In early August, a few pro-Russian Facebook activists began criticizing the Romanian-language division of Sputnik News. What triggered the protest was Sputnik’s invitation to a so-called pro-American journalist to comment on a domestic scandal over the allocation of special pensions for military personnel and others. Ironic as it may be—that hardline pro-Kremlin trolls were unhappy with moderate coverage by one of Russia’s main propaganda media outlets—the trolls may be on to something. In recent months, Sputnik seems to be moving more towards the mainstream media space by soliciting opinions or comments from, or merely citing, journalists, politicians and other mainstream sources. Is this part of a strategy and what does it say about the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics in Romania?
The pension article
led passionate pro-Kremlin trolls to challenge Sputnik’s ability to do its job properly. They say Sputnik should not give any space for journalists or commentators who don’t embrace a pro-Kremlin stance. In fact, Sputnik paid special attention to the political controversy over pensions, with a clear bias in favor of military pensioners
and a tendency to inflame anti-government opinions, mainly by stating that the Romanian government is disrespecting veterans. But this dispute is less about a new theme being utilized for propaganda purposes; rather, it seems to be part of a discreet rapprochement between Sputnik and well-known journalists or commentators whose visibility in the mainstream media could potentially amplify Sputnik’s stories—or at least make its propaganda less conspicuous, by lending Sputnik some of the credibility these sources carry.
The troll revolt places Sputnik News and fringe, conspiratorial websites—and their Facebook followers—in different categories. The former seeks to create the appearance of a legitimate journalistic organization comparable to more established news websites, while the latter claims to present alternative truths and information. In the end, both are likely to attain the Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda goals, one by using a milder tone and thus moving closer to the mainstream, the other by moving farther away from it. This is likely to cover a broader spectrum of media consumers.
Sputnik Moldova, the first installment of the Romanian-language Sputnik News, launched in May 2015. In August 2016, it added a Moldova-Romania component
, dedicated to a Romanian audience. Its slogan is “we say what others keep silent about,” thus claiming space in the alternative news area. The news platform—which does keep silent about many domestic and global developments, such as the upcoming Zapad-2017 exercises
involving Belarus and Russia—follows an anti-West, anti-American line and uses the well-established manual of disinformation techniques
. Most articles try to give the appearance of legitimate journalism, leaving the more militant content to guest commentators and “experts.” But with the story on special pensions for the military, Sputnik seems to have got too close to mainstream media and, in the eyes of fierce Kremlin supporters, departed from its mission to offer alternative views.
Judging by the number of views and social media shares, Sputnik doesn’t seem to be reaching a broad audience. In fact, not many Sputnik articles get shared on Facebook groups where trolls and pro-Russian influencers are active. The tendency is rather to distribute articles from fringe, conspiratorial, anti-Western websites and blogs or similar international sources. These alternative sources promise truthful, unbiased information, which—to some audiences at least—may have more impact in developing and popularizing certain Kremlin-favored narratives. A brief survey of such fringe platforms and their mottos reveals both the disinformation goals and the appeal they try to make to their readers, These include “Truth will set us free
,” “Sometimes it’s necessary to remain alone
in order to prove you are right [Vladimir Putin],” “Media Robin Hood
,” “Unfiltered news” and “Truly important news
It’s not entirely clear whether the apparent split between a mainstream and a fringe current within Kremlin-backed disinformation channels is part of a planned disinformation strategy or more of a natural development that follows the patterns of online media consumption and social media behavior, in which people share—sometimes indiscriminately—news that pops up within their networks or seems shareworthy. Nor is it clear how much influence and impact these sites have managed to achieve. Almost no research exists on the appetite for conspiracies and the degree of penetrability within the mainstream views of societies. This is more so in Romania, where pro-Western and pro-American sentiments are high, and where analysts or policymakers typically dismiss such theories. However, recent data gathered by Globsec
shows interesting and worrisome tendencies among Central and Eastern Europeans, including Romanians (who have given Putin the region’s highest approval rating). But apart from the very broad questions about the East-West orientation of these countries, the effectiveness of pro-Kremlin internet activism must be tested, as well as the impact specific narratives propagated by these disinformation channels are having in various countries. We must also investigate the human and financial connections linking these dubious websites to Kremlin agents, and make such connections transparent to the general public.