Written by Suzanne Smalley
Weeks after Russia launched its war in Ukraine in February, stories began circulating via Facebook and YouTube that President Vladimir Putin only invaded to destroy a secret laboratory run by the United States and the NATO making a deadly virus.
The messages described Putin as the anti-Western hero saving Eastern Europe from an American scheme: “Unprecedented rage from Washington. Destroyed laboratories in Ukraine where the United States was developing advanced biological weapons against Russia. Reasons for the launch of Russian “special operations”. What to believe? They didn’t admit him to Wuhan either!
The bioweapons story that has spread online and via email in Central and Eastern Europe is just one example of the propaganda coming out of Moscow to justify the war in Ukraine and turn public opinion against the ‘West. While Meta, Twitter and Google say they are working hard to remove these kinds of fake stories from their platforms, it’s nearly impossible to find and challenge all the misinformation circulating online before thousands of people read, share, like or comment. false stories.
This is where the Elves come in.
A loosely organized collective of researchers, activists, tech experts and volunteers from across Central and Eastern Europe, the Elves are ordinary citizens who have banded together to counter Russian disinformation about the war.
“The only remedy is for you to communicate the facts, but that [virus] the narrative works very well because it scares people,” said Bleise, a 38-year-old Czech disinformation researcher who works to debunk plots such as fake biolab papers. (Bleise asked CyberScoop not to use his real name for security reasons).
His goal, along with other elves, is to flag articles or videos for social media platforms, as well as to create and publish an archive of misinformation from Russian troll groups so that researchers and watchdogs misinformation can better detect – and more quickly remove – posts in the future. .
“Trolls are ugly; elves are brilliant creatures that stand up to them,” Hawk, the nom de guerre of a founding father of the movement, told CyberScoop. “Being an elf is quite fashionable and we have a lot of supporters,” Hawk said. “Because you fight against evil.”
Today there are several thousand Elves in chapters in Finland, Germany, and 11 other former Eastern Bloc countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, and Poland. The community includes cybersecurity threat researchers, psychologists, lawyers, marketing experts, and intelligence experts.
The Elves also partner with tech companies offering data analytics and threat intelligence. A member of The Elves said he works for Trend Micro, the global cybersecurity company, and was able to use his expertise to help members hide their true identities.
Disinformation experts say Elves are playing an increasingly important role in monitoring and debunking Russian disinformation. In fact, Elves are perhaps the most important and effective citizen response to misinformation, said Kevin Sheives, associate director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy and former State Department official. specializing in Chinese. disinformation.
“They engage more citizens in defending democratic values and the integrity of their own information space, but also help amplify and augment the daily work of civil society responders against disinformation,” Sheives said. .
While the Elves have grown since the Ukrainian War, the group has been around since 2014, shortly after the Russian invasion of Crimea. At first, the Elves were just a group of three friends responding to Russian misinformation in the comments section of newspaper websites. “It was a pretty primitive way, but that’s where we started,” Hawk said. “Putin pushed us to stop talking and start doing something,” he said.
To date, the Elves have cataloged and worked to disrupt thousands of Russian information operations, pioneering a model of disinformation suppression that experts say has informed the work of organizations such as Digital Forensic Atlantic Council Research Lab and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
“They were fighting disinformation before it was cool,” said Gavin Wilde, disinformation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Russian and Baltic director of the National Security Council. “They established this bootstrap approach to understanding the misinformation landscape and formalized the craft that was to be adopted more widely over the past few years.”
Eto Buziashvili, a Georgia-based disinformation researcher for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said “the Kremlin is quite aware of the army of Elves and that they have a huge network and of course they are worried because these people are located in many countries and they can detect Kremlin operations early.
Once a year, the Elves gather in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, for what is called the Academy of Elves, a conference where members are trained in the latest techniques and tactics to defeat their troll opponents. It’s a place where members of the Elves like Bleise can share their research and their approach to hunting down misinformation.
A mother of two, Bleise spent years lecturing and writing about misinformation before becoming an elf. The work is exhausting, she says. But the community of like-minded people working together with a common goal drives it forward. She said that while some people think the Elves are “mad activists”, those in the know realize that they are largely trained professionals who volunteer their time to the cause.
She said she occasionally meets other elves for coffee to “host a hackathon” and marvels that she works with “some of the best minds in my country”.
In the Czech Republic, which has a community of around 300 Elves, the group is highly organized and hierarchical as its leaders have military training. Specific teams within the community are dedicated to monitoring Telegram, Facebook and Twitter and others are tasked with infiltrating Facebook groups that traffic Russian propaganda.
The members are extremely security conscious, mostly remain anonymous even with each other and use a slogan inspired by the film “Fight Club”, said Adéla Klečková, a disinformation specialist at the German Marshall Fund who published a document. Policy on Elves in January after spending months studying their operations. “Elves never fail to say that ‘The first rule of Elves is that Elves don’t exist.’
Ultimately, Klečková said, Elves just want to make a difference and use the tools at their disposal — the internet, their community, and their intellect — to make a difference. “They are smart, educated people who just care about values like free speech and democracy.”