This interview is based on original coverage by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and the Metamorphosis Foundation.
While disinformation campaigns flood Central and Eastern Europe, civil society organizations are at the forefront of initiatives to face this challenge. Meta.mk spoke to Ina Danila, Project Manager at Funky Citizens, a Romanian organization working on fact-checking and disinformation resilience, about the current situation in Romania within the regional context especially compared to North Macedonia, a Western Balkans country which aspires to join the European Union (EU).
Meta.mk: Disinformation is a worldwide threat to democratic societies. North Macedonia has its share of localized and cross-border disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Half of the country’s population distrust media outlets in general. What does the media landscape look like in Romania? Does an EU-member state face the same challenges?
Ina Danila (ID): There are a lot of similarities between the two countries, especially in terms of historical, political, and media contexts. In Romania, many news outlets are owned by media moguls or are paid for by political parties. Thus, the Romanian public’s trust in the press is weak, with only 20 percent of Romanians saying they have high or very high confidence in news outlets. Even the church, army, and police rank better in some recent studies. This situation makes us more vulnerable to disinformation and Russian propaganda, even more so now that there is a war near our borders.
Most of the population nurtures positive attitudes towards the EU and NATO and is hostile to the Kremlin. Even so, polarization, the rise of populism, and nationalism challenge the pro-Western status quo and open the door for foreign influence coming from the east, as demonstrated by a 2021 anti-Western propaganda report we conducted.
Meta.mk: In North Macedonia, false information spreads through social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. However, propagandists still use traditional media, though not necessarily mainstream channels. What’s the situation in your country?
ID: For some parts of the population (especially Gen Z and millennials, but also an increasing number of baby boomers), social media is where they face disinformation. Along with YouTube and Instagram, Facebook is still the most popular social media platform, making it a large disinformation vessel in the country. However, we are also seeing worrisome trends on TikTok, which is much harder to monitor due to its content format, content life span, and low transparency levels of its algorithm. Plus, unlike your country, in Romania, mainstream channels are still at the top of the list for the accidental or intentional propagation of disinformation and fake news.
Not surprisingly, some politicians spread false information and fake news, but they didn't do it in an obvious way. Last year, current or former members of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR — a radical right-wing party) promoted pro-Russian narratives or contested the help offered to Ukraine by the EU and/or Romania, reaching audiences of thousands of people — both on TV and social media.
Meta.mk: What effects did this activity have on the political discourse or the behavior of the Romanian voters?
ID: The position of Romania regarding the war in Ukraine remains in line with the EU and NATO positions, despite pro-Russian destabilizing efforts. However, at a more general level, disinformation is already part of our political debates. Our colleagues at Factual regularly work on debunking political fake news and disinformation. So the Romanian political leaders keep them quite busy.
Another effect of all this information chaos (which got worse after the COVID-19 pandemic) is that voters seem to be more interested in populist discourses. At least this is what a poll from January 2023 shows: according to Atlas Intel, the radical right-wing party AUR might get 17.9 percent of votes in parliamentary elections next year, while its president, George Simion, is credited with a score above 10 percent in the first round of presidential elections in 2024.
Meta.mk: So far, what tools or solutions has your organization created or identified? What works best?
ID: We use a mix of internal platforms, activities, and partnerships with other organizations to promote factual truths and increase resilience to disinformation. So, since 2014, we have run the fact-checking platform Factual.ro, a certified member of the International Fact-Checking Network. We also joined Meta’s fact-checking program last year. We use journalistic methods to identify and debunk potential disinformation on Facebook and Instagram, which platforms will subsequently deprecate in feeds.
In 2022, we helped create EFCSN’s European Code of Standards for Independent Fact-Checking Organizations. The Code is a joint effort by 45 organizations to set the transparency, ethics, and methodological standards to guide our fact-checking and policymaking efforts to combat disinformation.
However, debunking is not enough if it is not backed by building societal resilience. Because of this, we are always coming up with new ways to give activists and other engaged citizens in the area the tools they need to become change agents, just like Metamorphosis does in your country.
Meta.mk: Did you notice any changes in the war-related propaganda? Have you or other Romanian actors seen any patterns in how disinformation has changed over the last year?
ID: Yes, we can talk about how trends in spreading false information have changed as the war progressed.
Right from the start, a series of international narratives caught on at a local level.
According to local experts, the depiction of Ukrainians as Nazis (with an emphasis on the Azov battalion) was among the most popular narratives during the first stage, with limited results because Romanians showed massive support for the Ukrainian cause.
Then followed a series of sneaky, pro-Russian stories, and there was a push for messages that said Ukraine was also to blame for the conflict. Lastly, after October 2022, the propaganda became more aggressive, emphasizing the fearsome strength of Russia, the nuclear threat, and the fact that the Western world would not jump in to help Ukrainians.
Also, we now have more misinformation and hate speech about Ukrainian refugees in Romania. A narrative about Ukrainians being too wealthy, having expensive cars, being corrupt, arrogant, or disobeying rules emerged in our country, the Republic of Moldova, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
This is sad because we are also experiencing compassion fatigue on the part of Romanians. And it might impact the levels of support shown to Ukrainians in need.
Meta.mk: If you were to map the top narratives identified in your country for the past year, which would those be?
ID: We had both spinoffs of transnational narratives and local stories. We're sure you've heard of at least a few of them since they were popular in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Thus, we identified the following: stories about the failure of the Western model of democracy, the weakness of the EU and/or NATO, the fact that Russia was provoked by NATO, and the idea that Ukrainians or other small countries in the region are just pawns or colonies to be used in a bigger geopolitical game.
Not least, revisionist claims resurfaced in some countries, including Romania. In this case, the story said that Ukraine is a made-up country made up of land that belongs to other countries. It presented Russia's claims as valid. This narrative was promoted even by a former minister of foreign affairs, which alleged that Ukraine should hand over some territories to Russia, Romania, Poland, and Hungary to achieve peace. Other variants pushed forward the idea that Ukraine is an authoritarian state and that the Romanian minority on its territory is discriminated against (even though these narratives were non-existent before the war).
Meta.mk: To end on a more positive note, do you see any reasons for optimism on the horizon?
ID: We are a very active and action-oriented organization. So we have to remain optimistic to get things done. Fatalism and activism don’t work well together. On a more serious note, we think that these joint initiatives we are preparing will increase the impact of our organizations in areas related to disinformation awareness and resilience.