(DF) COVID-19 Related Disinformation Content Most Common on Bulgarian Social Media During Election Campaign

November 12 (BTA) – The key disinformation narratives circulating the Bulgarian social media during the campaign for the November 14 elections are related to COVID-19, epidemic measures and vaccines, showed an analysis entitled “Propaganda and disinformation during the election campaign: key messages and dissemination channels”, performed by the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) and presented at the national press club of BTA on Friday. The study focuses on the dissemination and links to the election campaign of two main disinformation messages, “COVID-19 is a hoax, or at least an exaggerated threat, which does not require the implementation of measures, and the vaccines are dangerous and possibly more harmful than the disease itself” and “the EU Green Deal is ruining the Bulgarian economy, causing massive unemployment in coal regions”. The environment of an election campaign further reinforces the known effect of polarization and division in social media public discourse. Тhe analysis confirms that Bulgaria is one of the most vulnerable EU member states in terms of propaganda and disinformation dissemination, the CSD summarized. According to experts it is necessary for Bulgarian media, government, and civil society organizations to undertake emergency coordinated measures to protect the democratic public discourse from propaganda and disinformation. The CSD pointed out the need of functioning independent institutions, especially in the media sector, to moderate the debate on social media. Findings In general, the mainstream media cover the pandemic and related measures objectively, but the content of problematic pages and groups achieves a higher percentage of interactions (likes, shares, comments, use clicks), albeit with a smaller number of interactions and followers, the analysis said. COVID-19 The main COVID-19 related disinformation messages are “[COVID green] certificates are meaningless, because vaccinated people get infected and spread the virus as much as the unvaccinated”, “the certificates are a form of dictatorship or fascism”, “vaccines were developed for a short period of time and are therefore untested and dangerous”, “the pandemic was made up by politicians and pharmaceutical companies with malicious purposes”. A public opinion poll conducted between October 22 and November 8 among 800 adult Bulgarians reveals the impact of disinformation content on public opinion. In line with results, around a third of Bulgarians believe that COVID-19 is a hoax benefiting pharmaceutical companies. Some 44 per cent believe that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous and untested. The share of deniers of coronavirus and the effectiveness of the vaccines is stable in all age categories. More than 40 per cent consider mortality statistics to be manipulated. More than a third of the population supports the conspiracy thesis that the measures against the spread of the COVID-19 disease are a political plot, encouraged by foreign powers. EU Green Deal Another major disinformation narrative has been that the European Green Deal is a utopian ideal that will harm country’s economy and future development. Six out of ten most popular posts on the topic were published by pro-Russian sources, which often defend pro-Russian theses. A common theme among them is opposition to the European Green Deal, often through manipulative explanations of high electricity prices, as well as strong support for Russian energy projects, such as the scrapped Belene nuclear power plant. According to the survey data more than 40 per cent claim that the Green Deal is responsible for the gas and electricity price increase. Such opinions can be due to the lack of awareness, CSD expert Martin Vladimirov said. One in two Bulgarians agrees with the claim that the closure of coal-powered plants will lead to power blackouts. Close to two thirds of respondents continue supporting the construction of the Belene NPP and the TurkStream gas pipeline. Some 45 per cent view Russia as Europe’s savior during an energy crisis. Political players and scope The established political parties prevail in the online election campaign. Still, new political movements such as Continue the Change, as well as nationalist parties, especially Vazrazhdane, show a steady increase in the number of followers and interactions, expert Goran Georgiev commented. Public Facebook pages were monitored in the survey between October 22 and November 8. Included were media divided into mainstream and “problematic” (with a history of publishing manipulative messages and external influence), profiles of influential people, user groups and pages focused on polarizing topics, as well as the pages of all major parties and the most popular politicians. A distinct group of online pages dedicated to discussing COVID-19 was also analyzed. MY/YV/