Fueling anti-Americanism in Romania

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Syria’s recent chemical weapons attack and the immediate U.S. military response created a perfect opportunity for Romania’s pro-Russian online media to reinforce its anti-American views, mainly via Facebook. The common elements of this narrative are well-known: Americans seek world domination by creating pretexts to invade foreign countries, then using their partners as props. According to Russian propaganda, Romania is one such prop, an obedient vassal to the United States, which makes it a potential target of war and puts its people in danger.

The developments in Syria allowed Russia to add various discrete stories to its conspiratorial web of disinformation. First of all, the “false flag” theory—which it spread widely on various websites abroad—made its way to Romania through so-called news articles and Facebook posts. These articles employ the same language as most Kremlin-led propaganda about the West and its overseas military operations: the “military-industrial complex” or the “shadow government” with their vested interests control and dictate everything. This theory holds that Washington staged the attack in order to have a pretext to intervene in Syria and that the Iraq scenario is about to repeat itself.

Second, Russian propaganda in Romania has widely used the narrative of NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia, suggesting that it not by chance that the bombing in Syria coincides with the start of the Balkan war 25 years ago.

Third is an esoteric element about a prophecy that World War III would start in Syria. This story appeared on a Christian Orthodox website that acts more as an outlet for international news and conspiracies, portraying Romania as a puppet of—who else—the United States.

These narrative-mergers let the pro-Moscow disinformation machine skew the interpretation of facts by tapping into various audiences and engaging their emotions, reinforcing an all-encompassing conspiracy theory about American neo-imperialism. Mostly spread via Facebook instead of regular media, these stories claim to offer alternative/independent information— inspired by Western-based sources or so-called independent Russian sources—allowing Russian propaganda to add its voice to those of homegrown Romanian anti-American or nationalist platforms.

Silence was the first disinformation tactic employed by Moscow. Someone reading only Sputnik News in Romanian for the past couple of weeks would never have known about either Russia’s anti-corruption protests or the sarin gas attack in Syria. Unlike Sputnik International and RT, the Romanian version of Sputnik didn’t cover either story. Sputnik in Romanian restarted publishing Syria stories only after the U.S. bombing, which according to Sputnik had been planned by Washington even before the chemical attack had occurred. The silence on Russia’s main news outlet in Romanian was accompanied by an appeal on pro-Russian Facebook profiles not to repost articles about the gas attack so as not to become accomplices to the crimes of the West.

A second favorite technique was card-stacking and crying wolf, turning the table on disinformation. Facebook was the main tool in this effort to show that Syria’s gas attacks were in fact a Western disinformation operation intended to create the pretext for an intervention against the Assad regime or to blame Russia. The more obscure news websites, whose main approach was to only quote the Russian version of the facts, employed a milder version of this tactic.

Creating the appearance of credibility remains a main technique for Russian propaganda. Pro-Russian Facebook pages repost, on an almost daily basis, articles from an online pro-Assad news platform in Romanian. With recent chemical attacks and the U.S. bombing in Syria, this website has been presented (on Facebook and in an interview on Sputnik news in Romanian) as the main source of alternative, independent journalism. While establishing a connection between this website and Russia is difficult, its popularity among pro-Russian trolls is enough to raise some suspicion about the connection between Russian propaganda and this pro-Assad platform. It may also suggest a longer-term effort to reinterpret the war in Syria for Romanian audiences. The aim of this campaign—as well as with the other narrative elements presented here—is to weaken Western credibility and portray Russia as a true fighter against terrorism and guarantor of peace.

Photo: Yuri Smityuk/ITAR-TASS