Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Sirius-XM radio DJ Nancy Alden (from left), two  members of the legendary Lithuanian rock band “Poliarizuoti Stiklai” and Linas Johansonas at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's radio station DJ booth at the Rock Hall in Cleveland, Sept. 2016.

Fighting Fake News, Twisted History & Cyber Trolls: The 24/7 Lithuanian Life of Linas Johansonas

Sandy Baksys.

Ruta Degūtis president of Lithuanian American Citizens Club (l.) and Linas Johansonas in 2016.
Ruta Degūtis president of Lithuanian American Citizens Club (l.) and Linas Johansonas in 2016 in the Gintaras Dining Room at the Lithuanian Club in Cleveland.

If his voice is a little ragged and his words come out rapid-fire, that’s because Linas Johansonas, 57, is simultaneously living two very full “Lithuanian lives.” His first life is grounded in Cleveland, Ohio’s 18,000 square-foot Lithuanian Community Center, where Johansonas assists Rūta Degutis, president of the Lithuanian American Citizens Club, with publicity and other nuts and bolts of the Club’s daily schedule of events.

Johansonas’ second life is anchored in cyberspace: his influential Facebook page, where 24/7, he vets and posts, in English, the most interesting news from anywhere in “the Lithuanian world.”

Johansonas sees one of his primary missions as educating his followers in Lithuania about the “Lithuania abroad.” That “abroad” today includes places as far-flung as Zimbabwe and South Korea.

To develop an increasingly informed, patriotic, and united Lithuanian cyber community—the virtual analog of his bricks-and-mortar community-building in Cleveland—Johansonas posts everything from Lithuanian patriotic memes to geopolitical, sports, cultural, and entertainment news. In a medium where information is already instantaneous, Johansonas strives to be first-to-market with credible news that has been filtered and verified and reflects Lithuanian life in every corner of the world. (See sidebar story.)

Putin’s Propaganda Machine

Vladimir Putin’s anti-Lithuania information war (documented in the 2014 “War 2020: Russia’s Information Aggression”) inevitably led Johansonas to become one of Lithuania’s staunchest defenders in cyberspace. There is a family tradition here: his father was a World War II Lithuanian partisan, and his paternal grandfather was a colonel during Estonia’s 1918 war of independence. “Patriots have to unite to combat this online Russian propaganda campaign that most people don’t even know about,” adding wryly,  “It’s a lot less painful than getting hit with a bullet and dying.”

On his portal, which has more than 22,500 “likes” and posts that can individually garner a million views, Johansonas says he sticks to posting and lets other readers, some with “a shorter fuse than I have,” take care of the inevitable Russian trolls. However, in the other two Facebook groups that he administers, “The Lithuania Group” and “I Love Lithuanian Food,” he often acts directly as a so-called “elf,” or troll-fighter.

‘Elves’ vs. ‘Trolls’

“It’s a legitimate war; I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Johansonas says, giving the example of the infamous Russian disinformation troll “Magdalena” with multiple accounts photo-profiled by a nun with a machine gun. Johansonas also recalls a fake account mimicking the Lithuanian Embassy in London that had more likes and visitors than the actual embassy portal.

Linas and the late Vytautas Kernagis in Cleveland, 2003.
Linas and the late Vytautas Kernagis in Cleveland, 2003.

“The elves, there are a lot of us, and we are starting to know each other on Facebook and work together in secret Facebook groups where we inform on and vet suspected trolls,” Johansonas explains. To be clear, he says, “Just posting a pro-Russian opinion doesn’t make a person a troll. It could be somebody who just believes what the trolls say. You dialogue with that person online and you try to persuade or convince them.”

On the other hand, he explains, when the majority of “elves” agree in their secret group that an account does belong to a troll, usually after cyber-sleuthing the account-holder’s real identity and location, the “elves” take steps to shut the troll down.

If the propaganda is emanating from Lithuania, local law enforcement is called in because disseminating pro-Soviet or pro-Nazi views is against the law there. But, if, instead, the Russian troll is located in England or the U.S., his or her fake accounts are reported to Facebook. Fortunately, Johansonas says, Facebook shuts down fake accounts whether they are cyber-stalking—or purveying pro-Kremlin propaganda.

‘Career ADD’

Johansonas did not set out to do battle as chief Internet information officer for the Lithuanian world. He describes as “career ADD” his zig-zag through multiple kinds of Lithuanian activism after more than a decade immersed in Cleveland’s rock & roll scene as host of a popular radio program showcasing local rock talent— and longtime promoter of Cleveland’s storied rock & roll venue, the Agora Ballroom.

Linas (r.) ​with Jerry Seinfeld in Cleveland in the early 1990’s.
Linas (r.) ​with Jerry Seinfeld in Cleveland in the early 1990’s.

In the home city of the world-famous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Johansonas’ work put him in contact with personas such as Jerry Seinfeld and the legendary Steve Popovich of Cleveland International Records, who discovered Boston and Meatloaf, signed the Jacksons to Epic Records, and was ultimately responsible for the release of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”’

There was only one thing strong enough to drag Johansonas out of the cradle of rock ‘n’ roll and set him on his “Back to the Future” return to the patriotism of his Lithuanian Saturday school days.

That historic catalyst was January 13, 1991, and how the courage of young patriots like Cleveland’s Linas Muliolis made Johansonas feel “jealous” that he wasn’t manning the barricades and standing in defense of Lithuania’s peaceful struggle for independence.

Soon after innocent Lithuanian lives were lost on that “Bloody Sunday,” in spring 1991, Johansonas made a life-changing first trip to Lithuania. “I saw the tanks around the Vilnius TV tower, the Lenin statue being guarded by Soviet troops in Klaipėda with people singing across a fence with a sign that said, ‘If you cross this fence, you will be shot.’”

From Cleveland to Union Pier

Upon his return to Cleveland, he immediately began injecting a new Lithuanian activism into his music promotions work, first by ordering and selling Lithuanian basketball’s famous tie-dyed “Skullman” jerseys from the Agora theatre, then holding Grateful Dead-tribute benefits there to support the Lithuanian Olympic team.

He joined the board of Cleveland’s Lithuanian Community Center, began working for the local honorary consul of Lithuania, and became a correspondent for the Draugas daily newspaper, covering Cleveland Cavaliers player Žydrūnas Ilgauskas and other topics. Some of his stories ran in Lietuvos Rytas (“Lithuanian Morning,” a Vilnius-based daily paper) and Toronto’s Lithuanian newspaper.

In 2000, Johansonas finally retired from the Agora. Not long thereafter, at the request of his girlfriend Milda Rudaitis, he moved to Lithuanian vacation haven Union Pier, Michigan. There, he assisted in converting the local produce store into the now-famous “Milda’s Lithuanian specialty foods shop.

When Johansonas returned to his Cleveland roots in 2014, Paul Rukšėnas, website founder, asked Johansonas to launch an Facebook page to help promote the website. Johansonas’ Facebook page became the sole portal for last year when the news website was attacked by hackers.

Burning the Soviet Flag at 15

An activist at 15, Johansonas remembers burning Soviet flags (stitched by a neighbor) atop the “free speech rock” in Cleveland’s Public Square, collecting signatures in the city’s downtown Arcade Mall, and marching in its annual “All Nations” parades in protest of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. These acts came from his realization that marching silently in candlelight to the Lithuanian church with his elders was not enough.

“My first-ever selfie”.
“My first-ever selfie” — Linas Johansonas with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius at the Lithuanian Community Center in Cleveland, 2015.

For Johansonas, living a “Lithuanian life” has always been about finding—and raising—his Lithuanian voice. He explains, “I am a Lithuanian born and raised in a foreign land by two WWII refugees. Everything I am, I owe to my parents.”

His mother, Irena Ancevičiūtė of the Panemunė suburb of Kaunas, is the daughter of a Lithuanian colonel. His father, the late Henrikas Johansonas of Kvėdarna, was the son of the director of a dairy plant.

Before fleeing Lithuania, Johansonas’ dad was a “Forest Brother,” then, while a displaced person in post-war Germany’s French zone, a member of an Allied Forces Theater Company called the Čiurlionis Ensemble. He supported his wife and children by working 30 years at the Cleveland Twist Drill factory.

From a Long Line of Patriots

The original 1, 5, and 20 Litai currency issued in 1922 bear the signature of Johansonas’ great-grandfather, Ipolitas Jazdauskas, Senior Inspector of Credit Bureaus and Cooperative Inspection Units in the first Lithuanian Finance Ministry.

Johansonas draws inspiration from his “long line of Lithuanian patriots.” And the longer he does battle in the information wars, the more he realizes that these roots are a blessing, “because you come across a lot of people who, though not exactly trolls, upon research into their Lithuanian ancestors, discover things that weren’t heroic. Then from the guilt and the shame of having a Soviet ancestor who, for example, sent thousands to their deaths in Siberia, the individual tries to lessen the crimes of the Russians by making what the Germans and the Nazis did worse.”

‘Holocaust Hazing’

In Lithuanian Facebook groups like “All Things Lithuanian” and Johansonas’ “The Lithuanian Group,” mere assertions of Lithuanian ethnicity by descendants of the Lithuanian “DP” generation can be met with relentless Holocaust hazing. In extreme cases, “Holocaust hazers” in the groups attack the very existence of Lithuanian ethnicity, much like trolls spewing Russian propaganda.   

The need to fight back online drives Johansonas’ work with the Cleveland Lithuanian Community Center’s archives. He is also about to embark on a fundraising drive to help publish a book in English by Augustinas Idzelis, president of the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, Chicago. According to Johansonas, Idzelis’ book contains important research on the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) founded by military officer and diplomat Kazys Škirpa. The LAF formed a provisional government that existed briefly in 1941 and declared Lithuania’s independence from the Soviets.

This critical period relates directly to the Lithuanian Holocaust and the often incomplete and politically compromised information that has been circulated for more than 50 years about collaboration by named Lithuanian officials.

‘Bad Information Piled on the Lithuanian Nation’

“I see a lot of bad information that’s been piled on the Lithuanian nation,” Johansonas says. “A lot of that is because the other side, those promoting the negative, pro-Soviet view of World War II-era Lithuanian nationalism, have had a 50-year head start on getting their views out. For too long, they’ve been able to write the history of our people with little dissenting information.” 

Linas with Ian Hunter in Oct. 2016 in Cleveland.
Linas with Ian Hunter in Oct. 2016 in Cleveland. Hunter was lead singer of Mott The Hoople and famous for the songs “Cleveland Rocks”  and “All The Young Dudes.”

He explains that even those who cite Lithuanian historians don’t realize that “historians in Lithuania don’t always use all the resources available to them from the diaspora, for example, the archives in Putnam, Conn., and transcripts of the Congressional hearings that were held after WWII on what happened in the Baltics.”

The result, today, he contends, can be seen in some hostile, vocal efforts to try to force Lithuanian authorities to remove monuments to some of Lithuania’s anti-Soviet heroes. After a street in Vilnius named for Kazys Škirpa came under attack, Johansonas helped publicize a previously unknown 1941 news clip from Draugas reporting an order by Škirpa against the persecution of Jews in Lithuania.

He expects that as more of the Draugas archives from 1941 are searched, additional information will emerge that helps nuance, defend or redeem the reputations of some of the leading Lithuanians who have been attacked.

Defending Lithuania by Correcting, Defending Its History

Johansonas hopes other discoveries will help him promote the importance of understanding all the factors behind the Lithuanian Holocaust, which, because of its massive scale and a 50-year absence of independent Lithuanian perspectives and research, has become a kind of anti-Lithuanian “death star.” He contends, “For too long, the Holocaust has been used, propaganda-style, to condemn the entire Lithuanian nation. It’s also used to conflate the legitimate drive for new documentation, new voices, and new research on that historical period with what everyone agrees is totally illegitimate Holocaust denial.”

Johansonas doesn’t believe that being a Lithuanian patriot in these times of fake news and twisted history by necessity means becoming an online information “warrior” like him. 

“But with the Internet, the stakes of true versus false information have never been higher. There are an unlimited number of people who can be influenced.” He adds, “While we’re alive, Jon Platakis (founder of the National Lithuanian American Hall of Fame) and I are on a mission to correct as much misinformation as we can about Lithuania’s history.” The two are currently researching the proposition that the vast medieval Lithuanian nation, the largest in Europe, was an empire, not a grand duchy, and that many of the so-called Lithuanian “grand dukes” who followed King Mindaugas were, in actuality, also kings.

While working part-time in local rock promotion to support himself, Johansonas resists “people I know trying to drag me back into the music scene. With the time I have left, I want to live a Lithuanian life.” He explains, “We live in an important time in our country’s history. I feel as a tribe, a people, we have this opportunity. I think about what the Lithuanian history books someday are going to say about us.”

Linas (second from left) ​with Deborah Harry of Blondie (center) and Agora co-workers in Cleveland in the mid 1990’s.
Linas (second from left) ​with Deborah Harry of Blondie (center) and Agora co-workers in Cleveland in the mid 1990’s.