As bullets and bombs fall in Ukraine, Russia is waging an expanding information war across Eastern Europe, researchers and officials say, using fake accounts and propaganda to spread the fear over 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.
“Focusing on these reactions is the low-hanging fruit of 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 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 espionage grounds, prompting the Kremlin to threaten to end diplomatic relations 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.
Trolls and fake anonymous accounts remain valuable parts of the arsenal. Disinformation Situation Center researchers have identified anonymous accounts spreading pro-Russian content, as well as online harassment directed at Bulgarians who have expressed support for Ukraine.
Some of the harassments appeared coordinated, based on the speed and similarities of the attacks, concluded researchers from DSC, a Europe-based nonprofit organization of disinformation researchers.
“This bullying tactic is not new, but the war in Ukraine has brought some of the coordination efforts into the public space,” the DSC wrote.
Reflecting the difficulty of identifying the origin of disinformation, the DSC also identified a network of three anonymous Facebook accounts spreading pro-Russian talking points that researchers believe may be part of a Russian disinformation campaign.
Facebook announced on Friday that it would remove the accounts, which appeared to violate some of the platform’s rules around multiple profiles. But the platform said it found nothing to suggest the accounts were part of a disinformation network. Instead, they were operated by a single Bulgarian user who liked to repost other people’s pro-Russian content.
Indeed, after a senior Bulgarian official revealed Russia’s scheme to pay some journalists and political experts 2,000 euros, or 4,000 Bulgarian leva, for publishing friendly content, the author mocked of the idea of taking the money.
“Thank you, Mr. Putin, for the gesture, but I don’t need 4000 leva to love Russia,” they wrote. “I love him for free.”