The orthodox cathedral Alexander Nevsky in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital (named after a Russian Tzar) , Source: Georgi Kalaydzhiev / Unsplash

Report: South Eastern Europe is uniquely vulnerable to propaganda

Report: South Eastern Europe is uniquely vulnerable to propaganda

The report identifies Bulgaria and Serbia as the main hotspots of disinformation in the region

On 19 April, the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Bulgarian think tank, published a report on the effects and penetration of pro-Kremlin and Chinese propaganda in the media cycle of South Eastern Europe – specifically in Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

The document titled ‘Breaking the Code: Russian and Chinese Disinformation and Illicit Financial Flows in Southeast Europe’ goes into detailed media monitoring, highlighting the most popular internet media outlets, as well as the frequency in which they publish popular propaganda talking points.

Additionally, researchers have also provided analyses on the activity of official Russian diplomatic channels, as well as their relative impact on the social discourse – a point echoed by a report from the EU’s disinformation unit with the European External Action Service from earlier this year.

Unique vulnerabilities

One of the main points of the report is that Europe’s South East and specifically the Balkans are uniquely vulnerable to the spread of pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation. This is largely due to the region having less stable democratic institutions coupled with a very influential organised crime factor and a shared history with Russia/the Soviet Union.

Researchers claim that illicit financial flows account for around 1 to 1.5 trillion USD, between 3%-5% of the world’s GDP. Moreover, the report places Serbia at the centre of disinformation dissemination as they are a valued target.

This is due to Serbia’s conflicted history of civil war during the break-up of Yugoslavia – prime conditions to develop animosity and favourability to anti-Western talking points. Additionally, after the split, many Serbian minorities were left in Bosnia and Croatia, letting them become a sort of proxy and conduit for disinformation.

On the other side of the spectrum, researchers claim, is Bulgaria, which has neither of these natural "advantages" as a disinfo vector, but has access to the EU institutions. This makes it a prime candidate for legitimising said talking points within the European Union’s official framework.

In both countries, however, the narratives developed through the spread of disinformation are quite different, and suitable to local contexts. The report claims that Serbia, for instance, is portrayed as a rugged individualist country, going at it alone, sovereign and against the grain of the proverbial West.

Bulgaria, though, as a NATO and EU member, is portrayed as a country bought by US and EU interests, as lacking sovereignty and the powers of self-determination. Both narratives appeal to certain sensibilities among the local populations.

Media monitoring

When it comes to media monitoring, the report lists the most popular five news websites in each country, determined by the number of visits in 2022. Researchers then took a sample of articles from each country from the first six months of 2022 and looked for three specific Russian propaganda talking points related to the invasion of Ukraine.

Here they are:

  • Russia is conducting a special military operation for the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine;
  • The US and other Western countries are secretly developing unconventional weapons in bio-laboratories in Ukraine;
  • The US and NATO are malign actors seeking world domination through duplicitous and aggressive means.

Researchers found that five out of eight countries have at least one mainstream news website as an endemic source of pro-Russian propaganda. This was the case in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. In the case of Bulgaria, researchers found 2,479 propaganda articles, while in Serbia – 1,875. Taken together, they accounted for nearly half of all pro-Russian identified articles of all eight countries.

In Serbia, four out of the five main news websites were found to spread these talking points, making it by far the most pronounced case. Bulgaria, on the other hand, accounted for the highest volume of pro-Kremlin articles, about 30% of the total collected articles from all eight countries.

Social media in the Balkans

Oftentimes, social media turns out to be the prime vector for spreading disinformation and Facebook seems to be the dominant player in the Balkans, accounting for around 90% of the social media traffic in the region. At the same time, each country in the list features a Russian embassy that maintains a social media presence and also takes an active part in spreading disinformation.

According to the report, North Macedonia and Montenegro were subject to the most posts during the first half of 2022. Bulgaria came in third, followed by Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia (data for Kosovo was unavailable).

However, the results of this social media activity were quite different across national lines. The report notes that the Russian Embassy in Bulgaria was the most successful in receiving interactions, with a staggering number of 1,889,000 simply dwarfing all comparisons to the other six.

Ultimately, it seems apparent that disinformation and foreign propaganda content has made its way into South Eastern Europe through a variety of channels, as multiple studies have pointed out. Researchers recommend that national governments and individual actors treat it as an ongoing process, especially in the cases of Bulgaria and Serbia.

At the same time, while disinformation creeping in is the result of decades-old problems, which consecutive governments have yet to find a concrete way to solve, in all eight cases, the countermeasures need to be immediate and decisive. Otherwise, the process of disinformation, social fragmentation and alienation is unlikely to change course or slow down.

On the same topic: Read Twice - a project to tackle fake news and disinformation by enhancing citizens` skills to assess information critically.



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