Welcome to Bulgaria, where the war in Ukraine is NATO’s fault – POLITICO

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NATO is responsible for triggering the “special military operation,” as Vladimir Putin called his invasion of Ukraine. Washington helped Kiev build secret biological weapons labs. Ukraine is defended by Nazis and the world supports Moscow’s efforts to liberate the country from a fascist regime.

These false stories and conspiracy theories — designed to bolster support for Putin’s war — are to be expected in Russia and from pro-Kremlin trolls online.

But while the threat of fake news is global, Bulgaria has become the basis for how such disinformation continues to spread largely unchecked within the European Union.

A steady stream of pro-Russian views is engulfing the Bulgarian debate over the war. The Kremlin’s talking points are shared by politicians, the mainstream media and experts. As a result, the invasion has divided public opinion, fueling fears that democratic values ​​in the EU’s poorest country are under threat.

“Bulgaria has been the target of systematic disinformation campaigns for years — and those efforts are now bearing fruit,” said Goran Georgiev, an analyst at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy. “Some Bulgarians unequivocally believe in conspiracy theories and have lost faith in traditional media.”

It is a concern not only for democracy campaigners, but also for Bulgaria’s new government, formed last year under Kiril Petkov, whose campaign focused on cleaning up politics and fighting corruption.

In Western European eyes, the examples of conspiracy stories and the penetration of pro-Putin views are shocking. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Petkov had to fire his own defense minister, who continued to call the illegal invasion a “special operation,” adopting Putin’s favorite euphemism.

Popular public figures and media in Bulgaria are also spreading pro-Russian stories from elsewhere. Take the case of the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, where a small group of Ukrainian soldiers held out against the Russian siege for weeks until they finally surrendered.

The pro-Kremlin Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda carried a version of events that depicted the Ukrainian troops as Nazis. The article was subsequently translated and reprinted in the Bulgarian tabloid Attempt, a popular Moscow sympathetic newspaper. It claimed the surrendered Ukrainian soldiers had been found covered in swastikas tattoos and Hitler quotes – and offered this as proof that Putin was justified in invading Ukraine – and refuted debunked claims that the Ukrainian military is made up of fascists.

Swastika Tattoos

The story itself was bad enough. But the article came to the attention of Bulgarian journalist and television host Martin Karbovski, who shared it on Facebook with his 530,000 followers. In a country of 7 million people, he is one of the most popular personalities on the social platform.

In April, one of Petkov’s coalition government partners nominated Karbovski for a role with the Bulgarian media regulator that oversees public broadcasting and media pluralism. Karbovski’s candidacy sparked outrage among the journalistic community in Bulgaria and within hours he withdrew his offer.

Karbovski portrayed himself as someone who eventually refused to become a civil servant and accepted a job from those in power who had been his enemies.

According to Bozhidar Bozhanov, the Bulgarian minister of e-government, the problem is difficult to solve. Bulgaria had a systemic weakness to Russian propaganda long before the war started, he said.

“The Kremlin uses troll factories, anonymous sites and local media that they somehow control,” Bozhanov told POLITICO. “As in other Eastern European countries, we cannot simply shut down several Russian-controlled media outlets and solve the disinformation problem.”

The government’s repeated attempts to force Facebook and other social media companies to take more steps to remove Russian propaganda from their platforms have also largely fallen on deaf ears, Bozhanov told POLITICO.

Poland and Hungary have also struggled with pro-Russian propaganda. But why is Bulgaria apparently so vulnerable? The answer is partly cultural.

The historical ties between Bulgaria and Russia are deep. Many Bulgarians speak Russian and therefore find it easy to access the Kremlin version of events. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow was seen by many as an ally.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Russia defeated the Turks and ended Ottoman rule in Bulgaria. Since then, there has been a mindset in Bulgaria that sees Russia as a liberator.

Media freedom in the country has been undermined for years. Bulgaria finished 91st in the most recent Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, next year’s 112th, and the NGO still describes the state of media freedom in the country as “fragile and unstable”. The few remaining independent publications struggle to survive.

‘Vulnerable and unstable’

Only 10 percent of Bulgarians think that the media in their country is independent, but many are apparently still willing to believe what they read. “One of the major problems in Bulgarian society is the lack of critical thinking,” said Velislava Popova, editor-in-chief of the news site Dnevnik.bg. “Bulgarians are more likely to rely on fake news and manipulations because we can’t discern misinformation.”

During the pandemic, conspiracy theorists sowed falsehoods around the world and found a particularly receptive audience in Bulgaria, where vaccine hesitation was high.

Revival, an extreme nationalist party, took advantage of the COVID-19 conspiracies in last fall’s election and transformed itself from a fringe vote into a political force represented in parliament. Now the party turns its attention to the war.

It has organized “peace rallies” where the Kremlin’s views on the war were expressed and Russian flags waved. Footage of the events of Revival has been picked up by Russian media and presented as evidence of Bulgarian support for the invasion of Ukraine.

Revival’s party leader Kostadin Kostadinov has about 270,000 followers on Facebook and he dominates the political debate on the network. Facebook is still the most popular social media in Bulgaria, which is important because according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021, almost 70 percent of Bulgarians get their news from social media.

In March, a petition was launched calling for greater transparency about how Facebook moderates its content. “We noticed an interesting trend: profiles that said nothing was wrong were blocked, while those that were aggressive and supported the war in Ukraine could not even be removed,” said Martin Ossikovski, media history lecturer at the New Bulgarian University. , behind the petition.

One possible explanation, Ossikovski said, is that Russian trolls target specific profiles and report them in scores for allegedly violating social media rules, and Facebook algorithms automatically block them.

Facebook said it is fighting propaganda in coordination with authorities in Bulgaria. “We are taking extensive measures to curb the spread of misinformation about our services in the region and continue to consult with external experts and government departments, including in Bulgaria,” said a spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company Meta.

“We are removing content that violates our policies and working with third-party fact-checkers in the region to debunk false claims. When they rate something as false, we move this content lower in Feed so that fewer people see it. We’re also empowering people to decide what they read, trust, and share by adding warning labels to content that has been rated false.”

But the rot may be too deeply ingrained. According to Ossikovski, the Bulgarian academic, Facebook’s content moderation subcontractors could work with “young, unqualified, inexperienced employees who don’t really know much about media ethics and who are probably themselves influenced by pro-Russian propaganda.” Even when messages spreading Moscow’s lies are reported to these moderators, “they don’t really see them as problematic.”

There is one thing that can change all this: the war itself. Despite the abundance of propaganda, there are signs that Bulgarian public opinion has changed since the invasion began. According to a poll of 1,000 people, Putin’s approval rating in Bulgaria was 32 percent in February. By April, that had dropped to 25 percent.

“When Russia started shelling Ukrainian cities,” Georgiev said, “people instinctively began to doubt the lies.”

Mark Scott contributed to the reporting.

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