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Hostile narratives towards Ukraine in Central and Eastern Europe

Identifying, analysing and countering foreign information interference and manipulation is one of the biggest challenges that the West will face for the foreseeable future. While it may be considered late, a lot has been done in this field both at the EU and international level. However, as the results of recent IRI research show, the need for further action is still clear.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022, the International Republican Institute (IRI)’s Beacon Project has been conducting analyses of online media data from multiple Central and Eastern European countries in order to track aspects of key narratives that have the potential to erode support for Ukraine.

April 29, 2023 - Adam Lelonek - AnalysisIssue 2 2023Magazine

Photo: Creative Lab /Shutterstock

We have monitored trends in online media from websites, forums, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit related to three primary topics: sanctions on Russia, refugees and NATO. For the period of winter we have added energy security. For a special report on the one-year anniversary of the invasion, we also included three other narratives: biolabs, “denazification” and potential nuclear war. The data was collected between February 2022 and February 2023.

Additionally, a dashboard to monitor the activity of the official Facebook pages of select Russian diplomatic missions has also been established to provide a broader view of potential disinformation hotspots. All these tools, alongside our partners’ other project activities, allow us to have a unique insight into data regarding information spaces in the region of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as each country specifically.

General overview for hostile messaging in the CEE region

When taking into consideration Bulgaria, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine, the timeline for general messaging and potentially hostile communications regarding all of the narratives combined is illustrated in the chart below. The data results have been automated, based on pre-selected keywords, built on a common template, but adapted for each country individually. A different set of keywords was selected to track the general conversation, and another to identify potentially hostile components.

Source: IRI Beacon Project Study, Microsoft Power BI

Potentially hostile content published in these countries is on a slow, downward trajectory. However, it is clear that it is rather consistent. This means that there is also a systematic effort to spread certain kinds of messages. Taking into consideration the trends of the general conversations there are moments, especially in the “calmer” periods of less information intensity, when the percentage of potentially hostile content constitutes a larger part of the discourse in each country’s information space. The detailed country data is presented in the chart below.

Source: IRI Beacon Project Study, Microsoft Power BI

From February 15th 2022 to February 14th 2023, the total number of mentions of the four monitored narratives in each country exceeded 18.64 million results. Out of them, the most mentions were seen in Germany (over 8.4 million), Poland (over 4.6 million), Ukraine (over 1.5 million) and Czechia (over 1.3 million), with similar results for Romania (830,000) and Slovakia (710,000). At the same time, the number of potentially hostile messages for each country was: Germany – 1.5 million, Poland – 823,000, Bulgaria – 214,000, Czechia –  183,000, Romania – 135,000 and Slovakia – 113,000. This shows that the countries with the largest percentage of hostile messaging around those four metanarratives were: Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, Romania and Lithuania – with almost identical results for Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

When we look at the hostile component among the metanarratives, at the level of all of the region excluding Germany (as depicted in the chart below), the most prevalent potentially hostile narratives concerned: refugees – 23.86 per cent, sanctions (towards Russia) – 21 per cent, energy-related topics – 16.88 per cent, and NATO – 8.9 per cent. However, in terms of sheer volume, the most discussed topics were NATO, refugees and energy.

 Source: IRI Beacon Project Study, Microsoft Power BI

For the whole region, Twitter was the most popular platform to discuss these narratives, with over 5.57 million tweets. Second place belonged to online news sources and the third to Facebook, with almost one million posts. Forums, blogs, Reddit and YouTube were less popular. Across the whole region, news sources online contained the largest per cent of hostile content – almost 24 per cent. At the same time, blogs, while being less significant, were the second most hostile information source, with almost 20 per cent of potentially hostile content. The Twitter case is rather unique, since in most of the monitored countries it is not that significant. Facebook is the only major platform that is influential across the whole region. In countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia, Twitter plays a marginal role and there is a significantly smaller presence among the general public there.

For comparison, the number of Twitter posts in Bulgaria was 34,292 out of 712,261 pieces of online content in total, while in Poland, where Twitter is much more popular, there were 3,423,254 tweets out of 4,661,579 pieces in total. That is why discussions on Twitter in such countries are in most cases dominated by mainstream and official actors, thus influencing the proportions between hostile and general messaging. In other words, looking only at the Twitter data to analyse the situation may disrupt the true scale and the general picture of information threats in these countries.

However, if we include Germany in the dataset, the proportions change significantly. The most potentially hostile narratives are then related to energy security. Topics on refugees fall to second place and anti-NATO communication surpasses that about sanctions. The data shows that in the German information space alone, there were over three million results related to the energy security topic.

Analysis including German sources

Response to information threats in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania

The IRI Beacon Project cooperates with partners in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania on countering Russian disinformation by establishing foundations for creating task forces, comprised of state and civil society actors. The project was founded by USAID. Looking from a broader, European perspective, the European Union has also started its multi-dimensional approach to disinformation since 2018. While it may be considered late, a lot has been done in this field both at the EU and international level, as well as on the individual country level. However, the need for further action is still clear.

Identifying, analysing and countering foreign information interference and manipulation will be one of the biggest challenges facing the West for the foreseeable future. At the same time, there are internal actors creating, disseminating and/or amplifying messaging coinciding with Russian propaganda and disinformation. That only increases the required range of tools at the country and international level.

The research from the past year concludes that the three countries of Bulgaria, Romania and Poland have several features in common. First, all three countries need to work on strategic communication for their internal and external audiences. Digital infrastructures and legal frameworks also need to be adapted to the current circumstances of the war. Governments should focus on solutions that are flexible and include civil society. Moreover, the three states have yet to define responsibilities in terms of dealing with information threats at all administrative levels, from the local to central authorities. Similarly, the administrative structures in all three countries are not using their full potential, while institutional capacity needs to be properly assessed, strengthened and developed.

At the same time, there is not enough collaboration between state institutions themselves or with civil society organisations. Governments should find ways to enhance the existing, alongside new, networks of information exchange at the country level (within the administration, but also between the state and civil society). Work is also needed here at the regional and international levels. Finally, integrating media and digital literacy components at all levels of the national education systems should be a top priority.

Danger from the inside

According to the Facebook data analysed by those working with the IRI Beacon Project, the largest percentage of hostile narratives about Ukraine could be seen in Bulgaria, Czechia, Slovakia and Romania, with Poland being a complete outlier. Although it does not necessarily reflect the full scope of the trends in the information space for each country, the research does illustrate that potential exists for disruptions and radicalisation. This is especially true when taking into account possible future elections and the populist rhetoric that might be employed. As for geopolitical views present in Facebook sources, the biggest problems can be seen in Bulgaria (37 per cent pro-Russia), the Czech Republic (16 per cent anti-West), Ukraine (26 per cent nationalistic), Slovakia (11 per cent pro-Russian) and Germany (18 per cent pro-Russian). Once again, Poland has a unique information space environment with only 1.6 per cent anti-western, ten per cent nationalistic, and 1.21 per cent pro-Russian sources.

The nationalistic component is particularly demanding. In most of the countries researched, the dominant part of the hostile messaging undermining support for Ukraine comes from internal actors, especially highly ideological media outlets and right-wing, especially far-right, actors. Both of them being the main creators and amplifiers of hostile narratives is one of the few things the whole region has in common in terms of anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian and/or anti-western content. This includes the use of conspiracy theories and/or populist and divisive rhetoric that too often coincides directly with Russian messaging, disinformation and propaganda.

Despite not being currently analysed in the research, Telegram is one of the most prominent channels for the dissemination of Russian propaganda and disinformation. Most of the media monitoring tools currently do not have the ability to monitor Telegram. However, less automated monitoring is now being conducted by a growing number of entities in the region and globally (since Russia is using both Telegram and WhatsApp in other regions, like South America, India or Asia). A uniquely demanding information environment in this regard is clear in Ukraine, where circumstances surrounding the full-scale war may only facilitate the further proliferation of certain messaging.

The complicated situation on the ground leads to language radicalisation and there is a serious threat that some form of anti-western conspiratorial discourse might have the potential to grow over time in the Ukrainian mainstream. Despite Ukrainians overwhelmingly opposing Russia and supporting the pro-western political vector, there are actors accusing western elites of not being decisive enough and not providing enough support. If this type of narrative takes root and grows, then this would have serious consequences not only for Ukraine, but potentially for its allies in NATO and the EU.

Taking all the available data into consideration, it seems that Bulgarian and Slovak citizens are some of the most vulnerable to Russian disinformation and propaganda. At the same time, there is potential to use different hostile narratives in every country in the region.  One of the biggest challenges in this field will be how to deal with populist and highly ideological rhetoric and actors. Priority needs to be given to creating legal frameworks and capacity-building for countering information threats. Finally, a more effective strategy would be avoiding the monopolisation of countering disinformation efforts by the secret services, especially the military, and engaging with societal organisations at local, regional and international levels.

Adam Lelonek is a CEE regional coordinator at the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project.


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