A study presented in Brussels on Thursday (30 March) indicated that although Russian embassies across the Balkan region are quite active in spreading propaganda on Facebook, the Russian embassy in Sofia has by far the most influence on society.
Goran Georgiev, an analyst with the Centre for the Study of Democracy, told an audience of experts that although the Russian embassies in Romania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Greece post more on Facebook than the Russian embassy in Sofia, the latter is an absolute champion in triggering interactions – likes or comments on the social platform.
The conference, titled “Democracy that delivers – Strategic re-engagement with the Western Balkans”, gathered officials from the EU institutions, diplomats, and communication experts. The event was organized by the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy with the media partnership of EURACTIV Bulgaria.
Georgiev presented slides showing that the Russian embassy in Bucharest has had 7,193 posts over 2021 and 2022, while for the same period, the embassy in Skopje had 3,943 posts, followed by Podgorica with 1,827, Athens with 1,698, Sofia with 1,572, Tirana with 902, Sarajevo with 511, Belgrade with 270 and Zagreb with 90.
However, another slide reveals that in terms of interactions, the embassy in Sofia obtained 2,333,550 interactions, which according to Georgiev, is equivalent to every second Bulgarian with a Facebook account having reacted once at a post of the Russian embassy over the two years.
All over the Balkans, Facebook has an almost monopoly as the preferred social media of the populations, he said.
The second-best in triggering interactions is the embassy in Athens, however, with a much lower number, 769,760. Third is the embassy in Bucharest, with 516,678 interactions with the Russian embassy account. The other Balkan embassies are at much lower levels.
Reasons for the spread of propaganda
Asked to explain the reasons for the posts of the Russian embassy in Sofia translating into the largest number of interactions, Georgiev pointed out that the mainstream media often quote and even embeds online the posts of the Russian ambassador in Sofia.
“Bulgarian mainstream media, but also mainstream media in the region amplify pro-Kremlin information, they publicize the statements by Putin, by Lavrov, Zakharova, without any contextualization, without any sort of qualification”, he said.
In addition, he said that some media directly took as a source the Kremlin narrative, giving as an example the reporting about the blast on the Kerch bridge, for which the largest commercial television in Bulgaria, bTV (PPF Group), reported a “Bulgarian trail” by simply repeating the Russian narrative.
Antoinette Nikolova, Director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI), a Brussels-based NGO, said Serbia was the best example of how Russian propaganda is being spread.
She pointed out a recent study conducted by BFMI which found that Russian disinformation was welcome on mainstream media, where it gained “credibility” before being disseminated widely across social media.