The cabinet member agrees on the date for the interview with the digital department via a few short messages on Whatsapp. Boschidar Boschanov is minister for e-government in a coalition government made up of four parties, some of which are very different.

The 34-year-old belongs to the Democratic Bulgaria party and has been in office since December. Previously, he worked as an IT expert and founded an information security company. Bokhanov spoke to the Tagesspiegel about the dangers of disinformation and how his government now wants to react to it.

Digital policy, regulation, artificial intelligence: the briefing on digitization

Russia wants to exert influence on Bulgaria. It wants to keep the influence that has been there for a long time. Russia would probably like to have a Trojan horse in the European Union.

We’re seeing an increase in disinformation, but we can’t really measure it because Facebook doesn’t provide us with any data. I like quantifying things. I am talking about Facebook because it is the dominant social network in Bulgaria. But the same probably applies to Twitter, Tiktok or Instagram. On the cyber front, we are seeing an increase in DDoS attacks and ransomware attacks, which is by no means unexpected.

At the beginning of the war, my message was: we don’t see an increase because Russia is focusing on Ukraine, but we will probably see more attacks in the coming months – we have to be prepared for that. Unfortunately I was right. We – I speak at least for my party in the governing coalition – want to “deputinize” Bulgaria and eliminate all influence of the Kremlin in different areas: economy, politics, secret services, media.

Russia’s goal is never particularly specific, it’s about discord and chaos. Bulgarian society has historically positive feelings towards Russia, and the Kremlin abuses this: targeted disinformation, not only during the war but for many years before. Using certain narratives: of the great Russian army, of the traditional conservative Slavic power represented by the Kremlin and Putin themselves, of the decadent West and an aggressive NATO and EU.

Many people are unaware that they are being exposed to misinformation, and over the years their attitudes have become more entrenched as a result. This is also reflected in the polls: Before the war began, support for the Kremlin in Bulgaria was around 60 percent, which is too high. This was somewhat disenchanted by the war. Approval has fallen by half. However, another survey shows that more than 50 percent of Bulgarians believe that the West is to blame for the war in Ukraine and that the West provoked the Russians. That’s their narrative, it’s evident in this poll.

One targets the Ukrainian refugees who are housed in Bulgarian hotels or who drive expensive cars. There are actually some who have come here with their luxury cars. We have 100,000 Ukrainians, some of them have cars. The attempt to play the refugees off against the Bulgarian people is one of the most common narratives. Another narrative: Ukraine is killing civilians in Donbass and Russia must liberate Donbass. That is the rhetoric of the Kremlin.

This is due to history, because of the connections with Russia. We are border countries, we take in most of the refugees. Poland offers refuge to millions, many came to Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria. Due to the proximity to Russia, the fear of the citizens in the countries is growing that they could be next if the war should spread. Disinformation increases fear.

My party and the We Continue Change party are the most pro-Western parties. Before us there was always a government that was kind of pro-Kremlin: it toyed with the West, shook hands with Angela Merkel. At the same time, she implemented strategic Kremlin projects such as pipelines. Now we are trying to tackle the problem for the first time.

We’ve looked at a lot of options and there’s not really much we can do at the local level. In Bulgaria we cannot regulate social media ourselves because the market is just too small for that. We cannot and should not implement measures to block websites directly. Firstly, this is a very dangerous undertaking and secondly, it would not work at all.

This is because of the way the disinformation campaigns work: they use anonymous websites with fake news, and they use troll factories to share comments on these articles and amplify them through Facebook’s algorithms.

Even if we detect a fake news website – anonymous, no imprint, no owner – it’s technically difficult to block it. Blocking DNS doesn’t do much because you can change the name of the page and it will be listed by Facebook. The moment we can block, those responsible create the next website. And if we had that ability to block, it would be a very dangerous tool of censorship.

We follow two approaches. The first is European: the planned Digital Services Act (DSA) is a very good way to make social networks more responsible. They need to disclose more data and make their algorithms more transparent. This is the only way to improve them to combat the spread of fake news. Currently, the platforms are not doing enough about it. Governments and platforms probably need to work more together here.

The DSA opens the door to this type of collaboration. Thus, the DSA is a first concrete tool to regulate algorithms. It will take some time to implement, but it is the only sustainable way that does not involve the risk of creating a censorship apparatus.

That’s the analysis. We will set up a unit to monitor media. This is something many private companies do for commercial reasons. We want to do it for national security reasons. We will examine what is currently important news and how it spreads. Then the government can react to it with their communication.

At the beginning of the war we had a commuter crisis. There was a rumor that because of the war Russia would stop fuel supplies and there would not be enough petrol. People were queuing in front of the gas stations. This in turn can lead to fuel shortages. And it led to a price increase. Of course, if there are long queues in front of the pumps, the gas station doubles the price.

In retrospective analysis, we found that there had been a large spike in reports of fuel shortages just prior to this. So, had we had proactive monitoring of news trends, we would have known this narrative was being propagated via articles and trolls. We would have been able to inform proactively: there is no shortage of fuel, but an attempt to stir up fear of shortages. The new unit will proactively provide an overview so that we know what is happening on social media and can respond to it in a timely manner.

This is very important. The media landscape in Bulgaria is not doing very well. Our Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking has improved this year, but is still far from European levels. The Kremlin also influences media through funding. We can’t prove anything, but narratives are being passed to our media, especially by some journalists, using the words from the Kremlin. There is still a lot to do here.