A quarrel on the street. A young woman and a man apparently bumped into each other accidentally in the pedestrian zone of Burgas, a port city on the Black Sea. It’s about the war in Ukraine and its impact on Bulgaria.
The woman fled, the government in Sofia had accommodated Ukrainians in hotels. Now she has to defend herself against accusations at the place of refuge. Only rich Ukrainians with expensive cars come, the man claims, while poorer ones have to fight – his state pays the wealthy a life in holiday resorts instead of supporting socially disadvantaged citizens in the poorest EU member state.
It’s a narrative that’s been circulating on social media for weeks. The aim: to sow discord in the Bulgarian public. The origin: Russian and pro-Russian media and social media accounts.
The Kremlin has long used disinformation and propaganda to influence states and divide societies. So far, this has been particularly easy in Bulgaria. The people there are oriented towards Russia, and economic ties are close. On top of that, journalism is not in good shape, and the media are dependent on advertising from Russian corporations. Something should change now.
This is necessary because the situation is precarious. Reporters Without Borders ranks Bulgaria 91st out of 180 in its Press Freedom Index. It was only this year that it lost last place in an EU comparison. Journalists complain that there is a lack of money, qualifications and professional ethics. Media makers are considered corrupt, and society has lost trust in the media over the years.
In regions there is often a lack of professional information, instead people read what is being disseminated on social networks, where trolls help to spread false content easily among the people. “It is unclear how journalism can get into the regions,” says Alexandra Milcheva, a specialist in cyber security and a member of the ruling party for six months. “We are continuing the change”. She knows the problem from her own constituency in eastern Bulgaria.
“The media system doesn’t have the means to deal with it,” complains Maria Yurukova, a disinformation specialist at the Department of European Studies at Sofia University.
Ruslan Stefanow, an expert at the think tank “Center for the Study of Democracy” in Sofia, speaks of his country being “absorbed” by Russia. Bulgarian media sometimes worked as “vicarious agents,” says Dimitar Vazov, in which they spread manipulative Russian portrayals, such as the alleged threat to Russia from the West. The Kremlin propaganda is seen as an alternative view, explains the professor of philosophy and sociology, who has been observing disinformation from Moscow for years.
There is also a historical closeness of Bulgarians to Russia, dating back to their liberation from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and later belonging to the Eastern Bloc. Many Bulgarians had hoped for more prosperity from joining the EU in 2007 – but money from Brussels seeped away down dark channels. Many Bulgarians feel left behind.
This is also the aim of the narrative of the scene from Burgas: the government supposedly cares more about Ukrainian refugees than about needy Bulgarians – that is supposed to stir up envy.
The disappointment of the citizens gives populists a boost. A quarter of society is considered receptive to conspiracy theories. All of this provides fertile ground for propaganda and targeted disinformation to thrive.
Bulgaria has long been “exposed to massive, malicious Russian propaganda,” Stefanov said. Now “she’s going crazy,” he says. “Propaganda has increased fivefold since the war,” Professor Wazow noted.
“Disinformation was not considered a problem for a long time,” said Rumena Filipowa, co-founder of the Institute for Global Analytics. And this despite the fact that Bulgaria is “particularly vulnerable”. She calls social media a “huge, pro-Russian ecosystem.”
The invasion of Ukraine has prompted Bulgaria’s government to do something about Moscow’s hybrid tactics. “The war leads to radicalization,” warns MP Milcheva, and thus to a further erosion of trust in politics and social cohesion. Stefanov calls Russia’s invasion a “wake-up call” for his country: “For the first time there are decisive steps by a government.”
Whether they are successful remains to be seen. The government is under great pressure: in future, a minority cabinet is to govern after the populist ITN party left the four-party alliance on Wednesday. A premature exit from the coalition cannot be ruled out.
In the fight against disinformation, Bozhidar Bokhanov plays a central role. The 34-year-old is Minister for E-Government. He sees the former Eastern Bloc countries particularly affected by Russian influence. Due to the geographical proximity to Russia, the fear among the citizens is growing that their country could be the next target of Moscow’s striving for power. “Disinformation increases fear,” Bokhanov told the Tagesspiegel.
On the one hand, the Minister for Electronic Administration relies on the European law on digital services, which in future wants to oblige Internet companies to take action against fake news. In addition, Bokhanov’s agency is setting up an analysis unit to monitor manipulation campaigns and respond to them by communicating facts. According to the minister, he does not want to regulate social and other media. That would be a “very dangerous instrument of censorship”.
Stefanow praises the fact that the Bulgarian government is finally taking action, but the approach is not enough. “Bulgaria remains vulnerable to propaganda.”
Factcheck.bg also wants to do something about this. It is the first independent editorial team to specialize in uncovering misinformation. The platform was founded a year ago when a wave of untruths about Corona swept the country.
Five journalists have since verified claims on social and traditional media. When Bulgarian politicians spread Kremlin narratives, many journalists see no reason to doubt or expose statements, explains editor-in-chief Ralitsa Kovacheva. “So there is disinformation from an official source.”
The aim is primarily to support journalists with verified information. In the meantime, however, her work is also being perceived more strongly by citizens. “Probably the war makes people aware of how dangerous disinformation can be.”
Zwetelina Sokolowa takes a critical view of this. “Fact checking helps journalists, but not society at large,” says the editor of Mediapool, a pro-Western news site that strives for journalistic standards.
She warns: If false information is simply compared to the facts, then this shows those who believe the propaganda “that they are completely wrong – and further marginalizes them”. Sokolowa fears that this will drive the public further apart. “Right now, because of the war, that’s even more dangerous than it was anyway.”
She believes that checking facts is important, but it is “not a suitable tool for changing people’s beliefs”. Instead, exchange must be used to try to gain the trust of those “who live in their own reality”.
Surveys from the past few weeks show how moods are changing. The war has more than halved the long-standing positive attitudes of Bulgarians towards Vladimir Putin of almost 60 percent.
But the basic closeness persists for many. 30 percent of Bulgarians still consider Russia to be the most important strategic partner, according to a poll by the think tank Globsec in early June. There is also a growing rejection of NATO. Almost 40 percent would vote to leave the country in a referendum.
Observers say further action is needed. The government wants to do more and draw more attention to disinformation, explains Alexandra Milcheva. It is important to equip citizens “so that they can filter information themselves”. The Ministry of Culture is looking for ways to strengthen media skills. However, this only works in the medium to long term, says Minister Bokhanov. “You can’t train media literacy in wartime and expect it to work in the next two months.”