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.
On September 21, 2019 a Facebook user under the name of Gillar Anastasova Rumiana shared the following information: “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the American President Donald Trump are two servants of the Rothschild family (Satan’s Red Shield)… Many of you know that it is common knowledge that every time Donald Trump declares bankruptcy, Rothschild pays the bill.”
A year later, the same user – now using two more aliases, Rumiana Prokopenko and Rumiana Gillar – was among the most fervent followers of the QAnon conspiracy and of President Trump, who they no longer designated a participant in a Satanic plot, but praised as a saviour of mankind.
This user is extremely active online. We counted over 70 posts on November 15th, 2020 alone in the most used of its three Facebook profiles. Its publications are popular in groups such as Bulgarian People’s Army – BPA, as well as in other politically neutral and more spiritually oriented groups such as On Time’s Vector. The posts contain QAnon content, as well as anti-COVID information in which other familiar narratives prevail, such as portraying Bill Gates as a villain and the virus as a deliberate strategy to enslave humanity. The content shared by Gillar/Propkopenko is highly popular in groups that are against vaccines and for pro-family policies, including communities connected to the 2019 protests against the National Strategy for the Child.
It is unlikely that Rumiana’s profiles are a part of a malevolent plot to pollute the public debate, but monitoring their activity reveals how fake news and conspiracies flood the internet. They get recycled and transformed to reflect changes in important current issues. The anti-establishment streak of QAnon is well received in groups that oppose the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, and his party GERB and intertwines with their discontent with coronavirus health restrictions. It is also probably profitable for multiple websites that use clickbait for generating revenue.
The good news is that interaction with such content remains low, unless shared by a famous personality such as the controversial Bulgarian journalist Martin Karbovski. The bad news lies in the sheer volume of such information dumped inside the social networks.
What is QAnon?
From its first appearance on 4chan in October 2017, the anonymous Q (the ‘Q’ in QAnon conspiracy theories) has made multiple bombastic predictions. For instance, President Trump is on the verge of carrying out mass arrests of secret paedophile elites connected to the “Deep State”. Despite the fact these events were predicted to occur in November 2017, they have yet to take place.
The prognoses are supposedly based on secret information from high-level sources and are published in the so-called ‘Q-drops’. Q-drop #34 from November 2, 2017 warns that “you will undoubtedly realize that we are taking back our great country (the land of the free) from the evil tyrants that wish to do us harm and destroy the last remaining refuge of shining light” and, due to this, the President will announce a state of temporary military control to combat the civil disobedience sparked to protect the Deep State, and will activate the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) in order to bypass “fake news”. Of course, nothing of the sort ever happened.
In Q-drop #647 from January 31st, 2018, Q proclaims: “Tomorrow is Freedom Day. Tomorrow. [D]ay [Of] [D]ays”, once again with little clarity of what this actually means. In drop #796, he issues a warning about a terror attack in London around February 16th, 2018, but, like the other two events, this one didn’t come to pass.
The Pandemic: a Petri Dish for Conspiracies
Despite its many failed prophecies, the theory had gathered steam in Europe by the end of 2019, adapting itself to the corresponding local political contexts. According to a report by the media analyst NewsGuard, the first French accounts to spread the conspiracy were created between March and June 2020, at the time of the first lockdown in France. The theory emerged in Italy in the summer of 2020, but groups multiplied between February and May 2020, once again coinciding with the pandemic. In the UK and in Germany, the European state where the conspiracy is most prevalent, QAnon profiles have existed since 2018.
“The conspiratorial worldview at the heart of QAnon – especially the idea that a secret government is trying to impose a new world order – has blossomed in recent months. The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to many similar theories, including the idea that the pandemic is part of a plan imposed by world elites – with Bill Gates at the top – to vaccinate most of the world’s population”, the NewsGuard report states.
Gaining Traction in Bulgaria
Following a similar pattern, in Bulgaria the theory became more popular in the spring of 2020. One of the first mentions of the QAnon conspiracy is in an article from April 22nd on the online site pogled.info, which claimed that the virus was created by the “Deep State” to hinder Donald Trump’s re-election. The article is signed by Vladimir Prohvatilov, whose name can be found in pro-government Russian media, like gazeta.ru and fondsk.ru, that are often a source of disinformation. V. Segreev is credited as the translator of this article, which is an odd mix of news and already debunked claims regarding the pandemic.
There is also a trace of QAnon in the accident that claimed the life of journalist Milen Tsvetkov. Bulgarian media spread the news that 22-year-old Kristian Nikolov, accused of having caused the car accident, was using adrenochrome. The media, including even Bulgarian National Television, borrowed directly from the conspiracy’s playbook. At the end of April, Lentata.com discussed this “Elite’s Drug” in a detailed piece. According to QAnon, the elites take part in harvesting adrenochrome from children’s blood to obtain a psychoactive substance. In reality, adrenaline is created by the human body in the adrenal glands but can also be synthesized in a laboratory and adrenochrome extracted with a simple procedure using reduction-oxidation. Potential applications of adrenochrome include being an ingredient in blood-clotting medication.
In May, Deutsche Welle told the story of QAnon’s dissemination in Germany and the piece was then reprinted in Dnevnik. Several days later, on May 18th, one of the main proponents of the theory in Bulgaria, Borislav Tsekov, published his first article about it in Trud Daily. By July, a large chunk of Bulgarian media had covered the removal of conspiracy profiles and pages from social networks.
QAnon’s claims sound absurd to most readers but still fuel powerful emotions, which in turn feeds traffic. An example is the online tabloid BLITZ: they republished legitimate articles, such as Deutsche Welle’s (with an altered headline), and Borislav Tsekov’s piece. A prime example of conspiracies as a source of popularity is the Haskovo city eTV, the videos of which normally have fewer than a hundred likes, whereas a video about the coronavirus as the elites’ plan to subjugate the world has been shared around 5,100 times on social media and has been watched over 260,000 times as of December 2020.
Old Faces, New Conspiracy
QAnon has conquered the usual conspiracy spreaders as well. The website The Bulgarian Times published its own QAnon Handbook this summer. The website contain neither ownership information nor ethical guidelines, but it does state that although the page “tries to keep accurate, precise, and updated information”, this “does not exclude the possibility of accidental objective inaccuracies and gaps”, and “thebulgariantimes.com is not responsible for any subjective perceptions and interpretations of the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness” of its informational resources.
QAnon theory also appeared on ufobg.com, a site associated with Petar Simeonov and Prof Latchezar Filipov, who was forced to resigned from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences by the scientific community in 2017. Since June, 32 publications containing the word “cabal” (related to the Q-theories) have been indexed on this website. Its’ COVID-19 stories also mention an elite plot.
There is a tendency for conspiracy theories to merge with one another. This is also true of QAnon, which started in 2017 as a casual post on 4Chan, but by now has been adapted to the health emergency, enjoying popularity on the same platforms that traditionally spread anti-European and anti-Western rhetoric, alongside other baseless claims.
QAnon publications are shared mostly in Facebook groups such as: The Hidden Secrets, Bulgaria and Russia – a Friendship That Lasts for Centuries, In favour of Bulgaria Joining the Eurasian Union and the USSR, Bulgarians Against the Vaccine, National Group “Bulgarian’s Children”, For the preservation of the Bulgarian Family, Bulgarian People’s Army – BPA, No Parties or Politicians, Top secret UFO Aliens Conspiracies God Universe Secrets and Mysteries, Against Gender Education in Schools, and others.
What they all have in common is their purpose of expressing anti-establishment points of view, distrust in established institutional structures and media, and disseminating “alternative” theories. QAnon offers an easy narrative, presenting the enemy as a part of a ‘deep state’ against which the enlightened few – Donald Trump in this case – are fighting. In Bulgaria, prime minister Boyko Borissov, presidents Plevneliev and Radev, and the opposition’s leader Hristo Ivanov, have all been presented as a part of the Deep State.
Coordinated Activity? Highly Unlikely.
Despite bearing the marks of fake profiles, the Prokopenko/Gillar’s accounts are real, according to our research. Voter registration lists show that Mrs Prokopenko does exist and lives in Silistra, a Bulgarian town on the Danube River, and her history online demonstrates that she is a long-time conspiracy proponent. At the time of publication, she has not responded to our request for an interview and contacting some residents of Silistra did not help us find out what she does and where she gets her information. The only fellow resident who said that he knows her refused to go on the record.
The user behind the Rumiana Prokopenko/Gillar profiles shares materials translated from Russian, including many publications from the Telegram channel Teoriya Bolshogo Shoka (Теория большого шока (ТБШ), which has been active since the summer of 2020 and is described as presenting “information from insiders, theories and fresh news, important news”. This channel publishes content mainly related to the USA, despite the fact that the YouTube channel with the same name and logo, registered in January 2020, is based in Kazakhstan. The Telegram channel disseminates QAnon content as well as rumours about microchipping people through vaccination, presenting the Coronavirus as a controlled attack, etc.
And if there is an abundance of profiles like Rumiana’s on social media, where there are people who really believe in, and are frightened by, the information they receive, it can hardly be a coincidence that the content in question can be traced to pro-Russian and Russian sources and enjoys attention in groups with similar beliefs. The Russian strategy to exploit already existing divisions and weak links in countries Russia sees as ideological adversaries is a well-recorded practice and a historical fact. The biggest advantage is obvious: the believers disseminate, add to, and adapt the content to their own context free of charge, and the media and channels publishing such content turn a good profit on platforms like YouTube or through well-known clickbait techniques.
What Is the Solution?
One of the paradoxes in investigating disinformation is that every mention of conspiracies attracts more attention their way. Although QAnon is a theory popular amongst far-right marginal circles and is surely aimed at “liberal elites”, Democrats are more familiar with it than Republicans, according to a Pew Research report of the USA from March 2020. The analysis points out that “those who get their election and political news mainly from The New York Times (59 percent), MSNBC (49 percent ), or NPR (39 percent) are most likely to say they’ve heard or read at least a little about QAnon.”
Fact-checkers cannot handle the enormous quantity of information spewed out by numerous diverse sources, although it is often so logically inconsistent and abstract that a Google search would seem enough to discredit it. But even that does not help – websites often don’t state their owners or specific authors, the content is recycled by multiple media and is legitimized through reprints and reaching users such as Rumiana Gillar. To that we add the very human psychological tendency to look for content which confirms our pre-existing biases, the low media literacy in Bulgaria, the legitimizing of the main sources of political disinformation by the political establishment, and the social media algorithms which readily supply more of the same.
In 2007, shortly before the creation of Facebook and six years after 9/11, a group of American scientists decided to measure attitudes towards the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was orchestrated by the American government and the Bush administration. The profile of conspiracy believers was the following: more likely to read tabloids, blogs, and forums; poorer and more likely to have a disadvantaged social standing. But the main finding was that believing in conspiracies reflected the political divide in the United States: liberals were more likely to allege that Bush was a part of a monstrous plot than were conservatives. The researchers concluded that “conspiracy thinking is now a normal part of mainstream political conflict in the United States.” Thirteen years later, the practice is globalized.
If we try to look beyond affect and emotion, the flourishing of QAnon in local conditions points to several main issues: record low levels of institutional trust (according to Eurobarometer 2020, 75 percent of Bulgarians do not trust the Parliament, while 71 percent don’t trust the government); educational deficiencies in spheres such as media literacy and critical thinking; and the unstable economic, political, and social environment fuelling such theories.
Traditional media still enjoy the highest level of trust amongst Europeans, whereas social networks are at the bottom in this regard. In Bulgaria, where traditional media is used as an instrument for political propaganda, the situation is reversed and confidence in the Internet is without equivalent in the EU, with social networks being among the main places for political organization.
Until these pertinent issues are resolved, all roads will lead to world domination. And as we learned from the case with the National Strategy for the Child, the consequences, unlike the theories, can be very real.