Zornitsa Lateva is a journalist with long experience in print and online media. In 2014 she joined the news website Mediapool. She has written about education, municipal governance, the economy, finance, environment. Previously she worked for Dnevnik and Trud. Besides journalism, her professional interests include digital marketing.
“In time of war, words matter. We are witnessing massive propaganda and disinformation over this outrageous attack on a free and independent country. We will not let Kremlin apologists pour their toxic lies justifying Putin’s war or sow the seeds of division in our Union.”
This is what president of the European Commision Ursula von der Layen said the day the EU suspended the distribution of several Russian media outlets, identified as mouthpieces of Kremlin propaganda. Because of this currently “RT”, Sputnik”, “RTR Planeta” “Russia 24” and “TV Center International” are not available inside the EU.
This does not limit, let alone stop, Russian propaganda in Europe, and specifically in Bulgaria.
For example, the tool NewsGuard, which assesses whether a website is spreading fake news, currently monitors 290 domains that are part of the Russian propaganda machine. These are websites which publish information on Russia’s war against Ukraine. The list includes official state media outlets such as the agency TASS, “Russia Today” and “Sputnik”, but also many websites that are not banned or restricted. What is more, much of their content is distributed in languages other than Russian – English, German, French, Italian – and the sources are local media, anonymous websites, non-governmental organizations and research centers with dubious funding.
The mechanics of Russian propaganda in Bulgaria, as well as in the rest of Europe, are relatively simple. The “information” comes from official Russian sources: representatives of the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin himself. The talking points they verbalize are quoted by Russian outlets, which are then translated and “reprinted” by Bulgarian news websites. Most of these websites are just content aggregators without any journalists. The “information” they publish is a copy-paste from another source. The distribution then continues with posts on social networks, including in groups that are specifically created for this purpose.
The bulk of information consists of quotes from the narrative of official Kremlin authorities. These websites seldom publish original pieces. There is no shortage of fake news, but by no means do they dominate the information flow. At least this is what research into Russian propaganda in Bulgaria, conducted by the Human and Social Studies Foundation (HSSF) shows.
The propaganda’s goal? The goal is to justify Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, but also to sow division in society and to undermine trust in democracy, the European Union and NATO.
A tidal wave of information
The start of Russia’s war against Ukraine coincided with a drastic rise of Russian propaganda pieces in Bulgarian online media. From an average of 39 texts per day in the first days of the war, their number increased 10 times, says Prof. Dimitar Vatsov, one of the researchers behind the report. While in the following months the number of texts dropped in half, it still remained 5 times higher than in the pre-war months.
The main subjects of the propaganda are Kremlin’s “talking points”, which at their core follow a conspiratorial geopolitical logic. The collective West, which includes the United States, NATO, and now the EU, through its “puppets” (the “Brussels Eurocrats” and the “sell-out liberal elites” in individual countries) has killed the sovereignty of nations. This villain has besieged Russia and is even waging a war against it. Russia, for its part, is also a victim – except that it is the only state that manages to put up a just fight and rise from the ashes as the actual savior of Europe, and Ukraine in particular. “This whole narrative has many subplots, but the main motive runs repeatedly through all of them,” says Prof. Vatsov.
The same talking points make the rounds in Bulgaria without any adaptation to the cultural context. They cross paths and take on some local flavor only with certain events on the political horizon, for example supplying arms to Ukraine, the halt of natural gas flows, the rescue of the Bulgarian sailors in Mariupol, etc.
Fake news features in the propaganda, but it’s a relatively small percentage. One such example is the “news”, spread days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that Polish mercenaries had entered Donbass in order to carry out terrorist attacks. It was officially refuted, but it was nevertheless disseminated by Russian media – and in turn by Bulgarian propaganda outlets.
The chain of disinformation
With the start of the war researchers noticed a significant change in the sources, quoted in “news” serving the Kremlin’s interests. Instead of media and surrogates outside official circles, it was representatives of the Kremlin themselves: Vladimir Putin, Sergey Lavrov, Dmitry Peskov, Galina Zakharova, Eleonora Mitrofanova, etc. “Five years ago, this was not the case: Before that, Russian officials still spoke in a diplomatically more neutral language, leaving the conduct of propaganda to other media and spokespersons. Now the entire Russian state is a mouthpiece for propaganda clichés”, the HSSF report notes.
Propaganda narratives are also distributed by their Bulgarian mouthpieces, which quote or translate Russian texts verbatim. “There are several sites that trumpet the Russian narratives and put their heart and soul into it. The most obvious are the sites pogled.info and news-front.info, which is based in Crimea,” says Prof. Vatsov.
He adds that 65% of the top 25 media that spread Russian propaganda are actually aggregator websites that only copy texts from other places and are not staffed by real people, much less journalists. The remaining 35% publish content that the “bot” pages reprint. In addition, these websites reprint each other’s content.
Bots and satellites
Some of these websites are connected. An example of this is BLITZ, which has 8 aggregator websites in its orbit. They are anonymous and registered to two IP addresses in the USA, Prof. Vatsov explains. BLITZ publishes a Russian propaganda piece and it soon after it appears on the other 8 websites without any modification. For example, on March 10 BLITZ published Alexander Dugin’s article “The war in Ukraine as a reality check!”, which was translated verbatim from izborsk-club.ru, without referencing the source. The article was then automatically reprinted by the eight anonymous satellite websites and also by istinata.net, which slightly altered the title.
According to the site analysis tool Similarweb, BLITZ is the 4th most visited news media site in Bulgaria with about 10.7 million visits per month.
One explanation for this distribution model is that probably propaganda is monetized per number of published articles. When the pages get a lot of internet traffic, there is also the greater chance to attract advertisers. “It is inevitable that besides propaganda, money flows through these channels. It is probably not much, but this is a highly efficient investment. The effect of this propaganda would not be as great if there were countermeasures – counter-propaganda done in a meaningful and legal way”, prof. Vatsov adds.
A decline in Bulgarian “spokespeople”
According to the HSSF report, with the increase in the number of Russian propaganda articles in Bulgarian online media, the number of Bulgarian speakers and their original pieces actually decreases. “This is probably the case because, first, there is less money the Russians can directly invest in Bulgaria. And second because, quite visibly, many people retreat from repeating these talking points because they do not agree with Putin’s war and want to distance themselves from it”, the authors note.
The report identifies few media and political figures who spread the Kremlin’s line: the former diplomat Boyan Chukov, the journalists Martin Karbovski, Kevork Kevorkian, Yavor Dachkov, the leader of the political party “Vazrazhdane” Kostadin Kostadinov, and some others. However, they are not the most prominent sources quoted, trailing behind the Russian authorities, as well as some little known “foreign experts” with Russian and English names such as Scott Ritter, Nick Parker, Valery Korovin and others.
This means that there are fewer original pieces on Bulgarian websites that recycle Russian propaganda clichés, and a lot more articles which report on Russian sources, most often anonymously, and/or translate verbatim propaganda articles.
The report also singles out Rumen Radev – the president – as a mouthpiece and disseminator of Russian propaganda, although he does not exactly repeat the Russian government’s words. The researchers point to the fact that Radev periodically voices opinions that serve the interests of the Kremlin: on the halt of natural gas flows from Russia or on supplying Ukraine with arms, which in his words would bring Bulgaria into the war, and so forth.
Public promoters of propaganda on Facebook
Once published, propaganda quickly makes it onto the social networks, and Facebook in particular. Its distribution mostly relies on republishing content that has been released on certain websites. “This is done by various public profiles, pages and groups,” comments Veronika Dimitrova, who is one of the authors of the study.
Naturally, one of the most prolific pages spewing Russian propaganda is that of the Russian Embassy in Bulgaria. “This is not a precedent. A similar study shows that the situation is the same in Germany” Dimitrova adds.
The super-spreaders of the Kremlin’s theses on Facebook are the leader of “Vazrazhdane” Kostadin Kostadinov and the journalist Martin Karbovski. Their influence can be described as substantial, as both of them have a lot of followers on the network – Kostadinov has 288 000 followers and Karbovski – 528 000. Karbovski posts a lot more content on his profile page – about 11 posts daily on average, compared to about 4 published by the politician.
An analysis of their posts conducted with the social media marketing tool Fanpage Karma shows that Karbovski’s profile mostly shares links to pages from two news sites – lentata.com and vtorifront.bg. Some of the words mentioned most frequently in the posts, which also generate a reaction from users, are “Russia”, “USA”, “Ukraine” and “Bulgaria”.
Kostadinov’s page also features the keywords “Bulgaria”, “Ukraine” and “war”. They generate more reactions than those on Karbovski’s profile page: 2% interactions per post and follower on average for Kostadinov versus 0.8% for Karbovski. Kostadinov mainly shares “original” content – statuses, photos and videos, and posts links to information on fewer occasions.
In addition to these two profiles, many propaganda materials are also distributed on the Facebook pages of news sites such as pogled.info, informiran.net, epicenter.bg.
The effect of Facebook groups
Russian propaganda targets Facebook users who are dissatisfied with political parties and the current and recent governments, as well as Russophiles, people who feel nostalgic about socialism and supporters of BSP and Vazrazhdane. This is what the analysis of public Facebook groups that spread propaganda content shows.
The most active hotspots for pro-Kremlin talking points can be provisionally divided into several types. The first are Facebook groups with focus on politics. “Their names are associated with protests and dissatisfaction with certain political persons and parties”, Dimitrova points out. According to her, uses these “spaces” to manipulate users and channel their discontent into the propaganda narratives.
“Many of the active groups are associated with the names of politicians, such as the president Rumen Radev and the leader of the Socialist party Kornelia Ninova,” Dimitrova adds.
Facebook hobby and interest groups also spread propaganda. Some of the groups against vaccines and COVID-19 restrictions for example shifted their focus with the start of the war and now they publish mostly information on Kremlin’s talking points.
“Propaganda attaches itself to discontent and this leads to negative attitudes, victimization and loss of civic energy. It also undermines Bulgarian commitments towards the EU and NATO”, Dimitrova explains. Thus, pro-Russian posts trigger people on Facebook, make them comment, like and share, but at the same time they make them apathetic and passive in real life.
A major problem is that the more people respond to a post, the more Facebook’s algorithm shows it to others with similar interests. The post then snowballs in popularity and reactions. And once you like, comment or share such content, you start getting more of the same.