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Network of Facebook groups spreading disinformation

Over 100 different groups and pages on Facebook operate within a network that has been spreading disinformation since 2020. The groups gained popularity amidst the pandemic and initially focused on the topic of COVID-19, measures to control the spread of the virus, and vaccines. With the onset of the war in Ukraine, the network has shifted its focus to disseminating pro-Russian disinformation. The same leading principle has been maintained, however, with each topic being used to aim anti-systemic messages at the regular governments in power since the early days of the pandemic.

A network of groups with a shared vision, messages, and administrators

The groups are hard to tell apart from each other visually, almost always featuring a cover photo that repeats the name, written in capital letters, on a colored background.

All the groups also share common administrators. These are most often the profiles of Tsvetan Bonev and Yordan Bonev. In addition, the groups are also administered by Facebook pages which look identical and produce similar content.

 

Factcheck.bg’s investigation has identified 17 such pages, which administer a total of over 80 groups. Most of the pages are registered on Facebook as news or media profiles. A common thread connects both the names and descriptions of these pages. Most present themselves as an “alternative” source of information: Antimedia, Objective News, Antinews, Secret Knowledge, and Social Critique, among others.

Who are the group administrators? 

Formerly named T.B., Tsvetan Bonev’s profile features personal photos of an individual bearing a clear resemblance to a person by that name who is the son of Ventsislav Angelov, a.k.a. Chicago. Angelov is the chairman of the “Truth and Only the Truth” party founded in 2020. The Ruse man was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his involvement in organizing an international drug trafficking channel from Peru to Spain. After hiding abroad for several years, he was extradited from Germany to Bulgaria, where he served his sentence.

Yordan Bonev’s profile displays personal photos and videos where Bonev uses his own name. Yordan Bonev is also the son of Ventsislav “Chicago” Angelov. He gained popularity in 2013 when he and Biser Milanov were arrested in the first days of the protests against the Oresharski government in 2013. Nikolay Barekov, then executive director of TV7, was also with them. Milanov and Bonev were subsequently taken in for hooliganism and provocations during the protests. Yordan Bonev later reached out to the press and institutions, claiming it was with the mayor of Sofia’s Mladost neighborhood, Desislava Ivancheva, who had been preparing a ‘coup’.

Fresh additions to the network

On February 4th of this year, one of the more popular groups in the network renamed itself from WE WANT THE RESIGNATION OF THE DENKOV – GABRIEL CABINET to We Want the Resignation of the National Traitors from the Coalition.

Since February 5th, a profile named Nikolay Barekov, Enlightened Journalist has been actively posting within that group as an administrator, alongside Tsvetan Bonev, Yordan Bonev, and one of the pages. The group has nearly 20 thousand members.

Over the past several weeks, Tsvetan Bonev’s profile has also been sharing links to the Barekov News (BNews) channel on Telegram, urging users to join “our Telegram channel”. The profile Nikolay Barekov, Enlightened Journalist also shares links to the BNews website within the group. A fact-check by Factcheck.bg showed that the domain bnews.bg is registered to a company named M Online Ltd. According to data from the Commercial Register, its manager and sole proprietor is Maria Kalendarska.

This is not the only group within this network where the profile Nikolay Barekov, Englightened Journalist routinely spreads false claims. An investigation by Factcheck.bg from August 2023 shows that the same profile has used several groups in the network to share the false claim that “Bulgaria is under Russian siege in the Bay of Burgas”.

What messages are being spread?

The network gained initial momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic. Messages in the groups sowed doubt about the legality and effectiveness of vaccines. With the introduction of the EU’s Digital Green Certificates to certify one’s recovery or vaccination status, the groups started to exploit and stoke people’s resentment over restrictions. In total, 17 of the groups in the network disseminated disinformation about the pandemic, as shown by Factcheck.bg’s investigation.

Since February 24, 2022, attention has been focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine. Factcheck.bg has uncovered a large number of groups, part of the same network, expressing clear support for Russia — 30 in total. In all of them, disinformation about the war is being spread through the methods described earlier: by publishing content from websites with domains that change every few months. Currently, they frequently republish posts from the personal profile of Yordan Bonev and the National Unity page.

However, regardless of the topic, the main target of these groups since 2021 has been the regular governments formed by Bulgarian MPs. It is notable that during this period almost no groups in the network have criticized the management of the caretaker governments appointed by President Rumen Radev. Only two groups sharing similar messages exist: DECEIVED AND MISLED BY RADEV AND KIRIL PETKOV and I DO NOT SUPPORT THE AMERICAN AGENT RUMEN RADEV.

The majority of groups being administered by this network have made calls for the overthrow of the government. Initially, this included the governments of GERB, BSP, ITN, and DB between December 2021 and June 2022; later on, the Denkov–Gabriel caretaker government was targeted. In total, there are 43 groups with such messages.

Among the groups with a domestic political focus, there are “broad-spectrum” anti-systemic messages, such as IT’S TIME FOR A SYSTEM CHANGE! NO PARTIES and THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE! WE ARE AGAINST ANY POWER AGAINST THE PEOPLE, a series of different variations of demands for resignation, imprisonment, etc. directed at former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov or the current government (one of the most popular groups at the moment has over 50 thousand members and demands the resignation of the Denkov–Gabriel cabinet), as well as calls for the leader of the Vazrazhdane party Kostadin Kostadinov to be nominated as prime minister. However, this group changed its name and focus in June 2023 and is now an entertainment group for fans of Bulgaria’s reality series The Bachelor.

Among all the attempts to promote “national unity” within this network composed of groups posting on various topics, the most successful one has been 🇧🇬 REFERENDUM AGAINST THE EURO! LET’S KEEP THE BULGARIAN LEV 🇧🇬, administered by the two profiles of Tsvetan Bonev and Yordan Bonev (the group has changed its name several times since its creation in October 2022, but these changes are only stylistic). In less than two months, it had gathered nearly 78 thousand members. Today they number over 83 thousand.

How the network operates

The National Unity page and Referendum against the Euro group began working in parallel, with content being shared from one to the other; links to websites marked as unreliable by Facebook’s algorithm were minimized by the end of 2023 and entirely removed by late February 2024.

These groups operate through internal “promotion circles” within other already popular groups. The admins post almost identical content, inviting the members of one group to join a newly created one and often urging them to invite their friends, as well.  

This constant generation of new groups could be explained by Meta’s policy to reduce the visibility of certain posts (demotion) so that they reach fewer people. Reasons for downgrading the visibility of a profile, group, or publication can vary: low-quality content, unoriginal (foreign) content, clickbait content, proven false content, or content whose distribution is artificially increased through the creation of a network of seemingly different pages. The posts in the groups administered by Tsvetan Bonev meet several of Facebook’s criteria for reducing visibility. With the cessation of sharing links to websites that Facebook’s algorithm may detect as unreliable, the largest group against the introduction of the euro in Bulgaria has been active for over a year and is gaining new followers.

This model demonstrates how Facebook pages and groups can be used to gather large groups of users who are flooded with specific suggestions and redirected to new groups and pages, according to the organizers’ current needs. Bypassing the social network’s algorithms by simulating authentic user activity allows them to deceive people into believing that there are a large number of spontaneous actions by different users. In reality, it involves an organized team of a small number of profiles and pages that manage, moderate, and fill the groups in the network with harmful content.

This article was researched with the support of SCIENCE+.

Sources:

Supreme Court of Cassation, DECISION № 154, Sofia, 28 September 2015 [in Bulgarian, Върховен касационен съд, Р Е Ш Е Н И Е № 154, гр. София, 28 септември 2015 г.]: https://www.vks.bg/pregled-akt.jsp?type=ot-spisak&id=8971A19A019A96EBC2257ECE002AD2A0

Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), “Extradition preparations for Ventsislav ‘Chicago’ Angelov” [in Bulgarian, БНР, Подготвят екстрадицията от Германия на Венцислав Ангелов-Чикагото]: https://bnr.bg/radiobulgaria/post/100952946/podgotvat-ekstradiciata-ot-germania-na-osaednia-za-mejdunaroden-trafik-vencislav-angelov-chikagoto

Dnevnik, “Coup d’état slashed, or the fabricated attack against Geshev’s protesters” [in Bulgarian, Дневник, Цената на преврата пада, или фалшивата атака срещу протестиращите срещу Гешев]: https://www.dnevnik.bg/politika/2019/09/11/3962016_cenata_na_prevrata_pada_ili_falshivata_ataka_sreshtu/#_=_

Offnews, “Four arrested at protest in front of parliament (photos) [in Bulgarian, Offnews, Четирима арестувани на протеста пред парламента (снимки)]: https://offnews.bg/balgaria/chetirima-arestuvani-na-protesta-pred-parlamenta-snimki-217884.html

Vesti.bg, “Citizens’ complaint against Ivancheva attempted coup” [in Bulgarian: Vesti.bg, Гражданин със сигнал срещу Иванчева за опит за преврат]: https://www.vesti.bg/bulgaria/grazhdanin-sys-signal-sreshtu-ivancheva-za-opit-za-prevrat-6099562

Factcheck.bg, “No, Bulgaria is not under Russian siege in the Bay of Burgas” [in Bulgarian, Factcheck.bg, Не е вярно, че България е под руска обсада в Бургаския залив на Черно море]: https://factcheck.bg/ne-e-vyarno-che-balgariya-e-pod-ruska-obsada-v-burgaskiya-zaliv-na-cherno-more/

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The responsibility for the content lies entirely with Factcheck.bg.

Публикацията е създадена с подкрепата на Европейския съюз. Отговорността за съдържанието е изцяло на Factcheck.bg.

Mina Kirkova
Mina Kirkova
Mina Kirkova received her education at the Classical High School (National High School for Ancient Languages ​​and Cultures) in Sofia and the University of Glasgow in Great Britain with a degree in Cinema and Television. Her professional career began at BiT TV, where she worked as an international editor. After the channel ceased to exist, she began working in the field of entertainment television as an editor in many of the most successful reality formats in the country. In December 2020, in a team with Georgi Marchev and Simona Kostadinova, she investigated the fake news about the PCR tests for coronavirus. The investigation won a prize from the Health on Target hackathon, organized by AEJ.

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