Against the current geopolitical backdrop marked by heightened tensions between the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia, both Romania and Russia have been looking at each other with suspicion. Romania’s participation in the EU and NATO has meant aligning Bucharest’s foreign policy options with its Western partners, which often collides with Russia’s interests in the region. Moreover, strong cooperation between Romania and Moldova, and Romania’s active support of Ukraine post-Euromaidan, coupled with the vocal condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of the pro-Russia rebellion in the Donbas region have vexed Moscow and paved the way for a glacial relationship. As a result, Romania has not been neglected by the Kremlin’s arsenal of disinformation, which includes communication and psychological campaigns aimed at destabilising the domestic environment and changing the attitudes of the population. Given its complicated relations with Russia, Romania has always been wary of Moscow’s actions in Eastern Europe. Historically, this dates to the 19th century when parts of the Moldavian principality were ceded to the Russian Empire by the Ottomans. Moreover, after World War II, Soviet aggression towards the integrity of Romania is linked to the incorporation of Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia into the USSR, with the advent of communism and the Soviet dominance over Romania during the Cold War.
The economic ties between Romania and Russia have ebbed and flowed. The strong relationship during the communist era was quickly abandoned in the early 1990s. This found Romania struggling to overcome its communist legacy and catch up with the West. Nevertheless, Romanian–Russian cooperation remained significant in the energy field, despite Romania’s reduced dependency on Russian resources. Unlike its Eastern European neighbours, Romania imports only about one-quarter of its domestic demand from Russia while the rest is supplied by its own natural reserves. The Ukrainian and subsequent reciprocal economic sanctions between the EU and Russia meant a sharp decline by roughly 34% in Romanian-Russian trade relations (from 4.998 billion USD in 2014 to 3.309 billion USD in 2015).
Romania has undergone a series of socio-cultural changes. While experiencing strong Western influence at the time when the Romanian state was established in the late 19th century, it faded away after World War II, when during communist rule Romania came under strong Soviet influence. Besides political and economic policies, socio-cultural institutions put in place by the Soviets were closely adhered to by the Romanian authorities. The ‘Westernization’ of Romania resumed in the early 1990s, with the country’s renewed commitment to Euro-Atlantic values. Nevertheless, Romania’s spirituality is strongly influenced by its connections with Eastern Orthodox Christianity while the Latin roots of Romanian make Romania a distinct case among its mainly Slavic neighbours.
In Romania, the spread of pro-Kremlin misinformation is very subtle, since the language barrier impedes the precise retransmission of propagandistic messages. Thus, Russian disinformation takes into account country specifics and chiefly exploits local political squabbling, and main institutional and democratic weaknesses.
Among the main vulnerable groups susceptible to being influenced by pro-Kremlin propaganda are Romanian nationalists/right-wingers, who depict themselves as staunch—often inflexible—believers in Romania’s uniqueness among nations. They often castigate Romania’s alliance with the West, militate for a non-aligned and ‘independent’ path for the country, and argue in favour of a friendly relationship with Russia. The usual message conveyed is that of a bleak international milieu where the West, by and large, and American hegemony, in particular, is blamed for disguised imperialism, the world’s exploitation, many of the existing regional conflicts, and its corrupt leadership and biased media.
Similarly, religious conservatives (usually ultra-orthodox) emerge as another vulnerable group, predisposed to favour pro-Kremlin propaganda. According to this group, the dysfunctionality of the decadent West is evident when compared with Romania’s ethically superior traditional society and religious beliefs.
Last but not least, communist nostalgics (mostly elderly people) constitute another vulnerable group easy to exploit by the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns. Generally, they have been affected by the chaotic transition in Romania, often being economically marginalised, socially discontent, and often manipulated by the political elites.
The Romanian media landscape appears to be fertile ground for the Kremlin’s misinformation network. According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, the Romanian press ranks 46 in the world (out of 180) and is considered generally free. In spite of a slight advancement from its 2016 position of 49 to the present 46, the report characterises Romania as being
‘manipulated and spied on’ and signals the ‘excessive politicisation of the media, corrupt financing mechanisms, editorial policies subordinated to owner interests and intelligence agency infiltration of staff—such has been the impact of the media’s transformation into political propaganda tools, which has been particularly visible in election years’.
Today, Romania experiences strong competition in the media market, with television as the main telecommunications medium, particularly in rural areas. In 2016, Romanians spent on average 340 minutes a day watching TV channels, with a large portion combining both entertainment and news. The year 2016 also saw a similar hierarchy to 2015 with PRO TV maintaining the leading position (4.3% rating, 20.9% market share), followed by Antena 1 (3.2% and 15.5%) and Kanal D (1.6% and 7.8%).
Despite its increased diversity and dynamism, the radio audience remained stable in 2016, particularly at the urban level, reaching roughly 75% of the population, although listeners spent less than one hour tuned in to their favourite radio station. Radio Romania Actualități maintained its top position at the national level with a market share of 12.7%, followed by KISS FM (11.4%), and Radio ZU (8.2%).
None of these traditional media outlets retransmit pro-Kremlin narratives; however, in their search for ‘sensational’ stories, news concocted by pro-Kremlin news agencies (Russia Today, Sputnik, etc.) might be reproduced. For instance, the ‘Soros’ narrative, which stemmed from Russia and expanded all across Central and Eastern Europe, has also made several headlines in Romania.
The digital segment has experienced one of the most rapid expansions in Eastern Europe because of the increased number of internet and smartphone users. According to the National Institute of Statistics, almost 70% of people aged 16 to 74 in Romania, about 10.6 million, accessed the internet in 2016, despite not being regular users. Roughly 75% of Romanian internet users participate in social media, where Facebook is the most common forum for Romanians, reaching 7 million daily users (13+ years).
This rich digital landscape disguises many cyber challenges. According to Iulian Chifu and Oazu Nantoi (2016), in Romania, pro-Kremlin disinformation takes the form of online measures that create an alternative reality by re-branding facts, events, and concrete arguments, with the ultimate goal of undermining objective truth, cultivating confusion, and mistrust in Western values and solidarity. To this end, various news websites are used to share phony and manipulative messages using no fact-checking and having no link to journalistic deontology. They also entertain a constant flux of comments, which afterwards generate snowball effect on social networks.
Social media tools are particularly efficient in this case, considering the ease with which they offer vivid platforms where such ‘alternative’ narratives can be disseminated and amplified. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, in Romania, news platforms
‘compete online for readers’ attention and for advertising money with Google and Facebook, with bloggers and influencers (who often do not make clear their financial interests), and with fake news and conspiracy theorists’.
Most recently, an online application has been developed in Romania that cross-checks published news and warns users about the accuracy of information found on the websites. More than 71 news websites have been identified so far, which intensively make use of fake news, some of them extremely popular among internet users (e.g. Antena3.ro, Romaniatv.net, stiripesurse.ro or Dcnews.ro).
Nonetheless, apart from Sputnik, which in May 2015 launched its Romanian online news platform in the Republic of Moldova dedicated to a Romanian-speaking audience, other websites have no formal, proven ties to Russia, although their motivation to propagate such news is unknown. Yet, there is no transparency either when it comes to their organisational and financial structures. What these websites have in common is their straightforward approach and aggressiveness, particularly when their reasons for disseminating such news are being inquired, since questioning their publication goals is often branded as an attempt to undermine the diversity of opinions or as a counter-attack of ‘politically-correctness’.
Corina Rebegea, an expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), believes these are only
‘“camouflage” actions aimed at indirectly conveying pro-Kremlin messages’,
since overt Russian propaganda would not be positively received in Romania considering the Russophobic sentiment existing in Romanian society. In any case, the narratives these websites and social media tools have in common are similar and range from a pervasive, nationalistic, and anti-EU/NATO/US campaign, mostly depicting Romania as a ‘colony/vassal/puppet’ of the Western powers, and the decadence of the West, including here a fierce critique against capitalism, globalisation, ‘political correctness’, minority, and gender rights, etc. Western progressive values are portrayed as in obvious antithesis with Romanian society, which is depicted as the holder of ‘true’ traditional, religious, and moral values. In fact, religion is an important soft-power instrument employed by Russia to expand its political influence and deliver its anti-Western messages in countries that share the Christian Orthodox faith. Romania is no exception.
According to Rebegea,
‘The Kremlin’s arsenal of disinformation in Romania—and across southeastern Europe—includes narratives that are tightly connected with existing home-grown nationalist discourse. Many times, this blurs the lines between various actors (pro-Russian trolls or Romanian right-wingers) and their goals, which in the end provides a perfect camouflage for Russian propaganda’.
For instance, one of the most popular fake-stories injected into the Romanian public by different news outlets (TV channels and websites) inaccurately claimed the imminent transfer of US nuclear warheads from Turkey to Romania, against the background of strained relations between Washington and Ankara. This would have made Romania a first-line target in the eventuality of a war between the West and Russia. Another example portrays Romania as a preferred destination for selling American second-hand military equipment.
Similarly, some blogs insistently criticised Romania’s latest military acquisition aimed at augmenting the capabilities of the Romanian air forces in line with its NATO allies. The purchase of a squadron of 36 F-16s previously used by the Portuguese air force was seen not only as an expensive move for acquiring aged military equipment but also as unneeded, since Romania is not the target of any outside threat.
Furthermore, what these websites and blogs have in common is their recurring mission to ‘help’ Romania get rid of the malevolent influence of George Soros, the well-known Jewish American businessman and philanthropist. According to the narrative, Soros’ network of NGOs and initiatives unceasingly conspire not only against the current political establishment but also against the very existence of the Romanian state and traditional life. The ‘Soros’ narrative carefully concocted in the Kremlin’s laboratories has been very effective in Romania. Subsequently, it has been often employed by politicians from the ruling coalition to justify their controversial political moves as a desire to protect the Romanian people from the vested interests of Western multinational companies, which, allegedly, exploit simple and decent Romanians.
Perhaps the most well-known narrative was circulated at the beginning of 2017, when massive anti-graft protests took place across the country against the decision by the government to soften penalties for wrongdoing and corruption by officials. This narrative depicted the huge influx of people gathered in the country’s biggest cities as directly financed by Soros and other multinationals whose aims would have been the destabilisation of the state. According to one of our interviewees, the ‘Soros’ narrative played well in the hand of the Romanian politicians by being already deeply rooted in their discourse and public statements:
‘The Soros (threat) is a Kremlin-generated problem, which (…) was taken by our politicians and used in their campaigns; they took advantage of it’.
Complementarily, these kinds of messages have been followed by ones aimed at creating the impression that EU accession was in fact an error while the anti-corruption efforts undertaken by Romania in past years are just instruments of foreign interference by Western powers. Such allegations are personified by a group of three – the Ku Klux Klan of imposters– which includes the president, Klaus Iohannis, Laura Codruța Kövesi, the current chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate, and Hans George Klemm, the US ambassador to Romania. Interestingly, the names of the president and chief prosecutor were not chosen arbitrarily. They are both staunch supporters of the Western alliance (President Iohannis has often criticised the aggressive Russian foreign policy), and interestingly, their names have no Romanian origin. In fact, President Iohannis comes from the ethnic German minority. This has lately been a recurring strategy to demonise Romania’s pro-Western leaders. One year ago, false information was circulating on the internet that the then-Romanian prime-minister and former European Commissioner, Dacian Cioloș, is the illegitimate son of Soros.
Institutional Setup and Legal Regulation
Media in Romania are poorly regulated while regulatory standards and norms for the online media environment are absent. There is no functional press law as such in Romania. A press law was adopted in communist Romania in 1974. It was completely ignored after the end of the communist regime, despite never fully being abrogated. In the early 1990s, press freedom was guaranteed in Article 30 of the new Romanian constitution from 1991 (amended in 2003). As far as the audiovisual landscape is concerned, regulation is underpinned by an outdated law (Audiovisual Law no. 504/ July 11, 2002), which, nevertheless, sets up the general framework under which media services should be provided. For instance, according to Art. 3, para. 1, ‘all audiovisual media service providers must ensure the objective information of the public by correctly presenting the facts and events and they must favour the free formation of opinions’. Romania is also subject to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive 2010/13 / EU of the European Parliament and of the Council, which coordinates the provision of audiovisual services in EU countries.
Yet, with the exception of the National Audiovisual Council of Romania (CNA), the official regulator for the audiovisual sector in Romania, other regulatory bodies do not currently exist to examine the quality and accuracy of information for print and online media. Since today most ‘fake news’ is circulating in the online environment, it is practically impossible to prevent it from spreading due to three main factors: 1) the difficulty to oversee the deontology and responsibility of news websites; 2) the complexity in penalising any kind of toxic interaction occurring online; 3) the process of identifying and counteracting the source(s) of these ‘hybrid’ risks. For instance, during the anti-graft protests in Romania in January-February 2017, CNA received over 2 000 complaints, nearly 10 times more than the number in the same period of 2016.
This worrying trend is not recent and was the subject of an elaborated sociological study in 2009, when the Centre for Independent Journalism and Active Watch identified many irregularities and deviations from professional journalism standards. According to this study, many Romanian journalists do not abide by any ethics code while professional norms are neglected in newsrooms. Moreover, many journalists have complained that they are constantly exposed to political pressure. In spite of repeated efforts undertaken by various professional organisations (The Romanian Press Club, the Convention of Media Organisations, the Centre for Independent Journalism, ActiveWatch–The Media Monitoring Agency, the MediaSind trade union, and the Association of Journalists in Romania, etc.) to encourage deontological codes,
‘there has not been any comprehensive system of accountability agreed upon by the entire profession, or at least by a significant part of it’.
With respect to the legal regulations concerning information security, Romania has had since 2011 a National Computer Security Incident Response Team, a specialised structure aimed at analysing, identifying and preventing/reacting to cyberthreats, and starting from 2013 a Cyber Security Strategy. Moreover, the Romanian Intelligence Service has also developed a department (Cyberint) for overseeing Romanian cyberspace; however, the country has still not developed a strategy to combat or at least to soften the adverse effect of disinformation circulating online.
Our respondents also agreed that such challenges to information security in Romania could have been efficiently countered by more rigorous legislation in place. However, an interviewed expert believes that,
‘Romania has still not clearly defined all the components of a potential cyber threat, which means that appropriate infrastructure still needs to be developed’.
‘Romania does not invest sufficiently in security infrastructure, and real risks are only later learned, which diminishes the efficiency of the security measures put in place. Finally, there is not enough coordination between the regulatory bodies in charge; likewise, there is no clarity about the way escalation points are coped with’.
Digital Debunking Teams and Media Literacy Projects
Media literacy is rather low in Romania. According to a report undertaken by the Open Society Foundation,
‘investment in good-news and debate programmes has fallen over the past (few) years’,
particularly since the Romanian television, print, and online sectors were hard hit by the economic crisis of 2008-2009. Moreover, rural areas, where almost half of the Romanian population lives, have limited access to quality print media, while the newspaper market in rural regions is almost non-existent. Concurrently, media education in a broader cultural and critical understanding has not been defined in national policy documents. This only concerns a narrow definition of the integration of ICT education and e-learning in teaching and learning methods, in line with the European recommendations.
Actually, the noteworthy impact of ‘fake news’ in Romania has been linked by one of the interviewees with the limited media literacy and critical thinking (corroborated as insufficient knowledge about fact-checking), while another expert blames low journalistic standards and/or training that results in ignoring facts and giving preference to the ‘sensational’. According to his assessment,
‘such journalists are vulnerable to disinformation attacks and become, even unintentionally, propagators of false messages, populist or pro-Kremlin’.
In addition, most of the disinformation sources contaminating Romanian mass media are rather domestic, and not externally originating, as
‘most of the Romanian media holdings do not promote investigative journalism anymore and do not do fact-checking. In fact, the real threat stems from the lack of media literacy in Romania’.
This statement comes in line with one recent GLOBSEC report (2017), which points to Romania’s modest media literacy, since a high number of Romanians tend to trust online disinformation websites as relevant sources of information, while 57% show a lack of confidence in information provided by mainstream media.
Concurrently, another respondent believes that corruption—a deep-rooted problem in Romania—also contributes to the widespread dissemination of propaganda, as
‘corruption opens the gates to propagandistic messages’.
In spite of the obvious vulnerability vis-à-vis Russian disinformation, the respondent has pointed out the uniqueness of the Romanian case, where domestic political elites often use similar misinformation tools to confuse the public and justify their actions:
‘the potential threat faced by our country has to do not solely with Russian influence on the Romanian media/online environment, but with the Russian efforts to influence domestic actors to follow a similar disinformation strategy. Unfortunately, these domestic actors with local credibility can easily serve as opinion multipliers. In other words, Sputnik is not itself a problem; the problem is in fact when the information published by Sputnik is employed internally by the social networks or other media sources to convey a message serving a clear political/ideological purpose’.
For this reason, many volunteer groups of young Romanians decided to launch different initiatives and software applications aimed at identifying ‘fake news’.
One of the most successful digital debunking teams in exposing and combating disinformation including on social media, online forums etc. by anonymous users and botnets has been the so-called Funky Citizens. This team established the first Romanian fact-checking, myth- and hoax-busting platform (www.factual.ro).
An interesting and useful application developed by another group of Romanian programmers has been ‘Not to believe’ (https://denecrezut.faction.ro/) aimed at filtering the news and warning the readership about the veracity of the informative content spread on dubious news websites. A similar initiative has been developed by the ‘Forum Apulum’ association whose goal is raising awareness about the negative implications of propaganda and disinformation in the media space. They also published a newspaper called ‘Fake News’ for investigating this phenomenon and for encouraging civic involvement to combat disinformation. Likewise, the Centre for Independent Journalism has recently launched a project, entitled ‘Teaching Media Literacy’, sponsored by the Romanian-American Foundation, which aims at enhancing media literacy of young adults and at endowing them with critical thinking to identify and defend themselves from political propaganda. More than 11 000 students and 90 teachers across the country are expected to participate and learn to improve their media literacy skills.
Nevertheless, these laudable initiatives are not sufficient to tackle the increasing volume of disinformation that seems to have hit Romania hard in the past few years.
Conclusions and Recommendations
When assessing the vulnerability and resilience to Russian disinformation warfare, the Romanian case stands out for many reasons.
First, in Romania an obvious and recurring disinformation and propaganda pattern can be identified. This follows the ‘roadmap’ employed by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in other Eastern European states where a high share of the population is Russian-speaking. The model features a similar anti-Western narrative aimed at agitating audiences and creating a psychological state of paranoia in which generally Euro-Atlantic frameworks are depicted in cynical terms and contrasted with a friendly and peaceful vision of Russia. In spite of the language barrier, in Romania many narratives elicit a strikingly similar line of argumentation.
Second, compared with the Eastern Partnership states, Romania appears less vulnerable to Russian disinformation campaigns. In fact, there has been no proven formal links between the Romanian media environment and Russian-controlled media outlets. In the same vein, the multiple online sources that propagate pro-Russian messages are still in a ‘grey area’, while the reasons for their extensive online and social media campaigns has so far been unclear, or ambiguous, to say the least. Nevertheless, to date, there has not been any investigative effort to unveil any Russian involvement or other foreign interference to the size and scope of the current investigation taking place in the US on whether Russia-linked actors influenced the 2016 election results. Perhaps, a specialised department to tackle the spread of fake stories and Russian disinformation following the model of the newly founded Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats in the Czech Interior Ministry is necessary also in Romania.
Third, in Romania much of the disinformation is generated internally, by local sources. As pointed out above, there have been obvious cases of politicians and persons of influence who, alongside with cohorts of journalists and media broadcasters serving their interests, have frequently made use of and propagated similar misinformation strategies to the ones employed by the Kremlin-backed propaganda. Defending their political agendas, securing their interests, tightening their grip on power, etc. has often required building-up populist messages where the West, Soros and multinational companies, etc. have been the usual villains.
Based on the data collected from our interviewees, the chapter signals the need for a common effort to counter these threats and requires increased dedicated budgets to enhance infrastructure, educate the population and/or share good practices between institutions and local organisations, and sponsor politically non-affiliated organisations to conduct fact-checking work. According to our respondents, this critical field still has not received sufficient attention while the subject of the negative impact of disinformation is almost ignored, both in the media sphere and in the specific institutions (such as schools, universities, local and regional authorities, ministries, etc.).
In addition, there is a strong need for increased partnership between various government institutions, civil society, and private entrepreneurs for a better alignment of the security information strategies under a clear chain of command available at the national level. Finally, journalistic standards should undergo a complete re-assessment, since a balanced and neutral approach based on thorough research is strongly desirable. Without the dedicated support of mainstream media, scattered efforts and/or volunteer initiatives would have only limited effects.