Date: 30 August 2018
Latvia: prison for fake news?
In August, the Latvian police arrested a 21-year-old resident of Riga. He was responsible for the establishment of a network of niche websites spreading fake news across Latvia. This is one of few cases when people spreading fake news on the Internet are penalised. The case of the young Latvian also proves that spreading fake news does not have to be motivated by a political activity, but sometimes it is a way of making easy money on people’s curiosity.
In mid-July, the attention of Latvian media was drawn by information that one of the shopping centres in Riga collapsed. According to media, several hundreds of victims were trapped under the ruins of the building and several people died. Information immediately started spreading in social media. It strongly resembled the case from 2013 when a supermarket in Zolitūde district of Riga collapsed and tens of people were injured. This case was one of the biggest tragedies which happened in Latvia.
Information about the collapse of the “Alfa” shopping centre in Riga this year turned out to be fake. It was disseminated by a niche portal publishing fake news – Redzams.net (currently unavailable on the Internet). This situation instantly outraged the Latvian society. The Minister of Internal Affairs Rihards Kozlovskis called the domestic services to begin the chase after the person who released the fake information.
Fake news as a business
A 21-year-old rap artist Niks Endziņš (Neids) was the owner of the website which released false information. According to data gathered by the investigative journalists of the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism “Re:Baltica”, the young Latvian was in control of the whole network of portals and Facebook profiles which aimed to spread false information on the Latvian Internet. “Re:Baltica” informs that Endziņš targeted at easy money. Endziņš himself stated in an interview that the income from one portal could exceed even 2 000 euro a month. It is not known, of course, if this amount of money was a real income, but it is a fact that the rapper could afford hiring copywriters who were inventing fake content.
Latvian investigative journalists have identified three websites of Endziņš which were the core of the network. Part of them was based on an easy method which entailed the imitation of names of reliable portals. For example, one of the pages identified by “Re:Baltica” was Delffi.lv, which imitated the name of one of the main portals in the state – Delfi.lv (doubled F letter).
Information published on websites belonging to Endziņš were subsequently being spread via social media, especially on aggregating profiles. Then, posts were being shared by fake or bought profiles mimicking ordinary Facebook users. Such a process helped to quickly and efficiently reach a wide audience. Further sharing by ordinary Facebook users contained controversial titles and content of articles.
A youthful gang of fakers
This is not the first time when media mentioned the so-called gangs of fake news. Everybody was aware of such an activity and there were suspicions regarding the possible culprits. But there was a problem with finding a way to cease the youthful gang activity.
The Latvian press claim that 4 boys making money on fake news were operating within the country. The idea was initiated by Raivis Raspopovs who was the first one to establish a network of fake portals which generated incomes. The acquaintance with him enabled Endziņš to create his own pages and channels. Two other teenagers – Arturs and Edgars, entered the business based on the pyramid of relations. Due to the fact that they are minors, their surnames are unknown.
A penalty for stupidity?
The Latvian law still does not provide for a direct punishment for the publication of fake news. Nevertheless, on August 24 Endziņš (21-years-old) was arrested. The police claim that during the investigation it turned out that the suspect was probably swindling money on the Internet. The two minors, Arturs and Edgars, were detained as well. After several hours they were sent home with the ban on leaving their place of residence.
The Latvian case shows that the spread of fake news is not always an attempt to influence the political life, but can also be a way to only make easy money. But the motivation should not influence the punishment of such actions. The actions of the boy may be considered as public disorder and panic-mongering. The key question is whether spreading fake news can be considered as a kind of terrorism and how it relates to the fact that the actions were not motivated by the willingness to manipulate the public opinion, but by silliness. This example in particular shows that the information terrorism is a phenomenon which entails new, proper legislative solutions.
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