“Romania is no longer sovereign, Romanians no longer make decisions for themselves. Foreigners are leading our country and using our resources while we are getting poorer and are forced to emigrate. The European Union sends us poisoned food. If you do not agree with all of this, it means that you have not yet learned the truth. And you are possibly just a “servant” to foreign colonizers.”
In the last two years, over 200 websites have spread this hidden “truth” on the public sphere and through social media. In fact, this “truth” is a form of a sole strategic propaganda theme, (in specialized language, it is called a narrative). And it is a form of hybrid aggression against our country.
Radu Magdin, a political consultant, has identified this theme as being the main narrative of Russian propaganda in our country.
“One of the key issues at stake of Russian propaganda in Romania is our country is a nationalist country (as opposed to one with an intelligent form of patriotism, which requires active presence in influence within the associations we belong to as members) and frustrated by our seat at the table, on the partially Visegrad model.”
Researcher Nicolae Țîbrigan, an expert in information analysis at the Laboratory for Information Warfare Analysis and Strategic Communication (LARICS), states that his organization has analyzed the activity of these over 200 websites and discovered that the narrative is transforming often as well as evolving and adopting new forms.
In a dialogue with PressOne, he explains what a propaganda narrative is, who benefits from its dissemination and most importantly, why we come to believe this type of information.
“Propaganda promotes the absolute truth: if you believe the <<others>>, you become their slave and we have nothing else to say to you.”
For everyone’s understanding, can you explain what a “narrative” means?
– In principal, a narrative refers to themes – if we think about it carefully and analyze the information – we can observe that it’s about a trend of themes. Narratives are a trend of themes originating from a source with a specific agenda) launched by a broadcaster with a specific agenda– whether its electoral, strategic, financial/pecuniary – or clickbait, in order to amplify messages and create opinion.
How can we differentiate between propaganda and advertising?
– The difference between propaganda and persuasion is an essential one. Persuasion makes use of advertising messages: “buy our product because it’s the best.” However, advertising or persuasion does not claim that the other products are the worst. Or if you buy the other ones, you will die or something serious will happen to you. You will be considered a traitor and will be kicked out of the country
This is what propaganda does. Propaganda uses a negative message coupled with presuppositional claims. And this is the most essential difference: propaganda promotes the absolute truth, about which others are wrong – and if you believe others, then you become their slave and there is nothing left to say. For example, “Romania = colony.” If you do not agree with us, it simply means that you have been manipulated and brainwashed and are a slave to western colonizers. Unlike an advertisement, which says, “this is probably the best beer in the world.” Probably.
In principle, narrative means a theme with the potential to be transformed into a movement or a school of thought, someday.
And not all narratives have the potential and the objective to change the public’s perception, only the strategic ones.
Could we say that this example of “Romania = colony” is a strategic narrative?
– Yes, it was originally launched as a strategic military narrative. Its purpose was to produce a sense of oppression in the local population in order to persuade the political decision makers to allocate less money to the defense sector and to create some trends of organizing protests against the installation of the Deveselu Ballistic Missile Defense System. However, it gradually came to be adopted in other forms in various political circles. Unfortunately. Some political parties, not all.
Based on your experiences, what are the forms through which we encounter this narrative?
– Together with the research team, LARICS discovered over 200 disinformation sites in Romania, appearing in 2017 and continuing until today. Throughout this period, the narrative of “Romania, West Europe’s colony”, appeared on these websites, it multiplied and then continuously resurfaced. Not a reappearance that occurred in stages. This narrative has been disseminated and superimposed in various contexts, such as the European Parliament elections we recently had. The main objective of this narrative is to transpose or to convey to the public – the target group – that Romania is not a sovereign country. That it is practically at the mercy of other states and that Romanians, the population, are deprived of leadership levers.
These are sovereign-based discourses that we encounter in most European states, but particularly in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, this narrative regarding “the colony” status has an additional objective: to influence the nationalist-populist segments of certain political parties and civic organizations in our country to take on this narrative and use it in speeches. To promote it.
Getting back to the topic of context: narrative is used in various contexts and not only electoral; but also in the area of military news. For example, when NATO-based military exercises are organized in the Black Sea, this narrative constantly appears in some news. Those who promote this narrative wish to emphasize that these exercises are, in actuality, evidence of the fact that we do not really withhold any power and that American or Western military army equipment moves freely within our territory.
Those who disseminate this narrative have forgotten to mention that this military equipment belongs to NATO – and that Romania is part of the NATO organization. This is because pro-Kremlin propaganda has managed to infiltrate our media with this constant message: other members of NATO, besides USA, do not matter, and that all decisions are made by the USA. And that, in a way, through our alliance with NATO, we are provoking the Russian Federation by installing the missile defense shield. And that Moscow no longer has to discuss matters with Bucharest, but rather, with the “true owners” of Romania.
It is also a narrative within the Russian Federation. Russian television stations intensely promote this message, calling the leaders of Eastern European countries “satellites” or “slaves of the West.” Gradually, we see that these narratives have unfortunately been adopted by some politicians of the local parties, including the ruling party, which, in my opinion, use this particular discourse to obtain electoral capital.
Here, we have a concrete case in the current narrative claiming that Europe is sending us poisoned vegetables and is poisoning us. In the electoral campaign for the European Parliament, we heard this discourse, which has a strong anti-European and anti-Western emphasis.
For example, Brussels was blatantly called the “High Porte” – a reference to the Ottoman Empire and Romania’s dependence on it in medieval times. We no longer want to be in the hands of the “High Porte,” – here I am quoting a speech given by a local politician. Or: “We do not want to be a colony of the Big Firefly*” . The Big Firefly being an expression extracted from people who promote conspiracy theories and transposed into this particular narrative. *
*(in Romanian – ‘Marele Licurici’ – the Great Firefly, a sex-riddled innuendo indicating towards America, n. ed)
Then, besides the military field, the economic field is also very important. Here, people who promote this narrative use this idea that Western Europe is far too developed and we are simply a colony with cheap labor and are being exploited by much more developed colonizing countries. And that our natural resources are being used to benefit the colonizers; and we are constantly losing. All of these aspects constantly appear on these websites that we spoke about at the beginning. This type of news as well as conspiratorial news is fed to certain segments of society.
What conclusions could we draw about the people who consume such narratives?
– We can divide them up into a series of categories? There is a category that we can call “convinced” – those who act on it, since they are convinced of the credibility of the narrative. These are the promoters of conspiracy theories; they write and produce fake news websites.
Are they convinced that they are right, and that, in their turn, they are propagating “truth?”
– Psychologists have shown us that the consumption of conspiracy theories is based on a wrong belief system. But, often enough, we consume the news we like and that confirms our beliefs. They (those in the category of useful idiots), do nothing but spread, comment continuously and create discussion groups in order to amplify the subject.
For example, I came across a variety of Facebook discussion groups that function as real echo chambers, where members meet, exchange ideas, such as anti-Western narratives – including the one stating that Romania is Europe’s colony, and they amplify them; they convince one another. When you read or are exposed to this kind of information, you become convinced that you have attained an absolute truth and that, in a way, replaces your own ego.
Those who belong in the useful idiots category are the losers of society, who have problems as a result of various causes. They are either dissatisfied with Romania’s democratic political system or the economic one; they are the ones who suffer from existing social inequalities in our society. And then, their frustration motivates them to begin consuming such narratives.
There are also active agents who have a strategic agenda and they are connected with external actors. They strategically promote this narrative in order to discredit the West in Romanian society. There are satellites at an academic level, at the level of a so-called “civil society.”
In an interview published by PressOne, psychologist Mircea Miclea explains how you can come to believe in conspiracy theories through a mechanism that makes use of your own emotions: “This particular type of information at hand, especially conspiracy theories, makes you feel special. You know something special. It helps you maintain your personal delirium – and you see that others believe the same thing. It’s a direct inflation of the ego: I mean, come, I understand and have access to real information, not the like superficial and stupid majority. That’s how I flatter and maintain my ego.”
Who benefits from the spread of these narratives?
– In principle, after completing an exhausting analysis of the over 200 fake news sites, we discovered a number of beneficiaries. There are websites that only use these narratives for clickbait, to get clicks from people within a certain category. And then, they intensely distribute this information on social networks. There are pages that have been created overnight, with over 500,000 likes, in which, let’s say, the “Beauty of Romania” is promoted. Well, in addition to images of Romania, this type of narrative is sneaked in for the sake of getting likes or clicks. Eventually, these pages get sold to candidates for various elections.
Another type of beneficiary would be the strategic beneficiary. There are people who have a strategic agenda, determined by a diplomatic, propagandistic agenda. It is in their interest to promote this narrative and to discredit the European Union, the USA, Western states and the West as a whole, as the entire population looks on.
As a result of the simple fact that goal is for Romanians to return to that initial state they experienced during Ceausescu’s Romania, the strategic beneficiary will appeal to certain members of the population who have a sense of nostalgia regarding that time. These are people who continue to believe they lived their best life back then, as each of them was given a job and shelter by the government. It was a time when Romania was respected and had no debts. In other words, it was a time when Romania was sovereign, but once Romania transitioned into the EU and became a part of NATO, it lost its sovereignty: it has no ability to decide and it cannot get developed.
Other beneficiaries would be the local politicians, those who see that these kinds of narratives are popular within a certain group, whether it is members of society who watch certain shows; and they promote these narratives in the hopes of obtaining political capital. These politicians should be well aware that they are acting on behalf of another state’s strategic interesting. And, here, I’m talking about the Russian Federation, which is interesting in promoting this narrative all over Eastern Europe. Practically speaking, some of our politicians are working on pro-Kremlin propaganda. There are divisions in our society and the Russians are using them to their advantage; Romanians bring their societal divisions and the Russian propaganda exploits it.
Various narratives can provoke negative feelings, and not only feelings, but also attitudes, negative feelings towards certain entities such as the United States, the EU or others. It’s strategic communication that uses propaganda. What we have on our hands is a form of hybrid aggression. These are themes that were used in the Soviet Union period, but recalibrated for the 21st century and for the emergence of social networks.
If you want to better understand how Romanian politicians can use a propaganda theme to their advantage, call to mind the story about the “Blue whale suicide game.” First of all, the media informed us about its existence even though they could not prove it. Finally, the general mayor of Bucharest, Gabriela Firea, and the Minister of the Interior, Carmen Dan, organized an event to raise awareness of the danger this game posed for high school students. PressOne wrote an article about the questions we should ask ourselves when we face subjects that draw out strong emotional reactions. You can find it here.
What can we say about these websites that disseminate disinformation material?
– Some of them have disappeared over time; some disappear, others appear and more keep appearing. But they continue to appear. Some of them expose their owners in plain sight but others keep them hidden. And many of them are hosted on US servers because if they were to be on Russian servers, that would immediately raise suspicions. But there were cases, for example, www.ruso.ro, which has disappeared in the meantime but had its servers in Vladivostok between March 2017 and January 2018. It was then unmasked by our team and then moved to a server in the USA.
We do not currently have a map of this particular narrative’s network but there is software that can analyze the narrative on Twitter. It is more complicated on Facebook because, as I told you, these narratives do not appear during a specific period and do not have a calendar that they follow; they keep getting recycled. That is, they are a continuously and growing spiral, which is being amplified and acquires new forms.
On different occasions, PressOne has reported about different networks of sites or connected sites on the Romanian Internet. Here, you can read about a network of sites that is directly connected to the PSD political party. A few weeks after the publication of this article, Facebook deleted the pages associated with the websites and confirmed that they were directly connected to the PSD. Here and here, you can read other articles about the owners of sites that spread propaganda in Romania.
“Romania, Europe’s colony. A propaganda-rich story that has no end” is the first episode (of the Misinformation Manual. Romania, 2019 – a series of articles supported by the Council of Foreign Investors (FIC).