As bullets and bombs fall in Ukraine, Russia is waging an expanding information war throughout Eastern Europe, using fake accounts and propaganda to spread fears about 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 also have uncovered sophisticated networks of fake accounts, bots and trolls in an escalating spread of disinformation and propaganda in the country.
Similar efforts are playing out in other nations in the region as Russia looks to shift the blame for its invasion of Ukraine, the ensuing refugee crisis and rising prices for food and fuel.
For Russia's leaders, expansive propaganda and disinformation campaigns are a highly cost-effective alternative to traditional tools of war or diplomacy, according to Graham Brookie, senior director at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which has been tracking Russian disinformation for years.
“Stirring up these reactions is the low-hanging fruit for Russian information operations," Brookie said. "Their state media does audience analysis better than most of the media companies in the world. Where these narratives have succeeded are countries where there is more weaponization of domestic discourse or more polarized media markets.”
Bulgaria was long counted a stalwart Russian ally, though the country of 7 million residents has turned its attention westward in recent decades, joining NATO in 2004 and the European Union three years later.
When Bulgaria, Poland and other former Warsaw Pact nations sided with their NATO allies in support of Ukraine, Russia responded with a wave of disinformation and propaganda that sought to exploit public debates over globalization and westernization.
For Poland, that took the form of anti-Western propaganda and conspiracy theories. One, spread by a Russian-allied hacking group in an apparent effort to divide Ukraine and Poland, suggested that Polish gangs were harvesting the organs of Ukrainian refugees.
Russia's onslaught comes as Eastern European governments, like others around the world, grapple with dissatisfaction and unrest caused by rising prices for fuel and food.
Bulgaria is in a particularly vulnerable position. Pro-Western Prime Minister Kiril Petkov lost a no confidence vote last month. Concerns about the economy and fuel prices only increased when Russia cut off Bulgaria's supply of natural gas 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 staffers over concerns about espionage, prompting the Kremlin to threaten to end diplomatic relations with it.
The same week, Russia's embassy in Sofia posted a fundraising appeal urging Bulgarian citizens to donate their private funds to support the Russian army and its invasion of Ukraine.
Bulgaria's government reacted angrily to Russia's attempt to solicit donations for its war from a NATO country.
“This is scandalous,” tweeted Bozhidar Bozhanov, who served as minister of e-government in Petkov's cabinet. “It is not right to use the platform to finance the aggressor.”
The embassy also has spread debunked conspiracy theories claiming the U.S. runs secret biolabs in Ukraine. Embassies have become key to Russia's disinformation campaigns, especially since many technology companies have begun restricting Russian state media since the invasion began.
Trolls and fake and anonymous accounts remain valued parts of the arsenal. Researchers at the Disinformation Situation Center identified anonymous accounts that spread pro-Russian content, as well as online harassment directed at Bulgarians who expressed support for Ukraine.
Some of the harassment seemed coordinated, based on the speed and similarities in the attacks, concluded the researchers at the DSC, a Europe-based nonprofit organization of disinformation researchers.
“This intimidation tactic is not a new one, but the war in Ukraine has brought part 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 pushing pro-Russian talking points that researchers concluded could part of a Russian disinformation campaign.
Facebook said Friday it would take down the pages, which appeared to violate some of the platform's rules relating to multiple accounts. 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 certain journalists and political pundits 2,000 euros, or 4,000 Bulgarian leva, for posting friendly content, the author scoffed at the idea of taking the money.
“Thank you Mr. Putin for the gesture, but I do not need 4000 leva to like Russia," they wrote. “I like her for free.”
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