WASHINGTON (AP) — As bullets and bombs fall in Ukraine, Russia is waging an expanding information war throughout Eastern Europe, using fake accounts and propaganda to spread fears about refugees and rising fuel prices while calling the West an untrustworthy ally.
In Bulgaria, the Kremlin paid journalists, political analysts and other influential citizens 2,000 euros a month to post pro-Russian content online, a senior Bulgarian official revealed this month. Researchers also have uncovered sophisticated networks of fake accounts, bots and trolls in an escalating spread of disinformation and propaganda in the country.
For Russia's leaders, expansive propaganda and disinformation campaigns are a highly cost-effective alternative to traditional tools of war or diplomacy, according to Graham Brookie, senior director at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which has been tracking Russian disinformation for years.
“Stirring up these reactions is the low-hanging fruit for Russian information operations," Brookie said. "Their state media does audience analysis better than most of the media companies in the world. Where these narratives have succeeded are countries where there is more weaponization of domestic discourse or more polarized media markets.”
Bulgaria was long counted a stalwart Russian ally, though the country of 7 million residents has turned its attention westward in recent decades, joining NATO in 2004 and the European Union three years later.
When Bulgaria, Poland and other former Warsaw Pact nations sided with their NATO allies in support of Ukraine, Russia responded with a wave of disinformation and propaganda that sought to exploit public debates over globalization and westernization.
For Poland, that took the form of anti-Western propaganda and conspiracy theories. One, spread by a Russian-allied hacking group in an apparent effort to divide Ukraine and Poland, suggested that Polish gangs were harvesting the organs of Ukrainian refugees.
Russia's onslaught comes as Eastern European governments, like others around the world, grapple with dissatisfaction and unrest caused by rising prices for fuel and food.
Bulgaria is in a particularly vulnerable position. Pro-Western Prime Minister Kiril Petkov lost a no confidence vote last month. Concerns about the economy and fuel prices only increased when Russia cut off Bulgaria's supply of natural gas last spring. The upheaval prompted President Rumen Radev to say his country was entering a "political, economic and social crisis.”
The government's relationship with Moscow is another complication. Bulgaria recently expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staffers over concerns about espionage, prompting the Kremlin to threaten to end diplomatic relations with it.
The same week, Russia's embassy in Sofia posted a fundraising appeal urging Bulgarian citizens to donate their private funds to support the Russian army and its invasion of Ukraine.
Bulgaria's government reacted angrily to Russia's attempt to solicit donations for its war from a NATO country.
“This is scandalous,” tweeted Bozhidar Bozhanov, who served as minister of e-government in Petkov's cabinet. “It is not right to use the platform to finance the aggressor.”
The embassy also has spread debunked conspiracy theories claiming the U.S. runs secret biolabs in Ukraine. Embassies have become key to Russia's disinformation campaigns, especially since many technology companies have begun restricting Russian state media since the invasion began.
Fake accounts remain a valued part of the arsenal. Researchers at the Disinformation Situation Center uncovered what they believe is a network of fake Facebook accounts pushing Kremlin talking points and disinformation to Bulgarian audiences. The DSC, based in Europe, is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization of disinformation researchers working around the world.
The network, which is still in operation, typically posts criticism of Bulgaria's decision to side with NATO over Russia. “If Bulgarians somewhere in the world have a brotherly people, it is the Russian,” read one characteristic post.
Some of the content appeared to gloat over Russia's decision to cut natural gas exports: “Prepare for a dark, cold and hungry winter,” the author wrote.
Researchers at the DSC reported the network to Meta, Facebook's parent company. Meta did not respond to messages seeking comment about its decision to leave the network up.
“This network is just a tiny drop in the ocean of pro-Kremlin disinformation in Bulgaria,” the DSC wrote, citing one study by a Bulgarian non-governmental organization that found pro-Russian propaganda on popular Bulgarian websites increased 10 times following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Other posts from the account attacked transgender people or featured content about QAnon, the U.S.-origin movement that argues Donald Trump is waging a covert war against satanic cannibals who secretly control world affairs. It's a conspiracy theory that has prompted violence in the U.S., and it's one Russian disinformation agents seem eager to encourage elsewhere.
The operation also sought to do damage control. After a senior Bulgarian official revealed Russia's scheme to pay certain journalists, politicians or other public figures 2,000 euros, or 4,000 Bulgarian leva, for posting pro-Russian content, the Facebook accounts identified by the DSC quickly posted a rebuttal casting Russia's actions as simply those of a benevolent patron looking to support everyday Bulgarians.
“Thank you Mr. Putin for the gesture, but I do not need 4000 leva to like Russia," the anonymous author wrote. “I like her for free.”
Follow AP's coverage of misinformation at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation.
David Klepper, The Associated Press