Latvian government and various politicians started promoting KPV LV and its members.
The newcomer on the Latvian political scene, KPV LV, gained powerful supporters on social media additionally to its already strong social media presence. The influential Facebook groups and pages pivoted from their initial topics and started promoting KPV LV without any explanation to their audiences.
This tactic, while not illegal, is not tranparent. The initial topics of the channels were not connected with the ideas the party promote in its election program, with an exception of “Esi atbildigs!” page that wrote about Gobzems before. The channels did not then provide any explanation for the shift to KPV LV content.
@DFRLab also found information that suggested some degree of coordination between the pages, that were not connected before. It provides a reason to keep monitoring Facebook prior to Latvian elections.