Briefs

Romanian anti-corruption demonstrations trigger barrage of Russian propaganda

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Romania: 20 February 2017

Russia is using fear-mongering and conspiracy, two of its favorite propaganda tools, to explain Romania’s recent anti-government protests—the country’s biggest street demonstrations since 1989.  Against a politically biased media background, with politicians and mainstream TV stations spreading stories about the protests’ nature, motivation and potential outcomes, Sputnik news and its Romanian satellites have found a fertile ground for their conspiracy theories. These pro-Russia outlets claim the protests were staged by George Soros and other outside forces and modeled on Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, with the aim of destabilizing Romania. This turmoil, they warn, will end with Romania being torn to pieces and swallowed by its neighbors.

The demonstrations began on 31 January, the same night the Romanian government passed an emergency decree redefining abuse of power in a way that would exempt politicians and public officials from corruption investigations. On 5 February, at the peak of the protests, about 600,000 Romanians took the streets. That ultimately forced the government to repeal its controversial decree. The huge crowds gave pro-government media outlets, as well as fringe media and obscure websites, an opportunity to develop extensive conspiracy theories. While the lines between domestic, politically motivated disinformation and Russian influence/propaganda are very fluid and many times hard to discern, the latter received ample room to discuss the so-called Euromaidanization of Romania. Such outlets use this term to denigrate Ukraine and instill the idea that street demonstrations will lead to conflict and Romania’s eventual division.

A look of how this interpretation of events developed in Romania’s political and media discourse reveals one strategy of Russian influence. Romanian-language Sputnik News generally acts more as an aggregator than a producer of messages, using external authors and sources from a variety of Romanian websites that are nationalistic, conspiracy-minded or dubious in nature. This approach aims to legitimize Sputnik stories, boosting their credibility; after all, if more sources say the same thing, it must be true. One example is the recent analysis by well-known Romanian commentator Sorin Rosca Stanescu, who blames the protests on Romania’s secret services (under the order of President Klaus Iohannis) and foreign actors. Stanescu’s views appear on Sputnik and at least four websites (activenews.ro, amosnews.ro, corectnews.com, gandeste.org). This narrative coincides with increased attention on Ukraine by Russian media, as a recent on-the-ground media analysis shows. In fact, it is quite hard to tell where the message originates, as many websites seem to gravitate around Sputnik and promote the same content and authors.

The Euromaidan reference, meant to spread the idea that Romania could meet a similar fate as Ukraine, is a preferred theme on Kremlin-friendly platforms. But it isn’t the only explanation for the protests in Romania’s media space. Several recent narratives that foreign intervention was destabilizing Romania, of money pouring in from individuals like Soros or the involvement of foreign corporations in bringing down the government in order to avoid paying taxes and impose a globalist agenda, expose strong connections with well-known Kremlin propaganda instruments.

The difficulty in Romania, however, is that these topics cross-fertilize both propaganda channels and mainstream media as well as political discourse. The widespread use of conspiracy theories and disinformation will benefit Russia’s strategy of inspiring fear and distrust of the West, of corporations as representatives of Western capitalism, of fellow citizens (in this case Romanians) and of state institutions.

There is no easy way to address disinformation, especially when techniques and narratives used by politically motivated media and Kremlin-inspired websites coincide. In Romania’s case, this is still a relatively unexplored field. Recognizing the danger of disinformation and identifying the discrete goals of spreading fake narratives—especially on behalf of public officials and mainstream media—would be a crucial step. While it may seem naïve to expect, a more responsible behavior on their part would open the way to correctly defining the challenge of disinformation and effectively addressing it. 



Photo: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov