Russian information warfare spreads to Eastern Europe

WASHINGTON (AP) — As bullets and bombs fall in Ukraine, Russia is waging an expanding information war across Eastern Europe, using fake accounts and propaganda to sow fear of refugees and rising fuel prices while calling the West an untrustworthy ally.

In Bulgaria, the Kremlin paid journalists, political analysts and other influential citizens 2,000 euros a month to post pro-Russian content online, a senior Bulgarian official revealed this month. Researchers have also uncovered sophisticated networks of fake accounts, bots and trolls in a growing spread of disinformation and propaganda in the country.

Similar efforts are unfolding in other countries in the region as Russia seeks to shift the blame for its invasion of Ukraine, the resulting refugee crisis and rising food and food prices. fuel.

For Russian leaders, broad propaganda and disinformation campaigns are a highly cost-effective alternative to traditional tools of war or diplomacy, according to Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which has been tracking Russian disinformation for a long time. years.

“Stirring up these reactions is the low-hanging fruit for Russian information operations,” Brookie said. “Their state media do better audience analysis than most media companies in the world. Where these narratives have been successful are in countries where there is more militarization of national discourse or more polarized media markets.

Bulgaria has long been seen as a staunch ally of Russia, although the country of 7 million has turned its attention west in recent decades, joining NATO in 2004 and the European Union three years later.

When Bulgaria, Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries sided with their NATO allies in support of Ukraine, Russia responded with a wave of disinformation and propaganda that sought to exploit public debates on globalization and westernization.

For Poland, this took the form of anti-Western propaganda and conspiracy theories. One, released by a Russian-allied hacking group in an apparent effort to divide Ukraine and Poland, suggested that Polish gangs were harvesting organs from Ukrainian refugees.

Russia’s assault comes as governments in Eastern Europe, like others around the world, grapple with discontent and unrest over rising fuel and food prices.

Bulgaria is in a particularly vulnerable position. Pro-Western Prime Minister Kiril Petkov lost a vote of no confidence last month. Concerns about the economy and fuel prices only increased when Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Bulgaria last spring. The upheaval prompted President Rumen Radev to say his country was entering a “political, economic and social crisis”.

The government’s relationship with Moscow is another complication. Bulgaria recently expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff on spying grounds, prompting the Kremlin to threaten to end diplomatic ties with it.

The same week, the Russian Embassy in Sofia issued a fundraising appeal urging Bulgarian citizens to donate their private funds to support the Russian military and its invasion of Ukraine.

The Bulgarian government reacted angrily to Russia’s attempt to solicit donations for its war from a NATO country.

“It’s outrageous,” tweeted Bozhidar Bozhanov, who served as e-government minister in Petkov’s cabinet. “It’s not fair to use the platform to fund the abuser.”

The embassy has also spread debunked conspiracy theories claiming the US is running secret biological labs in Ukraine. Embassies have become key to Russia’s disinformation campaigns, especially as many tech companies have begun restricting Russian state media since the invasion began.

Fake accounts remain a valuable part of the arsenal. Researchers from the Disinformation Situation Center have uncovered what they believe to be a network of fake Facebook accounts spreading Kremlin arguments and disinformation to the Bulgarian public. The Europe-based DSC is a non-profit, non-governmental organization of disinformation researchers working around the world.

The network, which is still operational, usually publishes criticism of Bulgaria’s decision to side with NATO over Russia. “If the Bulgarians anywhere in the world have a brother people, it is the Russians,” reads a characteristic article.

Some of the content seemed to be celebrating Russia’s decision to cut natural gas exports: “Prepare for a dark, cold and hungry winter,” the author wrote.

DSC researchers reported the network to Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Meta did not respond to messages seeking comment on its decision to leave the network.

“This network is just a small drop in the ocean of pro-Kremlin disinformation in Bulgaria,” the DSC wrote, citing a study by a Bulgarian non-governmental organization that found pro-Russian propaganda on Popular Bulgarian websites had increased 10 times after the Russian invasion. from Ukraine.

Other posts from the account attacked transgender people or featured content about QAnon, the US-based movement that argues Donald Trump is waging a covert war against satanic cannibals who covertly control world affairs. It’s a conspiracy theory that has caused the violence in the United States, and it’s a theory that Russian disinformation agents seem eager to encourage elsewhere.

The operation also aimed to limit the damage. After a senior Bulgarian official revealed Russia’s scheme to pay 2,000 euros, or 4,000 Bulgarian leva, to certain journalists, politicians or other public figures for posting pro-Russian content, Facebook accounts identified by the DSC quickly issued a rebuttal portraying Russia’s actions as simply those of a benevolent patron seeking to support everyday Bulgarians.

“Thank you Mr. Putin for the gesture, but I don’t need 4000 leva to love Russia,” the anonymous author wrote. “I love him for free.”


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