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Deciphering pro-Russian Facebook trolls in Romania

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Romania: 10 April 2017

Scanning a number of recent pro-Russian Facebook pages and profiles in the Romanian language shows a variety of stories apparently intended to sensitize the Romanian public to issues that are important for Russian foreign policy. They also may reflect the Kremlin’s efforts to experiment with social media. Along with anti-immigrant rhetoric, coverage of the Ukrainian crisis and comments on the EU’s failure, several narrative strands stand out: articles about Bulgaria’s elections, Turkey’s recent misbehavior, Serbian nationalism, the risk of a Euromaidan in Belarus or even in Russia, and the war in Syria.

Unlike Sputnik News and other pro-Moscow news sites—which mainly use seemingly authoritative voices or experts to serve as mouthpieces for Kremlin propaganda in Romania— Facebook creates the appearance of credibility through like-mindedness and authenticity. The main narrative lines of these stories propagated through Facebook are atypical of those targeting Romanian audiences through online media (nationalism and Romanian unity, traditional and religious values and conspiracies). But they display typical propaganda narrative construction tools that are both common on Facebook and regular online media.

These may use dissent inside the EU and NATO to make these entities seem weak and ineffective; recall previous NATO operations, such as in former Yugoslavia, to show Western neo-imperialism; glorify the past, traditional values and nationalistic nostalgia to contrast with “current decay” brought by the capitalist world; or bring examples of Western interference with sovereign nations under the guise of democracy-promotion to show the West’s moral relativism and hypocrisy.

While pro-Russian pages appear to have a rather marginal impact in the social media sphere— with rather low readership and shares—they offer good insights into the modus operandi of pro-Kremlin trolls.

  • They create a seemingly reliable and alternative source of information by using “people” who can report what is happening in other countries. Some of these profiles feature posts and articles in several languages (for instance, one such user posts in Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and English) and share posts from users or trolls from many other countries, which indicates an organized network.

  • They create the appearance of real people behind Facebook profiles and pages by inserting what appears to be normal posts about animals and daily, non-political issues.

  • They publish highly curated content, often involving good translations from Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian and English, shared across a network of very similar profiles. These profiles post articles in various languages with accompanying comments in Romanian, displaying a very targeted and well-articulated message.

  • They mimic popularity by showing a large number of followers (hundreds for individual profiles and thousands for pages).

  • They tap into existing Facebook communities that have religious, nationalistic or esoteric tendencies to increase their reach.

These pages may also offer insights into what constitutes priorities for future disinformation campaigns or other types of experimentation with social media. Because Romania is not usually considered a typical Russian propaganda target, the coordinated propagation of such narratives and selected stories could serve as a laboratory for disinformation agents.

However limited the effectiveness of Russian propaganda on social media in Romania may be, Facebook is known as a very effective social and political organizing tool. According to some sources, Romania has about 9.6 million Facebook users—equivalent to 85 percent of all Internet users and about 44 percent of the population. As an illustration of the power of Facebook news and community building, some of Romania’s most recent and biggest protests were organized and promoted mainly via Facebook. Social media also has been widely credited for fueling protests during the Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and Russia’s 26 March 2017 street demonstrations. We can therefore expect that—in line with what we know about active Russian measures from both practice and military doctrine—competition over the information space will clearly move beyond spreading fake news.

Photo: REUTERS/Rick Wilking