In recent years, Southeast Europe has become more vulnerable with respect to foreign information manipulation and interference. Of primary concern is the fact that Bulgaria and the countries from the region lack the institutional and technological capacity to detect and counter hybrid threats, or to address the critical governance vulnerabilities that enable them. Regulatory and institutional frameworks do exist, but they are imperfect, and there are implementation and enforcement gaps, as well as lack of or very limited political commitment for coordinated and synergetic policy actions.
These are some of the key takeaways from an international conference on Building Resilience to Foreign Authoritarian Disinformation in Southeast Europe, organized by the Center for the Study of Democracy on 22 February 2023. The event brought together policymakers, media professionals, and civil society experts, as well as technology companies from Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, in a discussion and exchange of experience on developing capacity for tackling disinformation.
As a keynote speaker, Sabrina Spieleder, Information and Communications Officer at the East StratCom Task Force of the European External Action Service, discussed how difficult it is to mitigate the malign impact of foreign information manipulation and interference when the content is already in the open for the public to see. She emphasized on the importance of cooperation between EU institutions, Member States, and international partners, as well as involving civil society, academia and journalists in the process. Bozhidar Bozhanov, Member of the Parliament and former Minister of E-Governance highlighted the need for more proactiveness from national institutions in order to more effectively implement the existing legal framework for tackling disinformation. Răzvan Chiruță, editor-in-chief of PRESShub Romania, warned that Romania ranked first in EU-skepticism among the MS according to the latest Eurobarometer. He explained that one of the reasons for this is the fact that even mainstream media in Romania, such as three of the national TV stations, regularly spread pro-Russian disinformation and propaganda. He also stressed the importance of disseminating information on disinformation awareness and countermeasures to local media and vulnerable groups. Andrei Tiut, Program Director at the GlobalFocus Center, Romania, highlighted the relevance of using existing strategic communication experience within the country for different purposes, e.g., training schools for firefighting activities or preparedness of the population for natural disasters. However, this experience and the relevant capacity have not been applied until recently to counter malign foreign disinformation and propaganda. Todor Galev, Research Director at CSD, focused on the stop-and-go approach of Bulgaria’s policy for building not only institutional and regulatory framework but also technical and professional capacity in public institutions for countering foreign information manipulation and interference. He also stressed the importance of overcoming the limited political commitment for long-term coordinated and synergetic national policy in this domain, which has been undermined by pro-Kremlin disinformation spread directly by politicians, incl. from the executive branch, media, oligarchs, and other opinion-makers.
Miroluba Benatova, investigative journalist and host of The Questions on TV1, pointed out that building distrust towards popular mainstream media is part of the foreign propaganda agenda. She also noted that the communist past of Bulgaria has pushed the public to doubt official information and seek the truth somewhere else, along with making them more vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Ralitsa Kovatcheva, editor-in-chief of Factcheck.bg, complemented these claims by emphasizing the ongoing trend that the public tends to search for “alternative facts” when presented with an established narrative, which amplifies general mistrust in institutions, even if they share scientifically proven facts for a specific topic. Cristian Pantazi, editor-in-chief of the Romanian news website Group4Media, also highlighted the important role of a free media market in shaping the public’s capacity to tackle foreign authoritarian disinformation and noted the lack of such a market in Romania.
Three technological companies presented their novel solutions, addressing the topics for identification, monitoring, and analysis of disinformation. Andrey Tagarev, software developer at the Bulgarian company Ontotext, presented their knowledge-graph-based solution, which allows for clustering of debunked fake news and offers searches enriched with additional meta-data and available in multiple languages. Vasil Shivachev, COO of Identrics, a global open data supplier, presented their hate speech detection models, which are effective across multiple different types of media, incl. in comment sections of online media. However, he stressed that content moderation relies on strong collaboration between algorithms and humans. Christos Gavalas, Business Development Manager at the Innovation Lab of the Athens Technology Center, presented the possibilities of TrulyMedia, a collaborative environment addressing the needs of fact-checkers and disinformation researchers which was developed together with Deutsche Welle and has been implemented as the official technology platform of the European Digital Media Observatory.