By Zhivka Popatanaspova
The date is April 7, but more than 40 days have passed since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. That's how we count the days already. As I write this article, a peaceful march entitled "We Are Not Neutral" is being held in Sofia, the reason for the demonstration being the brutal murders in the town of Bucha.
There was also news of a decision by the UN General Assembly to temporarily remove Russia from the organization's Human Rights Council, with a request to remove Moscow coming after allegations that Russian soldiers had killed civilians in the Kyiv region.
On March 29, the Russian military began withdrawing from the area. On April 1, the mayor of Bucha announced that the town had been liberated. After that, representatives of the media and non-governmental organizations arrived there, as the Agency France-Presse was the first to report any bodies found on the city's streets. The footage from Bucha is terrifying, but in Telegram, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied the accusations and described the situation as "provocation and staging." Russian state television even reported that in the video with the dead bodies, one of the victims was moving his hand, which could be interpreted as a "staging". So far, Moscow has not backed down from its position, despite photos, satellite images, videos, eyewitness accounts and the number of civilians killed.
At the same time, it became clear that German intelligence had intercepted radio communications from the Russian military, which added to the picture of the atrocities committed in Bucha. SPIEGEL reported that the wiretapped communications discussed the killings of civilians, and individual radio messages may even be linked to specific people in the photos taken after the Russians were withdrawn from the area. The issuer points out that the collected material cannot suggest staging.
This is not the first time that Russian authorities have denied alleged war crimes and described the evidence as false. The attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol was also described as a "staging", although the attack was documented in detail and the Russian government did not provide facts to defend its allegations.
Since the beginning of the war, the official Russian media have been showing a picture of events that differs from reality. The Russian Federation is talking about a "specialized military operation" aimed at denazification, and the country's media have no right to use the word "war."
"Verification of facts is becoming more and more complicated. Collecting data and refuting false reports and news requires much more time and resources, which most media do not have" said journalist Ruslan Trad. Among the main reasons is the huge amount of information that needs to be carefully analysed, as well as the rapid spread of fake news.
"The surest way to verify the facts remains the classic method - collecting data from the scene," said the analyst.
In the case of the Kyiv region, foreign journalists from the world's most authoritative media arrived in Bucha to document the crime against the city's residents. Although the Russian command is trying to convince the world that the bodies filmed on the streets are artists, it was the journalists who saw the consequences of the presence of Russian soldiers in the region.
"The role of journalists in areas where hostilities are taking place is extremely important, but also dangerous. Our colleagues have already paid with their lives while showing us the cruel face of war" said Ruslan Trad. The idea that the world will learn what is happening turns journalists into a target, so the attacks against them are deliberate, he added.
However, there is also a problem with the training of staff to work in the field, believes the journalist. We must not forget that war is fought with weapons, but it is also informational, and information is not limited to the territory of one country. That is why it is important for reporters to be relevant to the events, to report conscientiously and to oppose misinformation in any way.
A few days after the beginning of the war, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Brussels was determined to have a mechanism to neutralize Russian propaganda. In early March, the EU Council decided to suspend the broadcasting of the state-owned Russian channels Russia Today and Sputnik throughout the Community. A statement to the media said that Europe was taking this measure against the Kremlin for spreading misinformation, as both media outlets were involved in controlled manipulation of the facts.
Russia has responded by blocking the Echo of Moscow radio station and amending its legislation, which would result in up to 15 years in prison for "fake news" about the "military operation" and the armed forces. Whether a piece of information is correct or not will be determined by the Russian authorities. However, this act made it impossible for the independent media and foreign channels, which have stopped operating in Russia and are already using communication platforms or applications, to avoid falling under the new law.
In Bulgaria, the Electronic Media Council followed Europe's decision and adopted at an extraordinary meeting to temporarily limit the distribution of Russia Today and Sputnik in the country. However, according to experts, the blocking of the two English-language channels is rather a symbolic act and does not affect the access of the Bulgarian audience to the main Russian media. These platforms in particular have never been essential for the spread of pro-Russian propaganda in our country, and in recent years the fake news has reached consumers mainly through social networks, where great efforts are directed.
Propaganda is also coming through the use of anonymous profiles on social media. Fake accounts are owned by paid or provoked people who are hired to write comments and use anchor points to confuse and manipulate users. They use language in cyberspace that contains mockery, insults, personal attacks and verbal violence. These are the so-called trolls who have to meet a certain limit of comments on a daily basis, not following the rules and norms of behaviour in chats. They purposefully support conspiracy theories, lies and unproven claims, distorting reality.
The phenomenon of paid or provoked commentators has been observed for years, but it has evolved to new extremes during the Covid-19 pandemic, and is now escalating further due to the war in Ukraine. That is why the Center for Analysis and Crisis Communications appeals for the creation of a New Public Contract for Communications on Social Networks with the Initiative "04.04. - A day without trolls." The kind of day of silence on social networks aims to draw attention to the need for a clean information environment, as well as to the trolls who destroy it.
"The result of the trolls' activity is that there has been serious pollution of the information environment, which is reflected in rising tensions, and trust in both social networks and information sources in general is declining. If this trend continues and escalates, analysis by extrapolation shows that an inflection point or a breaking point will soon be reached, when social media communication will perish as a public tool and resource. We cannot and do not have the right to turn a blind eye to the development of trends, "said Lyubomir Alamanov, co-founder of the Center for Analysis and Crisis Communications.
Meanwhile, Minister of e-Government Bozhidar Bozhanov published an article in his personal blog entitled "What the state is doing against disinformation", in which he shared about his battle with trolls, describing their mechanism of operation. "The Kremlin is using our European values for freedom of speech to infiltrate its propaganda, making it very difficult to distinguish truth from half-truth and simple half-truth from a targeted disinformation campaign," he said.
The Minister noted that questions were sent to Facebook about the actions of the social network against disinformation, but according to the feedback he received, he pointed out that he did not see much benefit from the communication he leads. According to him, major online platforms, including Facebook, need to control the process of distributing content from questionable sources through questionable networks.
A few days after the Minister's publication in his personal blog, it became clear that our country will have a unit for monitoring of the social media. The structure will be attached to the Ministry of Electronic management and will become a fact with the promulgation of its structural regulations. Bozhanov emphasizes that the institution will not monitor what people or groups write on social networks, but will monitor specific trends and the spread of certain narratives, when they strengthen and when they weaken and connect them with real events. The unit is expected to be analytical and to generate reports with monitoring tools to send to the relevant institutions.
What else can be done to counter misinformation? To begin with, let's stop legitimizing the lie. We are all to blame for this, and so are the governors. For decades, we have allowed propaganda to spread through various channels in society, and now we are suffering the consequences. The coronavirus pandemic has polarized our views, and the war in Ukraine has intensified the division.
By the time I write this article, the march in the centre of Sofia is over, but I will quote one of those present at the event who said that in the 21st century we cannot be patient to the war. We cannot afford it. In the end, there are always the scars that cannot be hidden.