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NATO is to blame for provoking the “special military operation”, as Vladimir Putin called his invasion of Ukraine. Washington helped Kyiv build secret biological weapons labs. Ukraine is defended by Nazis and the world supports Moscow’s efforts to liberate the country from a fascist regime.
These false narratives and conspiracy theories — designed to bolster support for Putin’s war — are to be expected inside Russia and from pro-Kremlin trolls online.
But while the threat from fake news is global, Bulgaria has become ground zero for how such disinformation continues to proliferate largely unchecked inside the European Union.
A steady flow of pro-Russian views floods Bulgaria’s debate about the war. The Kremlin’s talking points are echoed by politicians, mainstream media, and pundits alike. As a result, the invasion has split public opinion, fuelling fears that democratic values are under threat in the EU’s poorest country.
“Bulgaria has been a target of systematic disinformation campaigns for years – and those efforts are paying off now,” said Goran Georgiev an analyst with the Sofia-based Center for Study of Democracy. “Some Bulgarians unequivocally believe conspiracy theories and have lost trust in traditional media.”
It is a concern not just to democracy campaigners but also to Bulgaria’s new government, formed last year under Kiril Petkov, whose campaign focused on cleaning up politics and fighting corruption.
To western European eyes, the examples of cascading conspiracy stories and the penetration of pro-Putin views are shocking. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Petkov had to sack his own defense minister who kept referring to the illegal invasion as a “special operation,” adopting Putin’s favored euphemism.
Popular public figures and media in Bulgaria disseminate pro-Russian stories from elsewhere, too. Take the case of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where a small band of Ukrainian soldiers held out against the Russian siege for weeks until they eventually surrendered.
The pro-Kremlin Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda carried a version of events that portrayed the Ukrainian troops as Nazis. The article was then translated and reprinted in the Bulgarian tabloid Trud, a popular paper sympathetic to Moscow. It asserted the surrendering Ukrainian soldiers were found covered with tattoos of swastikas and quotes by Hitler — and offered this as proof that Putin was justified in invading Ukraine — parroting debunked claims that Ukraine’s military are made up of fascists.
The story itself was bad enough. But the article came to the attention of Bulgarian journalist and television host Martin Karbovski, who shared it with his 530,000 followers on Facebook. In a nation of 7 million people, he is one of the most popular personalities on the social platform.
In April, one of Petkov’s coalition government partners nominated Karbovski for a role with Bulgaria’s media regulator overseeing public broadcasters and media pluralism. Karbovski’s candidacy sparked outrage among the journalistic community in Bulgaria and within hours he withdrew his bid.
Karbovski portrayed himself as ultimately not wanting to become a civil servant, accepting a job from those in power who had been his enemies.
According to Bozhidar Bozhanov, Bulgaria’s minister of e-government, the problem is hard to fix. Bulgaria had a systemic weakness to Russian propaganda long before the start of the war, he said.
“The Kremlin uses troll factories, anonymous sites, and local media which they control in one way or another,” Bozhanov told POLITICO. “Like in other Eastern European countries, we can’t simply shut several Russia-controlled media outlets and solve the disinformation problem.”
The government’s repeated efforts to force Facebook and other social media companies to take more steps to scrub Russian propaganda from their platforms have also largely fallen on deaf ears, Bozhanov told POLITICO.
Poland and Hungary have also struggled to deal with pro-Russia propaganda. But why is Bulgaria apparently so vulnerable? The answer is partly cultural.
Historical ties between Bulgaria and Russia run deep. Many Bulgarians speak Russian and therefore find it easy to access the Kremlin version of events. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow was seen as an ally by many.
During the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war, Russia defeated the Turks and brought an end to Ottoman rule in Bulgaria. Ever since, there has been a strain of thinking in Bulgaria that sees Russia as a liberator.
Media freedom in the country has been undermined for years. Bulgaria ended on the 91st place in the most recent Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, coming from the 112th place last year, and the NGO still describes the state of media freedom in the country as “fragile and unstable.” The few remaining independent publications are struggling to survive.
‘Fragile and unstable’
Only 10 percent of Bulgarians think that media in their country is independent but many are apparently still willing to believe what they read. “One of the big problems in Bulgarian society is the lack of critical thinking,” said Velislava Popova, editor in chief of the news site Dnevnik.bg. “Bulgarians are more likely to trust false news and manipulations because we don’t know to distinguish disinformation.”
During the pandemic, conspiracy theorists sowed falsehoods around the world and found a particularly receptive audience in Bulgaria, where vaccine hesitancy rates were high.
Revival, an extreme nationalist party, capitalized on the COVID-19 conspiracies during last autumn’s election and transformed itself from a marginal voice to a political force represented in parliament. Now, the party is turning its attention to the war.
It has organized “peace” rallies where Kremlin views on the war were aired and Russian flags waved. Footage of Revival’s events has been picked up by Russian media and presented as evidence of Bulgarian support for the invasion of Ukraine.
Revival’s party leader Kostadin Kostadinov has around 270,000 followers on Facebook and he dominates political debate on the network. Facebook is still the most popular social media in Bulgaria, which is important because, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021, close to 70 percent of Bulgarians get their news from social media.
In March a petition was launched calling for more transparency about how Facebook moderates its content content. “We noticed an interesting trend – profiles which said nothing wrong were blocked while those which were aggressive and supporting the war in Ukraine could not even be removed,” said Martin Ossikovski, lecturer in media history at New Bulgarian University, behind the petition.
One possible explanation, Ossikovski said, is that Russian trolls are targeting specific profiles, reporting them in scores for allegedly breaking the social media’s rules, and Facebook algorithms are automatically blocking them.
Facebook said it is fighting propaganda in consultation with authorities in Bulgaria. “We are taking extensive steps to fight the spread of misinformation on our services in the region and are continuing to consult with outside experts and public administrations including in Bulgaria,” a spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company Meta said.
“We’re removing content that violates our policies, and working with third-party fact checkers in the region to debunk false claims. When they rate something as false, we move this content lower in Feed so fewer people see it. We’re also giving people more information to decide what to read, trust, and share by adding warning labels on content rated false.”
But the rot may be too deeply set-in. According to Ossikovski, the Bulgarian academic, Facebook’s content moderation subcontractors could be working with “young, unqualified, inexperienced employees who don’t really know much about media ethics and are likely to be influenced by pro-Russian propaganda themselves.” Even when posts that spread Moscow’s lies are reported to these moderators, “they don’t actually see them as problematic.”
There’s one thing that could change all this: the war itself. Despite the profusion of propaganda, there are signs Bulgarian public opinion has shifted since the invasion began. Putin’s approval rating in Bulgaria was 32 percent in February, according to a poll of 1,000 people. By April, it had fallen to 25 percent.
“Once Russia started shelling Ukrainian cities,” said Georgiev, “people instinctively started doubting the lies.”
Mark Scott contributed reporting.
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