Bulgarian media is happy hunting ground for Russian trolls
Moscow is making good on threats to cut off gas supplies to Europe, with Poland and Bulgaria being the first ones to be affected. The move will only aggravate the sharp widening of the left (pro-Russian) and right (pro-West) divide in Bulgarian society underway since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three months ago – and could accelerate the country’s complete break from Russia at a time when the Bulgarian population has become one of the most vulnerable to Russian disinformation.
The Bulgarian government recently announced to be creating a special institution that will screen articles and analyze trends of fake news on social and online media. This is an important move, if likely largely futile in the face of a media environment suffering from monopolistic structures which don’t lend themselves to a diverse range of opinions, as tycoon owners regularly skew narratives to serve their own agendas. With media integrity now more important than ever, the EU must provide concrete support and guidance to foster a healthy and credible media sector capable of repelling disinformation in the country.
Russian relations under strain
Given Russia’s propensity to disseminate propaganda under the banner of legitimate fact, everyday Bulgarians are particularly susceptible to absorbing its fake news. That’s especially true given the two nations’ deep historical ties, which date all the way back to the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Today, the connections are economic as well as historical: in 2016, as much as a fifth of Bulgaria’s GDP came from investments linked to Moscow, not to mention Russian gas for its energy needs. In light of these historical ties, Bulgaria used to be one of the most Russophile EU countries, with Russia sporting an approval rating of 73% in 2019.
However, the invasion of Ukraine has brought about a change of heart among some of the pro-Russian population. At a recent event to commemorate that aforementioned Russo-Turkish war and the Bulgarian liberation which ensued, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was booed, heckled and pelted with snowballs by pro-Russian sympathizers for his perceived lack of support for the Kremlin. A vocal faction of the country has been questioning the appropriateness of the day as a cause for national celebration, just as Putin’s popularity among Bulgarians has dropped sharply.
Oligarch control and the media’s death
The consequence is a deepening divide of society between the pro-Russian and the pro-Western factions. That sharpening polarization is not helped by the fact that Bulgaria’s media is structured in such a way that a few billionaire oligarchs control almost all of the news outlets, and thus much of the political narratives. Among the most well-known ones is Ivo Prokopiev, who owns prominent media conglomerate Economedia, home to over 25 active publications.
Prokopiev has had long-standing close ties to the political elites and hasn’t been shy of using his platforms and their position to promote his own interests. For instance, Prokopiev is rumored to have leveraged his close relations with ex-President Rosen Plevneliev to acquire assets such as winemaker Damyanitza and Kaolin mining company for a fraction of their market value. After using his political network to consolidate his wealth, Prokopiev then did the same with his media interests: when the Kaolin mines were widely reported to have caused pollution among local drinking water supplies, mention of the scandal was conspicuous by its absence in Economedia periodicals.
With only a handful of people calling the shots in the media landscape, it’s no surprise that journalistic standards in Bulgaria have rapidly eroded. In 2004, Radio Free Europe left Sofia confident that the nation was on the road to embracing democracy and enshrining freedom of the media within its borders. Now it sits at a lowly 112th, behind all other EU members. A recent poll of everyday Bulgarians revealed 56% of those surveyed believed the ranking was entirely warranted.
But while the public are aware of the problem, they are powerless to change it. With the lowest GDP in the EU, the everyman cannot afford to even contemplate funding the news he consumes. When not having their car repeatedly set on fire, being beaten to within an inch of their life with hammers or actually murdered, principled journalists are still forced to rely on government funding to eke out a living – and adhere to toeing the line. The pressure to keep the boat from rocking is overwhelming.
Fake news must be stopped at the source
Clearly, Bulgarian media is at a low ebb at the present time. The new government under Petkov is at least taking action to undo some of the decades of damage, after the announcement of the anti-disinformation special institution. Whether or not the new authority will be able to address the issue of fake news successfully without causing further rifts in the already fragmented fabric of their society remains to be seen.
Now more than ever, the EU needs to show its support for Bulgaria, if only to ensure that the pro-Western parts of the population, especially at this time of geopolitical tension, don’t feel left in the dust by Brussels. A vibrant, diverse media is indispensable for a democratic society and so it’s incumbent on the EU to provide the resources, insight and support that Sofia needs in order to clean up its media industry, cut off fake news at the source and ensure that everybody is armed with facts not fabrications. Failure to do so will only exacerbate media illiteracy and polarize an already splintered and impoverished people even further.
Image credit: U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr