Over the last years and decades Bulgaria has been a testing ground for disinformation campaigns, including Russian propaganda. The false news often focus on anti-liberal sentiments, presenting the EU as a failing, highly dysfunctional union on the verge of falling apart. What can we learn from the mistakes made by Bulgarian authorities?
Last November several schools in Bulgaria emptied out within minutes after parents grabbed their children from their classes, petrified that social workers might take them away from them and, possibly, give them up for adoption abroad. Quickly it became clear that these parents fell victim to an online disinformation campaign.
The school panic is just a recent example of a wave of fake news and propaganda that has been plaguing the media landscape in Bulgaria for years, given the plight of media freedom in the country.
Thirty years after the fall of communism, Bulgaria, the poorest member state of the European Union, has been struggling to build up a free press. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Index, where the Balkan country ranks 111th out of 180 countries, Sofia has the worst media freedom within the Union. The press, rife with tabloid-style journalism, hate speech, and sensational headlines, has quickly turned into a fertile ground for falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and disinformation. The advent of social media is now catalyzing the situation even more.
Bulgaria historically is a country torn between East and West – it joined the EU in 2007, while maintaining its traditionally good ties with Russia since the decline of the USSR - and has been a testing ground for disinformation campaigns, including Russian propaganda. Often times such campaigns focus on anti-EU and anti-liberal sentiments, presenting the Union as a failing, highly dysfunctional system on the verge of falling apart. Minority groups in the country such as the LGBTQ community, Turks and Sinti and Roma have also often been a target of various deceptive claims.
Not surprisingly, the spread of disinformation intensifies prior and during elections in an attempt to sway people’s votes.
During the peak of the refugee crisis, disinformation efforts were concentrated on fear-mongering over asylum seekers, portraying them as a menace to Europe, “potential terrorists”, posing a “threat to national security” and bringing disease. Such anti-refugee rhetoric has been further exploited by both far-right and mainstream political parties to score cheap points. Paradoxically, Bulgaria has seen a small number of asylum seekers, compared to other Eastern European countries, but the topic, along with the use of deceptive and false claims, has been dominant in the media.
Unlike in Western Europe, disinformation campaigns in Bulgaria also target independent journalists. Control over the media sector by local businessmen and politicians has turned some media outlets into tools to discredit critical voices, including investigative journalists. They are often labelled as enemies of the people and national traitors.
The spread of disinformation and falsehoods pose a challenge for audiences across the globe. Sofia is no exception. 40 percent of Bulgarians and more than half of all children, aged 9-17, cannot differentiate between true and false information, according to a 2016 survey. A different poll, conducted a year later, shows that one quarter of Bulgarians encounter false or misleading content on political topics every day.
While there have been sporadic fact-checking efforts by individual publications, combating fake news proved a difficult task, given that media literacy and critical thinking skills are mostly not taught in school.