Old tropes, new targets: Russian propaganda in Romania

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Romania: 27 February 2017

Russian media often caricatures George Soros—the Hungarian-American investor, business magnate, philanthropist and supporter of non-governmental organizations in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe—as the epitome of Western decay. The Kremlin makes him a universal scapegoat for social disarray, moral corruption, theft of public resources and destruction of traditional family values. The speed with which Russian media spread these allegations makes Soros coverage a test case of how to assess the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. 

Several recent articles in the pro-Moscow media accuse Soros of having created politicians and influencers in various countries that he allegedly controls through his foundations. These initiatives supposedly fuel grassroots movements that foster colored revolutions and overthrow governments. In April 2016, Katehon—the think tank of extremist Russian nationalist Alexandr Dugin—began systematically publishing articles about an alleged Soros conspiracy to bring down the world. A continuing series of articles by Katehon describes plots involving Soros that led to political or social crises in various countries. Meanwhile, Sputnik News in Romanian carried an article containing the word “Soros” almost every day. By coincidence, these articles appeared on the eve of election in Macedonia, following the U.S. elections and, finally, during the recent Romanian elections.  Katehon published other articles mentioning Soros around the dates of protests in Washington, D.C., in January 2017, and then during Romania’s anti-government protests in February. 

The anti-Soros campaign is relevant for understanding how Kremlin disinformation works, for two reasons: the multiplication effect of seemingly credible conspiracies and the anti-West message.

The Romanian example illustrates how a narrative grows and can be disseminated through a multitude of media—including mainstream news TV stations and political discourse—until the source is lost and the message stands on its own as a generally accepted fact. When Katehon published an article about the influence of George Soros in Romania, labeling it as a case study of his “modus operandi,” Romanian media stayed relatively, though not entirely, quiet on the topic. In April 2016, an extensive analysis about Soros’ involvement in Romania was published on the website of a foundation that promotes, among others, the fight against the new world order. A few months later, when a new political party was in the making (the Save Romania Union, which later became the third political party in the Romanian Parliament), there were allegations that it belonged to Soros. From then on, a flurry of stories started appearing about Soros and his influence on Romanian society. Mainstream media outlets as well as politicians picked up these stories during the campaign for December parliamentary elections. Once the original source was lost and so many other platforms reinforced the same narrative, it was treated as public, substantiated information that needed to be disseminated.

Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories like this help strengthen the idea that Romanians are not in charge of their own destiny, but instead play a subordinate role to the West. This is one of Russia’s favorite narratives. The allegations regarding Soros, in particular—that a network of influencers, NGOs or political leaders that had received scholarships or were otherwise involved in the Soros foundations shape Romania’s future—have been repeated on numerous websites and amplified by social media. This narrative received further impetus in February, when protests erupted against the government’s decision to weaken anti-corruption legislation. A favorite media twist of this story  was that Soros had organized and paid for the protests—allegations for which there is no evidence. Such narratives reinforce the message that Romanians are not in fact “masters of their own country.”

So what can we learn from this? While the “Soros rhetoric” is untrue, old, and not necessarily original, it is a favorite topic for right-wing forces in Central and Eastern Europe. Its explosive growth across a huge number of media channels, as well as its timing, should alert analysts and policymakers. The Soros coverage can serve as a window into what is possible in the information space and how sometimes unsuspecting allies are co-opted, or how context can be manipulated to the extent of being transformed into a new reality. In Romania, such media campaigns create a rich environment for documenting the effectiveness of propaganda through sociological and quantitative research. In order to understand how to best respond or create counternarratives, we need to know what audiences are most prone to disinformation and map out the flow of information between various platforms. Then we can start building our own information toolbox. A starting point could be to empower independent journalism to expose fake information, create social media campaigns to present alternative, positive narratives about Romania’s membership in the EU and NATO, and invest more in media literacy programs for constituencies that are most likely to be targeted by disinformation.

Photo: TopFoto