The high penetration of Russian propaganda and Kremlin conspiracy theories worries the Bulgarian government, some of its citizens and especially the European Union. There are cultural and historical reasons for this, Politico notes.
NATO is to blame for Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, Washington is helping the Kyiv fascist regime build secret biological weapons laboratories.
Welcome to Bulgaria, a country where all of the above conspiracy theories find fertile ground and spread rapidly, despite being within the European Union. According to Politicois the only member state EUwhere Russian propaganda has the most supporters, including politicians, journalists and “experts”.
Public opinion is divided, and fears that democratic values are under threat run strong in the poorest and most corrupt country in the EU, which was admitted to the EU and NATO only to be snatched out of Russia’s orbit.
“Bulgaria has been the target of a systematic disinformation campaign for many years, and these efforts are bearing fruit,” said Goran Georgiev, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia. “Some Bulgarians believe in conspiracy theories and have lost faith in traditional media.” This is what concerns the government of Kirill Petkov, elected with a promise to fight corruption.
In the eyes of Western Europeans, the percentage of Bulgarians who believe in Kremlin propaganda is very high. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, Petkov fired a defense minister who insisted it be labeled as a special military operation, in line with Putin’s doctrine.
Pro-Kremlin Russian tabloid “TVNZ” published a version of events in which the Ukrainian troops were portrayed as Nazis. The article was then translated and reprinted in the Bulgarian tabloid “Work”, a popular newspaper sympathetic to Moscow. It claimed that surrendered Ukrainian soldiers were found covered in swastika tattoos and quotes from Hitler. And it was offered as proof that Putin was right in invading Ukraine, repeating debunked claims that the Ukrainian armed forces were made up of fascists.
The story itself was quite unpleasant (for the Western media. Editor’s note). But the article came to the attention of Bulgarian journalist and TV presenter Martin Karbowski, who shared it with his 530,000 Facebook 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 Karbowski for a position on the Bulgarian media regulator, which oversees public broadcasters and media pluralism. Karbovsky’s candidacy aroused outrage among the journalistic community in Bulgaria, and a few hours later he withdrew his application.
According to Digital Government Minister Bozhidar Bozanov, the problem with Russian propaganda in Bulgaria is systemic and chronic. “The Kremlin uses troll factories, anonymous websites and local media controlled by it. As in other Eastern European countries, we cannot simply shut down Russian-controlled media to solve this problem,” Bozanov told Politico. But Bulgaria has the biggest problem of all Eastern European countries in the European Union, even bigger than Hungary. The historical ties between Bulgaria and Russia are very deep. Many Bulgarians speak Russian and more easily believe what the Kremlin says. For many, Moscow is an ally.
In 1877-78, Russia expelled the Ottomans from Bulgaria, and since then many have considered it a liberating country. Only 10% of Bulgarians believe that the Bulgarian media are independentbut still trust them. “One of the biggest problems in Bulgarian society is the lack of critical thinking. We don’t know how to separate disinformation and believe fake news,” said Velislava Popova, director of the news website Dnevnik.bg.
It is no coincidence that disinformation has been rampant during the pandemic, and Bulgaria has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the EU. The highly nationalist Renaissance party made it into parliament and now, due to the pandemic, has shifted its focus to the war, campaigning for Kremlin propaganda. At its rallies, along with the Bulgarian ones, Russian flags flutter. The Russian media presented these images as a sign of Bulgaria’s support for Putin’s invasion.
The leader of the Renaissance party, Kostadin Kostadinov, has about 270,000 followers on Facebook and dominates political debate online. Facebook is still the most popular social network in Bulgaria, which is important because, according to the 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, about 70% of Bulgarians get their news from social networks.
Martin Osikowski, a professor of media history at the New Bulgarian University, told Politico that he noticed that accounts belonging to people who supported Russia could not be deleted. Instead, accounts that were neutral or pro-Ukrainian were blocked.
Some citizens protested on Facebook, complaining that it contributes to the spread of false news and Russian propaganda. One possible explanation is that the trolls are targeting thousands of accounts and Facebook’s algorithms automatically block them. Facebook responded that it was trying to fight propaganda in cooperation with the Bulgarian authorities and other experts. “We remove content that violates our policies, and we work with independent sources to cross-reference news and reject those that are false,” a Meta spokesperson said. However, Osikovsky noted that those people with whom Facebook works are young and inexperienced, and may themselves be influenced by Russian propaganda, and cannot distinguish the Kremlin’s lies.
There is one thing that can change everything: 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% in February. By April, it had dropped to 25%.
“As soon as Russia started shelling Ukrainian cities,” Georgiev said, “people instinctively began to doubt the lies.”
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