By Joanna Elmy
Joanna Elmy is a staff writer of Toest, an independent, ad-free online platform. She has a bachelor degree in international relations and English from the New Sorbonne University in Paris, France. She’s currently doing a master’s degree in political communication at the University of Amsterdam, where she studies propaganda rhetoric and digital disinformation.
Pro-Russian and pro-Chinese sources are leading “coordinated campaigns” aiming to erode trust in European institutions, the European Union, EU, and the bloc’s crisis management, as well as to divert attention from Chinese mishandling of the health crisis, according to a special report by the European External Action Service, EEAS, European Union’s diplomatic service, released at the end of April. Its text presented a grim picture.
The publication of the report was itself controversial: reputable sources alleged it had been toned down due to Chinese diplomatic pressure. After initially denying the allegations, Brussels finally admitted — shortly before publishing the report — that Beijing had expressed concerns over the document.
The final version of the report is worrisome enough, softened or not.
According to the EEAS, “state-controlled sources targeting audiences in the EU, Eastern Partnership countries, the Western Balkans, and the MENA region continue to portray the EU and its partners as ineffective, divided, and cynical in their response to COVID-19”. Another problem is the spread of misinformation about health measures, from false remedies to anti-vaccine propaganda. The analysis concludes that such disinformation reaches millions of users on social media and online.
In June, the European Commission made an unprecedented move by abruptly singling out Beijing as one of the main sources of the disinformation circulating within Europe. The Commission’s Vice President, Vera Jourova, openly said that “China filled the void of EU communication during crisis” while the Commission began laying the foundations for a plan to combat disinformation.
Bulgaria was also affected by these developments.
Before moving on to demonstrate how, it is important to clarify a few points:
- Within the Bulgarian sphere of COVID-19 related misinformation, and in particular when speaking about its political dimension, new content is attached to already existing narratives and campaigns, as partially presented in the Human and Social Studies Foundation’s 2017 report Anti-democratic Propaganda in Bulgaria.
- Since the beginning of the pandemic, China — a fairly rare topic in Bulgaria until recently — is often “attached” to Russia in the disinformation articles mentioned and analysed below. Central, established topics in Bulgaria, such as the divides between East-West or Russia-USA, have been transformed either by China acting versus the US or by Russia plus China acting versus Europe.
- Although ideology plays an obvious part in the stories analysed below, we are instead focusing on the methods used by authors or platforms when constructing disinformation pieces to achieve a particular result. Besides an apparent bias, these methods include, but are not limited to, misleading headlines, cherry-picking of certain facts, and mixing confirmed and legitimate information with unconfirmed data, falsehoods, or misinformation.
Results have been quick to manifest themselves: disinformation has a particular appeal to Bulgarians, according to a poll cited by Radio Free Europe-Bulgaria.
It is difficult to trace disinformation. Contrary to legitimate news or opinion journalism, manipulative content is often anonymous, presented as a translated text with no clear indication of a source, or with a stated source that is largely considered as unethical or lacking transparency.
At the end of January, an anonymous Russian website published (in German) a text claiming that the Coronavirus was funded by Bill Gates. Another Russian website translated the initial piece and presented it as genuine content. A few days later, a Bulgarian website in turn ran the same article. Then a few more online sites followed suit, citing the first Bulgarian publication as their main source. In mid-March, two months after the initial publication, yet another Bulgarian platform published the same text and quoted the previously mentioned Bulgarian websites as sources. In the meantime, the Bulgarian on-line platform where the text first appeared deleted it, thus making tracing the original source even more difficult.
Often the average user does not have time to look for the source of any given story, which further enables this strategy. In addition, the platform mentions a source as a form of an insurance, even though a quick search is enough to classify the source in question as non-reliable. By quoting one another, as in the example above, such websites manage to not only spread content, but to create an aura of legitimacy as well.
Another example is a piece titled “SkyNews: Russia and China are Europe’s Saviors, not NATO”, published by NewsFront, an online platform registered in Russia and known to spread false or biased content. The article is based on a report by SkyNews, a British television news channel, warning that if NATO does not step up its efforts to aid its allies, other players might benefit by exploiting the COVID-19 health crisis for political gain.
The Bulgarian version offers a partial and relatively loose translation of the SkyNews piece and chooses to interpret it from an angle critical of NATO. The SkyNews video begins with footage showing Turkish aid for the UK sent within NATO’s mechanisms; this is not mentioned in the Bulgarian article. What’s more: nowhere in SkyNews’s piece do we hear the explicit quote suggested by the headline, “Russia and China are Europe’s Saviors, not NATO”.
Cherry-picking legitimate sources and adding this information to biased or false claims is not uncommon for such content. On top of that, the translated articles from foreign publications assume that their readers are both fluent and capable of verifying an article’s legitimacy themselves, not the average Bulgarian news consumer who has no choice but to trust the Bulgarian translation.
There are cases when cited foreign content is not even provided to the reader.
A piece on the website Pogled Info called “Unrivalled!!! Aid for Serbia From the West, China, and Russia – Comparisons” is a good case in point. It is written by the Russian columnist Aleksey Toparov and translated into Bulgarian with no indication of its original sources; Toparov writes for Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian websites often known to publish disinformation. The text in question is built around a piece by The Guardian with no mention of a headline or a by-line. The original publication date in English was a few weeks prior to the Bulgarian disinformation piece.
A comparison makes clear that the Bulgarian translation by Toparov is rife with inaccuracies. For example, the article misinformed the audience that the author of the Guardian article, Shaun Walker, — not indicated in Polgled Info’s piece — has written that “only” the Russians have sent a special military team charged to disinfect and provide relevant equipment, and that the Russians have been welcomed in Belgrade with “fanfare”. The original story had no such claims. It describes Russian aid as accompanied by “much media fanfare” and states that “the fanfare around the deliveries may outweigh their actual use.”
According to an expert quoted by Walker, “The EU was initially a bit slow and clumsy. This is what happens very often with the EU, of course it cannot be as fast and interventionist in the way China or Russia can be”. In the Bulgarian version based on the same article, this quote has been interpreted as “the EU cannot be as prompt and involved as China and Russia can”.
Replacing the original language in such subtle ways manipulates the meaning of the content and gives the piece a completely different ideological spin.
Another example is the coverage of Chinese aid sent to Europe, a topic which has been widely covered by the above-mentioned online websites, which paints a grim picture of Western countries and the EU. One can observe another disinformation approach here: deliberately leaving the context out. Thus Chinese aid to Europe is presented as proof of European weakness, with no mention of the European aid to China sent in February, for example, or the multiple occurrences of defective or unusable protection equipment received from China.
These articles exploit real political and social issues in order to construct a propaganda narrative about the American administration’s controversial response to the pandemic or the EU’s slow initial response to the pandemic. The difference between disinformation content and legitimate journalism is that disinformation pieces offer neither analysis nor in-depth reporting nor a complete breakdown of these issues; instead, misinformation strives to impose a simplified narrative based on “the hero vs. the enemy” principle and to provoke a strong emotional response by often using distorted or false allegations.
There are also outright conspiracies, of course.
Such content includes the above-mentioned methods, and places criticism of China’s handling of the pandemic in the context of a “global conspiracy”. A translated article with no apparent source, full of biased and manipulated parts of stories by legitimate publications such as The Los Angeles Times and Reuters. Although there is no connection between these articles, they are used as “proof” that the United States is leading an information war against China.
Other issues, such as racism towards Asians, have been deliberately misinterpreted to create a simplified pro-Chinese and anti-Western narrative. While such content is among the most provocative, it is easy to debunk because it lacks coherence. Thus, fact-checking is relatively easy for both a professional journalist and an informed reader alike.
Twisting facts and removing them from their context, as well as mixing facts with half-truths or outright falsehoods to create a suggestion, is one of the most common strategies when creating disinformation and propaganda. In this case, the verified fact that China aided European countries such as Italy serves to push the assertion that Chinese support unequivocally means that Europe is not only not helping, but also failing in its fight against COVID-19.
Such distortion of facts usually serves an ideological goal but is not necessarily a coordinated effort.
One must be wary of generalizations and automatically labelling each user sharing such content as an online troll or a bot. We need in-depth analysis to systematically prove the origin of a particular wave of disinformation, its traffic online, and its patterns of propagation. The silver lining is that after the current crisis, more and more journalists and fact-checkers are bound to build and use such tools in their own work. Until then it is important to remain vigilant and foster an understanding of the models described above.