Anti-NATO disinformation channels and agents in online media and social networks
“I am for Russia, but to hold a referendum. Russia or the United States, the voice of the People, the voice of God “- wants a commentator on the Facebook page” Pop-folk hits are here “. His proposal is not about a new song, but a comment about a published link to an article entitled “Vladimir Putin: If Bulgaria leaves NATO, Russia will make it strong and protected!”.
In fact, such a statement by the Russian president does not exist in any reliable information source, but the comments on the topic are over 100. Only on this page, the mentioned fake news is liked by 599 people, and the page is one of the largest for popular music – with over 498 thousand followers.
The article is also posted in other Facebook groups and pages that also cover topics other than geopolitics. Among them are “TOP SECRET UFO ALIEN CONSPIRATIONS GOD UNIVERSE SECRETS AND MYSTERIES” with 98.5 thousand members, the page “VIP Brother 2018” with over 44 thousand followers, as well as a fan page of the movie Hachiko – A Dog’s Tale, with more than 39 thousand likes.
It is the same in at least 27 other different public groups and pages, according to a reference from the online tool CrowdTangle, which has over 1.19 million followers. When the fabricated message is not posted by an administrator, it is shared by one account.
Publications on similar topics have increased in recent months, the reasonс being the incident during a NATO military exercise at a workshop in Cheshnegirovo, the meeting of US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the NATO summit.
Geopolitics in a health site
The site Portal – 21 also released the same fabricated message in the middle of May: “If Bulgaria leaves NATO, Russia will make it strong and protected!“. The site defines itself as “one of the oldest health portals in Bulgaria”. The company Mars Media Group EOOD is indicated as the owner, but a reference in the Commercial Register shows that it has been erased.
The text has now a different title because it is constantly updated, but the url is the same. The new reports do not specify when are being updated and always refer to non-existent or misleading statements made by Putin. According to a reference in the shared links on Facebook, they were all headlines. Among them are: “Putin: NATO wants to use Bulgaria against Russia!”, “Vladimir Putin stands behind Radev’s government in Bulgaria!” and “Putin: Commitment to the EU and the United States will erase Bulgaria.”
On Juley 8, the most recent headline is “Putin slaughtered them: Don’t be mad at the mirror if you’re ugly – the United States is the king of stupidity!” The oldest user comment below the text is from December 18, 2020 – probably when the writing of the text began.
And so by the beginning of July this year, there were already over 203 thousand interactions – reactions, comments and shares on Facebook. The total number of accounts in the groups and pages where the url was published is over 2 million, as per CrowdTangle.
The profile that mainly shares links from Portal – 21 in the social network is Meglena Atanasova, about whom there is no public information, except that she lives in Plovdiv. She is part of the administrators and moderators of the group Friends of Russia!, Which has over 14.5 thousand members.
“This article may not be true”
The same fabricated text is posted on netvesti.com: “Vladimir Putin: If Bulgaria leaves NATO, Russia will make it strong and protected!”. Below the text it is specified that the site does not have the resources to verify the information and does not guarantee its authenticity. They also added that “it is possible that this article is not true and any resemblance to real people and events is accidental.”
Its distribution on Facebook was mainly handled by the profiles of Adrian Dimitrov and Dimitrov Adrian, who on May 21 shared the link more than 20 times in several groups and pages, including RPG (Russophile-Putinist Guard) that has over 22 thousand members, For a pure and holy Presidential Republic with President Rumen Radev that has 24 thousand members, as well as fan pages dedicated to BSP (Bulgarian Socialist party), Stand Up! Mafia, Get Out! (which is Bulgarian anti-corruption coalition) and head of state of Bulgaria.
Despite the clarification that the article may not have been checked, Dimitrov does not express doubts about its authenticity while posting on social networks.
In 2017, the Clean Internet Association described Adrian Dimitrov in an investigation as spreading “pro-Russian propaganda, fake news, advertising for the BSP, xenophobic messages and anti-GERB messages.” Bivol writes that he is an associate of “Stefan Proinov, who manages several dozen of sites and hundreds of Facebook accounts that share their content.”
In 2017, Proinov explained why most of the articles praised Russia and Putin – “(that is) because we have pages and groups with over 80% Russophile audience! Because we want to build cultural and fraternal bridges with Russia, many things connect our two nations – common memory, history, religion, historical memory, and if you will, the roots of our Slavic gene!”.
The same year, Mediapool wrote about Proinov: “the head of the” brigade “of pro-Russian and pro-BSP trolls SP was convicted of hoarding and possession of drugs for distribution.”
In some of his profiles on the social network, Proinov pointed out that he works for the Bulpress site – a group of sites, including regional ones. According to a reference in the Commercial Register, the owner and manager of the company Bulpress EOOD, registered in Shumen, is Adrian Dimitrov.
The front page of the main site of the bulpress.info group is dominated by reports about BSP, the party’s leader Cornelia Ninova and her latest appearances, as well as texts about other politicians from the Socialist Party.
“Out of NATO”
Among the pages on which links to fake news are published is the Facebook group News from Bulgaria. Aparts form the profiles of Stefan Proinov and a page called Bulpress, the profile of Valentin Georgiev is also in the administrators and moderators section. He shares texts from the website onovini.eu, which publishes official announcements from Kremlin and supports Russia’s position on geopolitical issues. Valentin Georgiev is a journalist in Duma newspaper, that is published by BSP.
He is among the administrators and moderators of dozens of Facebook groups and some of them are politicians and public officials.
One of these groups is MAFIA GET OUT OF POLITICS that has over 49 thousand members. The profile of Alexander Simov, who is a BSP MP in the 44th and 45th National Assembly, as well as a candidate for MP in the July 11 elections, has a similar role. Simov is also part of the party’s National Council. MAFIA GET OUT OF POLITICS is one of the groups in which links to fake news are published.
Sharing false information is also allowed in the group General RADEV-PRESIDENT OF BULGARIA that has 90 thousand members. As administrators are listed Valentin Georgiev and the profile of Gabriela Velichkova, which belongs to Gabriela Velichkova – a member of BSP’s National Council.
Iliya Hristozov, who is currently a member of the Communications Regulation Commission, and before that was President Rumen Radev’s advisor on economics and investments, is also an administrator of the group.
In the group FB COALITION ANTI-GERB – IT’S TIME! fake news such as “Vladimir Putin: USA shot down the Bulgarian fighter jet in the Black Sea! American = monster! ”,“ Gen. Reshetnikov: “We are working with Rumen Radev to get Bulgaria out of the EU and NATO” and “Rumen Radev “killed” the West: We will not comply with you, Bulgaria is a free country and decides for itself” are shared with more than 16,000 members. Outcries such as “All protests must unite in 1 under the slogan: RESIGNATION AND WITHDRAWAL THE EU AND NATO! ” are also shared.
Some of the texts are no longer available on the sites that published them, but the shares have been saved on Facebook, and the title is still visible.
Among the administrators of FB COALITION ANTI-GERB – IT’S TIME! are again Valentin Georgiev, as well as Petar Kichashki, who is a member of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination and executive director of the Institute of Modern Politics. Club Z writes that in 2013, he made his first attempt to enter politics through the lists of the civil movement Modern Bulgaria, and in 2014 he was a candidate for an MP in BSP’S civil list in 2014, and a candidate for a municipal councilor in the local vote in 2015.
In 2015, he also participated in the referendum for electronic voting with initiative committees, and next year, in the national poll, initiated by Slavi Trifonov’s Show.
During the referendum campaign in 2015, the law allowed each initiative committee to receive the right to obtain BGN 40,000 from the state, which it should spend only to state its position. Club Z then wrote that the initiative committees related to Kichashki and his partner in the Institute of Modern Politics Borislav Tsekov, who is also a former NMSS (National Movement for Stability and Progress) MP, used their packages for BGN 140,000 on the website Hashtag-BG – part of the eponymous foundation owned by owner Milena Evgenieva, who is Kichashki’s wife. She shares ownership of e-Mart Authority with Borislav Tsekov. The company is registered on the same address as the Hashtag-BG Foundation. Kichashki denies any abuse.
When Kichaski was appointed a member of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the media Club Z, Mediapool and Vevesti sent a letter to President Rumen Radev, asking what were the reasons for the decision. The head of state’s response is that his appointment came after nominations from NGOs.
During the referendum campaign in 2017, several people, including the journalist Kanna Racheva and the human rights activist Svetla Encheva, reported that their personal data had been misused and that they were present in a petition in support of an initiative committee linked to Kichashki, Tsekov and others. . They claimed they did not agree to participate and lodged complaints with the Commission for Personal Data Protection, which issued an infringement decision, which was later confirmed by the Sofia Administrative Court.
Eventually, in October 2020, the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) overturned the Commission for Personal Data Protection’s decision because there was no evidence that Kichashki and Tsekov had been personally notified of the proceedings, which violated their protection rights. The court fined the commission and remanded the case for retrial. Factcheck.bg enquired the commission whether it re-examined the case and what followed, to which we expect an answer.
“Against” NATO and “in” Russia
Valentin Georgiev from Duma newspaper is an administrator in other groups too. Among them is Friends of Russia!, which is managed by Meglena Atanasova, who publishes links to Portal 21- the health site that writes about geopolitics.
Factcheck.bg’s checkup found that in the dissemination of misinformation with geopolitical content emerges a certain model:
Fabricated messages or misinformation directed against NATO often go hand in hand with messages in favor of Russia. In the infographic you can see the links between the Facebook groups and the pages, as well as the profiles that manage them.
Websites and social media groups that have nothing to do with geopolitics, are used to spread this type of misinformation. According to their self-presentation, they have a health focus, often promise spiritual improvement or simply offer entertainment. Party members, institutions respresentatives and journalists in traditional media are also involved in spreading misinformation.
This is the conclusion of the report entitled Influence of Pro-Kremlin Public Pages in Bulgaria’s and Romania’s Facebook Ecosystem.
“Both Russian foreign policy and foreign non-profit entities, furthermore, are situated near the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) cluster, a party that has been a strong supporter of Russian economic and political interests in the country. In general, the Russian influence group is located relatively close to the Left-Wing Politics and Organizations group,” the researchers wrote in their report for the Center for the Study of Democracy.
Regardless of where they are shared, such fabricated messages can change the personal view of those who come across them and can even be used in a petition for Bulgaria’s withdrawal from NATO. And all of this just because these readers are interested in music, health or others things that may have nothing to do with geopolitics and are not well informed of the facts on the subject.
Nikola Tulechki (Factcheck.bg), Simona Kostadinova (Mediapool.bg) and Bozhidar Angelov (Factcheck.bg) also participated in the research.
Translated by Lina Chakarova.