It is no secret that the Russian Federation has already made a habit of aggressively engaging in the electoral campaigns of the Eastern Partnership states (PaE), including Moldova.
Recently an edifying report on this subject was published, performed by Valeriu Pașa from the think tank-ul WatchDog.md, where the multiple interference actions of the Russian Federation in the parliamentary elections of February 24 in the Republic of Moldova are widely explained.
Why should be interested in the electoral campaign in the neighbouring country? It is simple.
The years 2019 and 2020 are electoral years in Romania, and Putin’s strategists shall take full advantage to get involved also in our European, presidential and parliamentary elections. Of course the same distribution channels will be used, and the techniques and the recipe remain the same.
So, Kremlin uses various online manipulation techniques to strategically influence the results of the elections in the Eastern European states.
This is what happened now in the Republic of Moldova. On February 9th the page „Правда о Молдове” [The Truth about Moldova – Romanian translation] was created.
Capture of the anonymous page „Правда о Молдове” on Facebook (February 14, 2019)
Source: Facebook (non-available link)
Even if the page has no posts and uses a picture taken from the internet with the representation of “justice”, it manages to attract more than 1,300 followers.
Something is not right.
The image was not chosen by chance. According to the last Public Opinion Barometer in January-February 2019, the fight against corruption was indicated by half of the respondents (52,2%) as among the three most important problems of the Republic of Moldova.
The persons who built the page are carefully watching the public attention of the targeted states.
Still, the page had posts, although they were not available for visitors. Only if you accessed the section “Information and advertisement” you could realise the true purpose of the page. We are talking about three short videos, 6-7 or 2 minutes long, with propaganda content.
Screenshot of the section Information and commercials of the page Правда о Молдове
Source: Facebook (non-available link)
Instead, the third video is addressed to a different electorate segment, the Romanian-speaking voter, undecided and profoundly dissatisfied with the endemic corruption of the governing Democratic Party presided over Vladimir Plahonotniuc. That is why the reversed PD electoral slogan is used: TALK NOT WORDS (note the absence of the comma).
We are talking about a collage with various journalism reports, in order to underline the degrading state of the Romanian society produced by the current Chişinău government, and the background music has the role to emphasize the dynamic note.
According to the WatchDog.md report all three movies had over 850 000 total views. The most viral video reached the threshold of 500,000 views, 20,000 shares , and more than 900 comments – impressive figures for the digital space in Moldova, where there are only 910,000 Facebook accounts (January 2018).
The number of social network users in the Republic of Moldova (January 2018)
What does this mean? Things are simple here. We are talking about an efficient disinformation campaign paid by Russian Federation governmental structures on Facebook. Behind this campaign are the sociological data carefully obtained to create segmentary profiles of voters and subsequently bomb them with disinformation. We could even talk about the performance of databases collected from the social networks to which the secret services of the Russian federation have access (Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki).
The three movies were viral along Moldavian users for more than three days. On February 15, the page had been reported, and Facebook blocked the page, as it had done before with the blocked propaganda accounts two weeks before the election date.
Capture of the link of the page Правда о Молдове (February 15, 2019)
Source: Facebook (non-available link)
The designers of this misinformation sought to reinforce the old narrative they are still cultivating through the 2016 Russian language press, namely: „Vladimir Plahotniuc is destroying the Republic of Moldova, carrying the orders of his masters in Bruxelles and Washington”.
Does that sound familiar?
If we look at the surveys in the Republic of Moldova, we will notice that the Plahotniuc character is really the “absolute evil” (79% of the citizens have mistrust attitudes towards him). The story of the Russian was a perfect fit with the state of the majority of the population in the republic.
Consequently, in addition to the pro-Russians, even sympathizers of the pro-European and anti-oligarchic opposition (including the Unionists) have intensively distributed Russian material to the discussion groups.
The quality of the videos is indisputable, if we consider the graphic, the music. And the misinforming narrative, even if it starts from real facts, has statistical fakes and manipulations.
Here is just an example of misinformation through figures:
!”The so-called “public debt” was placed on the citizens (”foreign public debt” appears erroneously on the screen, with false figures) which by 2015 increased by almost 1 billion dollars, but according to the forecast of economists will reach about $ 2.266 billion by the end of the year 2019“(min. 1:20).
We don’t know what kind of debt the author of the video refers to. Or “The state debt balance” and “The foreign public debt” are totally different things. Moreover, according to the estimates of the State Budget Law, the external debt will NOT exceed 37,239.8 million lei (2.170 billion dollars). This does not mean that the public debt will reach this value in 2019. See also the data of the Ministry of Finance (HERE, HERE and HERE).
Neither Romania escaped the attack (minute 2:48). Banca Transilvania and Transgaz being accused by the Kremlin propagandists of buying “for nothing” the assets of banks Victoriabank and Moldova Agroindbank (MAIB); as well as the Iasi-Ungheni and Ungheni-Chisinau gas pipelines (the last one only at the project stage).
Actually, the Iasi-Ungheni gas pipeline was decided in 2010 by the Republic of Moldova as a political priority, and 80% of the cost of the gas pipeline construction (26.5 million euros) had been covered by the Romanian side and the EU. At the same time, the acquisition of Victoriabank and MAIB by Banca Transilvania would not have taken place without the support offered by the EBRD – long-term shareholder of both Victoriabank and MAIB. Or, BERD owns 8,6% of Banca Transilvania, and the transaction marks the recovery of the bank sector marked by “the billion dollar theft scandal”.
Screenshot of the propaganda video of the page Правда о Молдове
Source: Facebook (non-available link)
The strategic stake of these materials is much more nuanced: we are talking, on the one hand, about discrediting the European and American “development partners” by association with the regime established by the Democratic Party; and, on the other hand, about the mobilization of the pro-Russian electorate, dissatisfied, but also undecided, around the pro-Kremlin forces, especially the Socialist Party (PSRM).
Why did the propagandists choose Facebook?
According to the same BOP (January-February 2019), 18,9% of the Moldavian citizens get their information from social networks. Most of them prefer to “fish” the news from their Facebook and Odnoklassniki bubbles (~ 59%).
Generally, the Kremlin launched campaign continues to make victims in the Odnoklassniki network. There the two videos promoted by the anonymous group „Выборы в парламент Республики Молдова 2019” [Election in the Parliament of the Republic of Moldavia 2019 – Romanian translation] have gathered over 1,4 million views.
Screenshot of a page similar with Правда о Молдове on the Odnoklassniki network.
We can see from a distance that significant resources are used to ensure a massive election score for PSRM.
During the writing of this material, we discovered a Valoghea Vladimir fake account in the Moldovan diaspora group of citizens. It doesn’t have pictures and we don’t know many information about it besides the fact that it is from Braşov.
Screenshot of the Valoghea Vladimir fake account.
The account was created on February 18th (three days after blocking the Правда о Молдовеpage), and in a short period of manages to become friends with a large number of people, enter the tens of groups of the Moldovan citizens in the Republic of Moldova and abroad, including those where Russian is spoken exclusively.
I wanted to see what is the email used for login by the fake account administrator and I noticed he uses a Gmail address that starts with “m” and ends with “e”. So we are dealing with a campaign masked by micro-targeting and online data collection.
I also looked over the account’s online activity, and I noticed that the use insistently distributed on the “abroad” groups an online survey (2019 Election survey) with questions phrased badly, in a Romanian language with serious grammar errors.
So, we are talking about someone who has problems in expressing himself/herself in Romanian.
The poll distributed by the fake account Valoghea Vladimir to the groups of Moldovan citizens with the urge “Let’s answer as many as possible, show the politicians that we are not afraid!”
Citizens are encouraged to answer the poll through an anti-system call, especially from young people. We do not know what his purpose is or who made it. We only know that the survey “was created by the Diaspora!”
I looked over the questions, and besides the socio-demographic data, the respondents are asked if they will participate in the parliamentary elections, which party will they vote for (Which party would you vote for?), What political doctrine they share (What is your political vision ?), the foreign policy vector of the Republic of Moldova, etc.
Still, I have noticed two questions which trigger some alarms:
What is the party you think will integrate the Republic of Moldova into the Customs union and (sic!) lead by Moscow? and
Do you think that if PSRM wins (sic!) or if PDM makes an alliance with PSRM(sic!), there will be protests similar to those of April 7, 2009?
Obviously, many Moldovan citizens have fallen into the false survey, so the data is still collected and will be provided to a third party. This until the electoral campaign concludes, when the survey and the account will be erased.
The hypothesis of a “Maidan” in Chişinău, in a post-electoral context, is more and more circulated in the Russian speaking media environment, also at official level if we were to refer to the communication of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
So we cannot exclude also the “hybrid” Kremlin actions scenario for the destabilization of the post-electoral context in the republic. We are talking about a so-called “plan B” in relation to the “Republic of Moldova file”.
This could be activated only if the ACUM block manages to obtain a comfortable majority to govern and start the pro-European reforms. Moscow relies on its actors on the ground (the so-called “proxi”), using the experience of Donbass’s past assistance. “Hybrid” actions could go from organizing anti-Western and anti-ACUM protests, recruiting new “volunteers” in the socialist movements for on-the-ground implementation of hybrid scenarios, and providing a coordination platform between the governmental, civilian and military agencies of Russia and those of the secessionist authorities in the Transnistrian region.
- Be careful what are the surveys you fill in and who do you give your personal data to.
*Nicolae Țîbrigan is a member of the LARICS Experts’ Council.