THE BLOG
07/30/2016 04:55 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2017

Russian propaganda in the Facebook age

This article is written together with Cristian Rosu, a Romanian media expert who works for Kirchhoff Consult Romania, a corporation for Public Relations and Communications. Cristian has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Bucharest. More articles and social media analyses by Cristian can be found on his blog.

The faceless aggression

There is little doubt that we are witnessing an intense cyberwar against the US, carried by specialized organizations working for various governments. Of specific interest for the American public and US institutions are the actions attributed to the organizations working for the Chinese and Russian governments. The recent scandal regarding the hacked DNC emails and their leak to the public is a clear example of the strong potential impact of the cyberwar actions.

The nature of the computer network penetrations are complex and involve various targets. As a general trend, the Chinese cyberespionage focuses mainly on theft of technology, know-how and intellectual property. A report by the cyber security firm Fire Eye indicates that US government actions and exposure of the Chinese actions contribute, at the present time, to a somewhat diminished activity of the Chinese hackers, coinciding with a reorganization of Chinese hacker groups by the government.

From Russia, with love, however, comes not only the hacking of computer networks belonging to political and commercial organizations and vacuuming of information, data, know-how and technology, but in addition to that, another hugely important element: propaganda.

The importance of political propaganda was recognized from the early days of the Russian Revolution. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin created the Communist International organization also known as the Comintern, which used the Communist Organizations formed in the European countries under its direction as agents of influence for propaganda. During the late 1920's and 1930's, the Comintern had formed hundreds of front organizations in the countries of Western Europe, directing through them various clandestine operations and intense propaganda favorable to the newly formed USSR. The success of the propaganda actions went as far as having leading intellectual elites in France, Germany and the UK openly praising the USSR. More details about this intense period of Soviet propaganda can be found in Stephen Koch's excellent book Double Lives

Fast forward to present times. A complex geopolitical situation exists in Europe, where the NATO alliance has received new country members previously belonging to the USSR or the Warsaw Pact: Poland, the Czech Republic, The Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria among others. After the annexation of Crimea, in March 2014, followed by what is considered a covert war against Ukraine by Russian military, US and the EU have imposed economic sanctions against Russia. Among the Russian reactions to this conjecture there is a massive propaganda effort directed at weakening the government support by the population in the EU countries, and inducing cracks in their alliances. As Stephen Collinson writes in his CNN analysis article about the DNC email leaks: "The Russian president has made no secret of his desire to weaken the West, his belief that the U.S. and its European allies have conspired against Russian interests in Georgia, Ukraine, Libya and Syria, and sees a restoration of Russian global prestige at the expense of the West as paramount".

Jakub Kalenski, a member of the European Commission's External Action Service task force assigned with studying Russian propaganda, quoted by Georgi Botev in an article published on the Euractiv website, explained that Russian disinformation was active in every European country. According to Kalenski, the propaganda actions are tailored to each specific sub-Eurozone: in the Baltic states, Russian TV channels are targeting the Russian speaking population, while in Scandinavia the disinformation is spread via trolling on the existing online discussions. In the Visegrad countries - Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary - there are dozens or even hundreds of disinformation websites. "A Hungarian think tank counted some 100 of them, and there were some 70-80 in Czechia, and a similar number in Slovakia".

In November 2014, Russia launched Sputnik Press, a communication channel to work alongside and deepen the penetration of the other two channels, The Voice of Russia and Russia Today which had a lower level of penetration due to a legacy level of suspicion within the Eastern European audience. Sputnik Press has three components: a news agency, a radio channel, and social media accounts with emphasis on Facebook and Youtube. The Sputnik Press radio channels and associated websites are broadcasting in 30 languages and target 130 cities worldwide.

Romania and Poland are the subjects of special focus of the Russian propaganda due to the presence of the NATO Missile Shield bases on their territories - a cause for intense Russian irritation. After the coup in Turkey and the potential realignment of Turkey with Russia, Romanian US bases are at the front line of NATO defenses, and therefore Romania constitutes an interesting case study.

Romanian public opinion - an adverse gradient towards Russia

Romanian historical experience with Russia has generated a legacy of mistrust, given the various manners in which Russia has occupied and deprived the country economically from the late 1800's until the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1957. After the withdrawal, during communist times, Romania has attempted a more or less dissimulated dissidence towards the USSR, and was subjected to a large scale disinformation war by the USSR, meant to mask those dissident tendencies form the West. The topic is extensively documented in Larry Watts' book: With Friends Like These: The Soviet Bloc's Clandestine War Against Romania.

Given the historical mistrust towards Russia within the Romanian population, the Russian propaganda agents are aware that official information originating from Kremlin is mistrusted. On the streets of Bucharest, the mistrust is so intense that any critique addressed against the US or EU by a news anchor or blog writer will attract suspicion that the person is a supporter of Vladimir Putin. Given this context, the Russian propaganda in Romania is tailored in specific manners, coated in nationalistic ideas, or associated with and expressed in Christian Orthodox religion language and broadcasted via social media - a media in continuous expansion and lacking any control of information accuracy.

Online and Social Media in Romania - tools of deep social penetration

While in Romania the Voice of Russia was closed, and there is no official branch of the Sputnik Press, the propaganda actions are carried through the Sputnik Moldova branch, which has a special section, "Moldova - Romania", broadcasting analyses and news.

However, the deepest and most effective social penetration is achieved by the online media, which has become the main channel of communication for both commercial and institutional communications. According to an assessment by the Romanian Office of Transmedia Audit (BRAT), within the next 10 years the internet usage will be extended to more than 90% of the urban and more than 70% or the rural populations. The rapid expansion of internet communication in the country is due to the aggressive growth of corporations offering mobile phone services and low cost subscription to smart phone devices. The process resulted in a 15% increase in the internet penetration in rural zones within the last 2 years. At this pace, within the next 5 years, the penetration of the online media communication will have exceeded the penetration of standard TV channels.

The social media networks recorded a significant growth beginning 2014. While Twitter has a limited number of subscribers in Romania, the number of Facebook accounts displayed explosive growth, with 5.5 million users in 2013, and 7 million in 2014. Facebook played a crucial role in Romanian presidential elections in 2014, where the young citizens were encouraged to vote via Facebook text messaging and have ensured the election of the current president Klaus Iohannis. From then on, Facebook Romania has become a main stream communication channel, where the prime minister, the president and other government officials and institutions are routinely issuing official statements via Facebook exclusively. At the present, Facebook Romania has close to 9 million users, which is, in fact, half of the country's population.

Russian Propaganda, the Romanian flavor

While the euro-sceptic movements in Central and Eastern European countries (Hungary, Poland, Greece) have grown in strength, the polls in Romania continue to show strong support for further integration with the EU, and a strong tendency for adopting western values and culture. For this reason, Russian propaganda could not use in Romania the same approaches used in the Eurosceptic countries such as Hungary and Greece.

Given the pro-western context of Romanian population and observing the specific impact of social media in the country, the Russian propaganda has adopted tactics where a large number of websites, blogs and social media accounts have been initiated, under assumed or fictitious names or pseudonyms, which propagate ideas aligned with Russian interests and ideology. The target of this propaganda effort is the online reading public, and especially the Facebook accounts. Given the above-mentioned public susceptibility regarding information coming from Russia, the ideas and themes of the propaganda are served with wrappers consisting of themes of interests such as public security, terrorism, natural resources, illegal immigration, refugee crisis, and nationalism. The mix of information is first published on the hundreds of websites and online blogs, and then propagated through Facebook. Current social media studies indicate that the average Facebook user logs in several times per day and about 91% of these users are sharing third party content at least once a week. Specific comparative studies indicate more intense Facebook exchanges in Romania than other countries, and therefore the assumption is that sharing is better exploited, especially when the titles of the propaganda posts are using bombastic formulations meant to capture the attention of the browsing public. In this manner, the websites propagating the intended disinformation are recording a significant number of hits.

Although varied in format and language, four main themes can be identified in Russian propaganda directed at the Romanian public: i) anti-American ii) Euro-sceptic iii) Pan-Orthodox and iv) miscellaneous spins and fabrications:

i. The anti-American and anti-NATO theme promote the idea that having become a strategic partner of the US and NATO, Romania has placed itself into a direction towards significant political and economic loss. By hosting the Missile Defense Shield bases on its territory, the country's relation with Russia has become antagonistic, and is likely to attract sure retaliation. In turn, the threat of Russian action will discourage outside investment in the country.

ii. The Eurosceptic postings present the EU as a strong threat to the Romanian industry and agriculture. The anti-EU texts produce references to the Romanian industry prior to 1989 and associate the disappearance of a large fraction of that industry - due in large part to inept and corrupt privatization processes - with the EU integration. This theme resonates strongly with the Romanian population of ages 50 and above, where some level of nostalgia for the "good old times" exists, and where participation to vote is significant.

iii. The Pan-Orthodox theme is largely inspired by the Russian and Kremlin ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin. The recurrent theme in Dughin's ideology is that the western values are incompatible with Eastern Europe culture: the West is "ill", and now the West is attempting to "contaminate" the healthy nations of Eastern Europe. The main topics, in Dughin's speeches, are associated with the rights of the LGBT community, and the solution promoted is a "return" to the Orthodox tradition, and of course, in doing so, align with the Russian Orthodox Church.

iv. Every event suitable to interpretation is given an anti-US, anti-EU spin, and pro-Russian argumentation. For example the buzzing of the US Navy vessels by the Russian fighter-jets is presented as a lesson given to a nasty aggressor, whereby the military Russian technology is presented as hugely superior, leaving the US ships as helpless ducks in the middle of the Black or Baltic seas.

It is interesting to note that the Russian propaganda channels in Romania are not mainstream, but densely distributed within the media fringes, an approach meant to increase their credibility. Each article propagating one or a combinations of the themes listed above are recording tens or hundreds of shares, some out of the sincere conviction of the online user, others due to paid clandestine "spreaders" (postacs in local slang). Similar to Scandinavian tactics, intense trolling has been observed in the commentary sections for articles favorable to EU and the US. A nucleus of the commentary appears to target the initiation of extreme right parties similar to Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece.

Countermeasures

The Romanian authorities have not yet reacted to this sort of propaganda. On one hand, they're busy with an intense and difficult effort to fight corruption at all levels of government. On the other hand, the fluid nature of the propaganda described herein makes it difficult to formulate legislation and methods to counteract it.

However, one initial response comes from the EU where The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) launched a new online portal dedicated to exposing Russian-influenced propaganda in North-Central Europe. According to the CEPA website "In launching the portal, CEPA has brought together leading journalists, civil society experts and media analysts from the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region. The portal is intended to serve as a resource for exposing and analyzing Russian information warfare directed against U.S. allies in the region. The platform will provide up-to-date information on the methods and techniques of Russian disinformation in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. It will fill a gap in the Western analytical community's knowledge of what Russia's nodes of disinformation are saying; and how its false narratives are being disseminated."

We argue here that Romania and Bulgaria should be included in the CEPA list of countries where the public media is monitored, and specifically Romania, where the focus of the propaganda efforts is more intense due to the US bases hosting the Missile Shield installations. It is also recommended that the appropriate branches of the Romanian government approach CEPA and initiate closer ties and cooperation.

Beyond the efforts by the government organizations, local, EU or US based, it is the effort of the individual online user which may limit the penetration of propaganda: using judgment in sharing, fact-checking the information that captured one's interest, and educating oneself on the issues of importance are efforts which could cut the teeth of disinformation and limit its penetration.