The narrative laundromat in Romania

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Russia’s official propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik have, mainly through conspiracies and narrative laundering, launched topics that also appear on a multitude of fringe Romanian websites and social media. These websites seem to have multiplied in the past few years and have recently been flagged for spreading fake news, conspiracies and esoteric beliefs, or for trying to create panic among readers. The list includes websites in Romanian, and not RT or Sputnik. In most cases, it is hard to determine where the stories originate, but the similarity between Kremlin propaganda and some of these websites is striking.

A quick scan of these fringe websites reveals at least two overarching narratives: first, one that questions the geopolitical and cultural-spiritual space to which Romania belongs; is it in the West or the East? This emphasizes the disadvantages of belonging to the West. The second posits a return to Romanianism, traditional values and a heroic—but forgotten or disregarded—past. National pride is at the core of this narrative, and it receives a lot of traction given that the communist regime had used a similar nationalistic stance for decades. A main element that amplifies Romanian nationalism is spreading the fear that Romania is being dismembered. Both narratives are laden with conspiracy theories, and they intertwine elements of domestic politics, which helps them transition into mainstream media and reach larger audiences.

Little public evidence traces elements of these narratives to Russian sources, unless perhaps the source of information is RT or Sputnik, or the writing of Aleksander Dugin, a well-known Russian ultranationalist ideologist and Putin adviser. Some Romanian websites like frequently cite Dugin. But lack of evidence does not make theses narratives less noxious. They distort the truth about the international climate, Romania’s geopolitical choices and domestic policies (such as membership in NATO and the EU, or the exploitation of natural resources by foreign companies, thereby allegedly depriving Romanians of their patrimony). These narratives also question the Western, liberal values to which Romania claims to adhere.

Moreover, these narrative can spread panic. For instance, a recent story about how everyone will be controlled by a malevolent force through a chip implanted under their skin, or another that says a return to “traditional” values is Romania’s only salvation. Some articles very subtly portray Russia as a desirable model to follow, as a recent journalistic investigation shows.

While these news sources seem homegrown, the same narratives can also be found on the well-known pro-Kremlin platforms like RT or Sputnik. This multitude of Romanian platforms helps launder narratives and creates an information gray zone that benefits the Kremlin—even when the Kremlin itself doesn’t sponsor or create them.

What can be done? The first step is recognizing the problem. Disinformation is a productive tool for many media outlets that have no ties with Russian propaganda, but by spreading conspiracies and distorted facts they might become Moscow’s proxies. Recognizing this, however, would require more scrutiny from oversight bodies like the National Audiovisual Council, professional media organizations and civil society.

Another possible solution is a browser plug-in created by a young Romanian web developer that displays a warning signal when visiting a website that may contain fake information. The plug-in uses a basic algorithm that flags websites included on the list mentioned above. Such a tool is obviously not the same as sophisticated software that would pick up fake information by performing a quick crosscheck of various sources, and it requires an informed user or at least a curious one. But it does open up a conversation about investing in more awareness-raising instruments and, in the long run, also investing in education and media literacy programs.

Disinformation is also a matter of security. Effective deterrence depends on policymakers recognizing disinformation for what it is. We do have to be careful, however, not to turn the fear of propaganda into a reversed generalized conspiracy theory about events that might serve the Kremlin’s interests. If everything is Russia’s fault, then nothing is—which would offer a perfect coverup for Kremlin’s media operations.

This is exactly why we need a proper definition and assessment of propaganda effects. We need more facts about the spread of these narratives and their impact. We must gather data about the frequency and circulation of narratives among different platforms. We need information about the owners and writers, as well as their funding. This has to be public so that independent journalists can run their own investigations. Not least, impact needs to be studied through audience surveys so that we know which constituencies or demographic groups are more prone to disinformation and manipulation. With that, we can build programs and fund independent initiatives that would create counter-narratives and reach out to these groups in adequate ways.

Photo: Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik