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Is Bulgaria the weak link in Europe’s fight against Russian disinformation? (Capital)

This article is published in collaboration with Capital as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.

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If the media is seen as a weapon in times of war, Bulgaria risks shooting itself in the foot. Western nations have assembled an unprecedented unified response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, moral judgment on even the most egregious atrocities is a cause for division among Bulgarians. This is the logical consequence of pro-Kremlin strategic propaganda, which has been flooding the country for years. It fractured the social fabric, thus making Bulgaria a weak link in the lines of defense of the EU and NATO.

The main channels through which propaganda circulates are local media and digital platforms such as Facebook. Bulgaria offers a particularly favorable environment for the dissemination of pro-Russian disinformation. Media literacy levels are low as the country’s communist past has ingrained pro-Russian attitudes into the cultural mainstream. High levels of political corruption that gave oligarchs the power to stifle free speech also took their toll.

“The political parties that have ruled Bulgaria for the past 30 years have created a network of enslaved media. These media have in turn distorted people’s opinion about what is objective,” says Hristo Milchev, founder of the Citizens’ Platform for Opposition to Discrimination.

The “web” Milchev refers to is the brainchild of oligarchs who bought up media outlets and statesmen, securing both public and governmental support for policies and legislation serving their own interests. economic.

A report on attitudes towards Vladimir Putin in Bulgarian society, published by polling agency Alpha Research in April, illustrates the strength of local pro-Russian sentiments. The report shows that the Russian president’s approval ratings dropped significantly in the first month of the war. Nevertheless, a striking 25% of the population has still expressed support for him.

Propaganda flow – across the fringe and mainstream

A significant number of fringe websites and blogs reproduce disinformation from Russian sources and amplify pro-Kremlin views expressed on social media. The fact that this information is published through a medium gives it a sense of credibility that trolls later exploit by reposting the content on Facebook. It is a well-established propaganda mechanism that has been used to promote pro-Kremlin sentiments since at least the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Tabloids linked to oligarchs such as Delyan Peevski, who was sanctioned under the global Magnitsky Act last year, also produce their fair share of pro-Russian propaganda.

It is not a coincidence. Goran Georgiev, a political analyst at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD), says some media outlets are owned by businessmen with lucrative economic ties to Russia. “These businessmen share an interest in maintaining a positive perception of Russian-funded projects in Bulgaria,” adds Georgiev.

These economic interests are also expressed through political parties. The Bulgarian Socialist Party’s own television channel, for example, regularly provides a stage for pro-Russian commentators, some of whom come from far-right circles. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is linked to Peevsky, exerts its influence in more insidious ways. The party played an important role in the election of the current director of Bulgarian National Television. Since the beginning of the war, the media has broadcast a flood of pro-Kremlin propaganda under the pretext of presenting a plurality of points of view.

Behind a curtain of pluralism

The state media provided objective global coverage of the war. However, the propaganda finds its way through what, to say the least, appears to be poor judgment on the part of presenters and producers. For example, a national television channel aired war-themed comments by a Bulgarian man who is currently under investigation for Russian espionage.

Most of the media also broadcast a speech by the Russian ambassador in Sofia in which she compared Bulgaria to Donbass and urged viewers to consider the Ukrainian conflict as the equivalent of the Russian-Turkish war for the independence of the Bulgaria in the late 1800s. There are also prime time broadcasts. who regularly broadcast pro-Kremlin propaganda. This usually happens during what are supposed to be debates between pro-Russian and pro-Western commentators. However, this is only a false pretext for spreading misinformation.

“There is enough information that Ukraine is home to biological labs and nuclear weapons sites,” one such commentator said in a March TV appearance, referring to a theory largely denied conspiracy.

One of the most prominent Russian supporters in the Bulgarian media is Petar Volgin, a national radio host. Volgin presents itself as offering an alternative to the “dominant pro-Western narrative”. He uses only language sanctioned by Moscow, calling the war a “special operation” and giving voice to commentators who argue for the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities.

All strong on the social media front

Nikola Tulechki, co-founder of nonprofit Data for Good and member of a team running a Bulgarian fact-checking platform, created a social media aggregator monitoring pro-Kremlin Facebook pages. In seven days, the aggregator recorded one million interactions that include comments, likes and shares generated by subscribers to a given page. Some of the most active groups reach between 200 and 300,000 interactions based on around 200 posts per week.

A deeper dive into two of these pages with a combined following of 170,000 reveals the outlines of a network spreading disinformation. Each page has six anonymous admins, making it impossible to check if they overlap. However, the two share information from a single blog with similar frequency. The blog owner himself operates a number of websites that generate pro-Kremlin propaganda. Although none of them claim to be an official news source, they derive their credibility from quoting Western publications such as The Associated Press and The Guardian, most often out of context.

Pages that spread conspiracy theories, for example about aliens, attract just the right kind of people. Once the page garners enough followers, admins move on to posting pro-Russian content. This approach was tried and tested during the Covid-19 pandemic when similar – or in some cases the same – pages were divisive based on false vaccine information.

Tulechki observed that social media websites are very convenient for the proliferation of misinformation. He says platforms such as Facebook allow propagandists to refine their messaging.

“You just have to make several posts and wait a few days to see which of them generates the most interactions. You take the most popular ones and repeat the process over and over again until you optimize the reach of the content,” says Tulechki.

In opposition

Hristo Milchev administers a Facebook page dedicated to demystifying propagandist content. Over the years, Milchev and his team have “experimented” with different approaches to countering propaganda.

One of the main conclusions they came to is that people are more likely to change their minds only if those who demystify are close to them. “We created a Facebook profile exuding pro-Russian sentiments and used it to interview real Russophiles about their attitudes towards Putin and his actions. This led to a situation where Russophiles began to question their own assumptions,” says Milchev. He attributes this change to the fact that people are more likely to trust the arguments of someone who is “part of their team”.

Traditional media are subject to more regulations. There, more than on social networks, the opposition to disinformation is framed by a dialogue on freedom of expression. in the public sphere is crucial to democracy and must be protected.

“It should be clear, however, that extraordinary circumstances such as those created by war do allow freedom of expression to be limited, particularly in the case of hate speech,” he says. According to Kashymov, both Bulgarian law and international law subject statements that deny or minimize crimes against peace and humanity to scrutiny. In the current situation, hate speech directed at Ukraine is particularly problematic in Bulgaria given that the country has hosted thousands of Ukrainian refugees who may feel threatened by such speech.

However, Kashymov himself admits that enforcing legal principles that limit the right to free speech in any way could set a harmful precedent that could be exploited by more authoritarian rulers in the future.

Rather than relying on state intervention, the media could fight misinformation themselves. They do this through fact-checking services. France Presse and the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria run websites dedicated to demystifying fake news. Last year, Bulgarian national radio launched its own fact-checking initiative in response to the fraudulent media landscape surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic.

The digital revival of the far right

The theme of propaganda comes up regularly in discussions of the rise of far-right movements. Vazrazhdane (which means rebirth in Bulgarian) is the latest party of these inclinations to rise on the Bulgarian political scene. In the last round of legislative elections, it became the only nationalist party to win seats in parliament.

Vazrazhdane’s success can be attributed to an orchestrated campaign mostly on social media that focused on opposing anti-Covid measures such as vaccinations and mask mandates. Tulechki’s data shows that Vazrazhdane is now using the same channels to spread pro-Russian propaganda.

The party is arguably the most active online political group in Bulgaria today. He uses Facebook, Youtube and TikTok to spread propaganda to his growing group of supporters. “We monitor the pages, set up by their regional branches and the profiles of their leaders. The number of people interacting with their content is staggering. They have nearly 60% of online engagement with content from political figures online,” says Tulechki.