#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

(Source: @DFRLab)

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.

KPV LV

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.

Overall, KPV LV is considered to be a populist party that targets the Latvian diaspora and young adults in the country.

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.

The personal Facebook pages of KPV LV’s candidates. The name of the party follows the names and surnames of the candidates. (Source: Facebook.com)

There were also at least ten Facebook groups created for KPV LV’s support. The largest of them had 13,598 members.

<<KPV LV has also some influential online supporters that are not fully transparent in their support for the party.>>

The Musician

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.

Robert Ox wearing KPV LV’s t-shirt in the song’s video. Left (Source: YouTube / Robert Ox); Right: (Source: KPV LV homepage).

The description of the song both on Facebook and YouTube offered no disclosure of any political party affiliation.

It read:

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.

The Latvian Bureau for Combatting and Preventing Corruption suspected Memmens of running a concealed pre-election campaign which was forbidden by the law and called him to testify.

According to Memmens, he produced the song out of his free will, moved by a speech which Kaimins made. He said that he devoted this song to the nation, and not the party.

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.

KPV LV’s Prime Minister candidate shared the song six minutes after it was published on Facebook. Top (Source: Facebook / Robert Ox); bottom: Translated from Latvian: “Therefore go and do! Do good on your way! Wake up, nation! (My thank you are my tears after hearing this song. We truly did not know.).” (Source: Facebook / Robert Ox)

By August 2018, the YouTube video garnered 120,607 views and 3,900 likes. The video on Facebook garnered 208,000 views and 1,800 likes.

Memory Water

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.

Translated from Latvian: “Share this video cartoon ..if you are dissatisfied with how things are now and you are not afraid to express your protest to stop their game. If we all stand up, their game will be over! The world must change in this way too! This is a video cartoon about a Coalition Council session. How do things work? Watch until the end.” (Source: Facebook / Memory Water)

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 most popular comments about the video asked about Memory Water’s political affiliation with KPV LV. (Source: Facebook / Memory Water)

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.

Social media users in Latvia noticed two influential Facebook pages in particular — Esi atbildigs!, which translates as “Be Responsible!”, and Pardomu perles, or “Reflection Pearls” in Latvian.

Tweet by journalist Laura Akmentina translated from Latvian “There is another page — ‘Reflection Pearls.’ It shares Gobzems’ posts exactly at the same time the page ‘Be Responsible’ does. ‘Reflection Pearls’ reaches a completely different audience (34 thousand), because they originally posted jokes, cognitions, memes, etc.” (Source: Twitter / @luara_ak)

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.

The page “Pardomu perles” had 35,946 followers. Before it posted memes and jokes.

Examples of the memes the page “Pardomu perles” shared before. Left, translated from Latvian: “When you buy cheap wine to save money” (Source: Facebook / Pardomu perles). The image on the right shows a bus that goes to “zhopa” that translates “an ass” from Russian. (Source: Facebook / Pardomu perles)

Though the timelines of “Esi atbildigs!” and “Pardomu perles” were not identical, @DFRLab identified the trend of cross-posting the same content in a short time span.

Both pages cross-sharing and cross-posting the same posts just minutes apart. Top left (Source: Facebook / Esi atbildigs!), bottom left (Source: Facebook / Esi atbildigs!), top right (Source: Facebook / Pardomu perles), and bottom right (Source: Facebook / Pardomu perles).

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.

Invitation to a meeting with KPV LV on September 12 at 19:00 in Liepaja, Latvian Society House. The members of the KPV LV board will inform about pre-election news and the party’s election program. The post translated from Latvian: “Everyone is welcome to meet KPV. Let’s ask questions, get answers, discuss. Place: Society House, Liepaja. When: September 12, 19:00. “THE STATE HAS TO START WITH ITSELF”. (Source: Facebook / Pirkt, pārdot, mainīt — Liepāja)

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.

The list of the group’s members suggests that Artuss Kaimins was added to the group recently and made an administrator. (Source: Facebook / Pirkt, pārdot, mainīt — Liepāja)

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.

Conclusion

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.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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