Using for propaganda purposes a virus with worldwide spread, even among pigs, is not a new fact for Kremlin’s disinformation designers, making them succeed in perfecting and adapting the old “instruments” and narration models created since the Soviet era. In that time, disinformation “tools” were implemented by the ex-secret services (CEKA, OGPU, NKVD, KGB etc.) through the so-called “active measures”, and reused today by pro-Kremlin channels with the purpose of fueling the anti-European and anti-European discourse in politics and agriculture in the East European states, and also on social networks.
Thus, the journalists as G4Media.ro have discovered that starting with politicians, farmers, simple social network users to websites “contributors” that have “anonymous administration”, all use disinformation narratives similar to the pro-Kremlin propaganda.
Print screen of an Anti-EU disinformation cited by agrointel.ro (REACTION regarding the Romanian livestock APOCALIPSE! DANIEL BUDA: “We will be served hormone feed pigs, just good enough to produce cancer”).
The favourite theme is the Eastern Europe countries as emerging markets for producers from the Western part of the continent, followed by some connected narratives, such as: the bad quality of Western products in the eastern region of Europe; Western products are harmful to consumer’s health in the region; and that the EU has a hidden plan to “annihilate” agriculture in Eastern European countries and to replace it with Western imports classified as “waste”, “poison” or “carcinogenic products”. Obviously propagandists do not offer conclusive arguments that can explain these imports from other countries, even though Romania has long failed to cover the necessary pig meat. Thus, Romania imported approximately 45% of the total necessary quantity (20955 tones) from Germany (57000 tones), Spain (41000 tones), Hungary (31000 tones), Holland (21000 tones) and Poland (18000 tones).
Adopting the anti-EU narratives by some politicians and local farmers, despite the official information provided by the European authorities, find their explation in the distribution of these narratives through some quasi-obscure websites such as agrointel.ro, loon.ro, industriacarnii.ro or agroinfo.ro, who share and (un)counciously feed with disinformation the propaganda website Sputnik. Moreover, they launch the most stunning conspiration theories, being amplified and distributed afterwards by the pro-Kremlin propagandists on different social networks.
“African Swine Fever in Romania” case from Sputnik with 59 articles
Like in the Baltic states, the pro-Kremlin press distributes in the entire Eastern European region conspiracy theories about the causes and origins of the African swine fever (PPA), claiming the false hypothesis of “the Pentagon’s biological laboratories”.
At a second more thorough analysis of the content by title, authors, publication date, sources and number of visualizations of the articles (data available here) we will discover that the following interesting aspects:
- The cloud word from the alarming titles indicate the following frequency in ascending order: “African”, “apocalypse”, “agriculture”, “no farm”, “households” “hit”, “hits”, “hit”, “kick”, “measures”, “Moldova”, “dangerous” “sanatoriums” “Sick” and “killed “(> 3 appearances); “Authorities”, “ANSVSA”, “Indemnities”, “Dimitrie”, “Musca” “the slaughter”of “pigs “(> 5); “Swine”, “pigs”, “pigs”, “country”, “peasants” (> 8); and “pest”, “swine”, “pigs”, “Romania” (> 12). Thus, we see here that Sputnik disinformation designers have chosen the key-words specifically to the problem in order to efficiently index the articles in search engines regarding the given subject.
- 27% of the articles are written by alias Daniel George Nistor who shares his Sputnikist lies from his fake account on Facebook on different discussion groups. Obviously the most zealous “contributor” to the pro-Kremlin propaganda regarding the swine fever was Georgiana Arsene – an “admirer” of the separatist regime in Transnistria which I wrote about in some of my previous articles. So, 3 out of 5 articles on the swine fever theme from Romania were published by Arsene with a medium frequency of 1.23 days! There is not a day in which Sputnik misses to publish lies.
- The objectives consist of not only distributing disinformation about the swine fever in Romania, but also in “collecting” as many views and reactions (emotional) from social media. The number of views per each article is recorded directly on the website, so, in total, the case of the African swine fever (ASF) has successfully reached in September 129 891 accesses (not unique). Still, with the exception of some articles artificially “grown” by the Sputnikists for raising views, the impact of the articles about the swine fever was mediocre – approximately 400 accesses/article.
The cloud word made from the titles of the articles from Sputnik about the African swine fever theme
- Regarding the used sources, propagandists from Sputnik prefer to artificially “grow” views for some articles, so that they insert their link in other related articles. Concerning the case about ASF, Sputnik has cited itself 12 times, following citations by Agroinfo.ro (10 articles), agrointel.ro (7 articles), agerpress.ro (6 articles), ANSVSA (4 articles) and so on. Only in a single article – a kind of pseudo-analysis, Sputnik cites sources in Russian ((News-Front.info, Ria.ru, infoportalru.ru, fondsk.ru, Sputnik.ru, vector-eurasia.org) all being linked to the Russian government, especially the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (the ex-SGS – Soviet General Staff). The article refers to the hypothesis which implies the existence of the so-called “Pentagon’s bacteriological laboratories”. I propose here to follow the steps of constructing the false narrations.
Moscow doesn’t believe in tears, but it is marching with lies
In order to strengthen the false narrative about the “laboratories”, authors Georgiana Arsene and Daniel George Nistor have systematically constructed a conspiratorial context, even scandalous, filled with disinformation with the purpose of infusing the public with attitudes of distrust in national authorities, preparing the ground for shedding the “fault” upon the “foreign entity” (click the link on the date);
- ANSVSA is incompetent in managing the virus 20/07;
- The epidemic can be stopped, but the authorities don’t want to 20/07;
- The authorities don’t want to take action in resolving the problem of spreading the ASF 25/07;
- The epidemic is EU’s maneuver so that Romania will become an open market 25/07;
- It is intended to stop Romanian farmers to grow their own pigs 01/08;
- The ASF has a role in bioterrorism acts with the purpose to sabotage the Romanian economy03/08;
- The epidemic started in favour to countries that have developed swine industry 03/08;
- An organized panic has been established among the meat producers for growing imports from the EU 10/08;
- 9 out of 10 consumers (from Facebook) consider that ASF represents an act of bioterrorism 23/08;
- ASF represents an act of sabotage and a crime against the Romanian agriculture 28/08;
- ASF is an invention, it does not exist 30/08.
The tip of the iceberg is represented by the propagandistic “analysis” with the title: “Who sowed the swine flew in Romania and Moldova” signed by the “military analyst” Aleksandr Hrolenko/Horlenko (his biography is less important given the fact that this person can be replaced with the Ghost of Christmas Past analyst or the “two tourists from Salisbury”). He considers that the ASF’s resilience is abnormal in “Nordic latitude” conditions and this would prove the fact that the origins of the flew is in supposed “laboratories”. Guess which ones? Obviously American, and not anyone else. So from this point on, the versions from the Sputnik propagandists become more and more contradictory.
In the Russian version ASF had spread in the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) straight from Fort Detrick (Frederick, Maryland), where “during a period of 10 years’ well-known severe epidemic pathogen agents were developed and improved” (upon this episode we will come back in the second part of the analysis). If in the Russian version Fort Detrick is missing, in the Romanian ones, “Hrolenko” assures us that all outbreaks (there are already more epidemics now) in the agro-food sector even in Russia “could be linked (sic!) to the activities in the Pentagon’s bio-laboratories situated in the neighboring countries Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan”. Pay attention to the expression, typically used in manipulation campaigns: ”could be …”.
Pro-Kremlin propagandists are sure that “something strange” is going on here
The article continues with a short “investigation” about the “characteristics” of the American laboratories in Chisinau, which is not Hrolenko’s anymore, but to an unknown “translator” from Sputnik (with serious translation problems in Romanian), which refers to various obscure sources and articles “anonymously published” about the “danger of contamination” of the whole Eastern Europe. One of these sources is Fond Strategiceskoy Kulturî (Strategic Culture Foundation) – a site registered in Estonia (Ida-Viruna region in the North-Eastern part of the country, with a population of 73% of ethnic Russians) and responsible for publishing the misinforming “editorial pamphlet” regarding Russia’s “secret electromagnetic weapons” (these might have blinded the American radars on the USS Donald Cook Destroyer in April 2014). This disinformation has been debunked step by step here, resulting in the fact that the narration was just a bad joke transformed in news.
The story from fondsk.ru also refers to a series of laboratories financed by the American government in some CSI countries. Here the pro-Kremlin propaganda uses the existence and financing documents for these laboratories from the American government in order to discredit the Pentagon (and the US) on an international scale; moreover, to justify internally the relocation of funds to defense, in the research and development department of bacteriological weapons. In reality, USA allocates funds to these laboratories for improving biosecurity and preventing any kind of accidents of virus outbreaks.
The disinformation narration, about “Russia – island” surrounded by “bacteriologic laboratories” after an “Anaconda strategy”, had been launched before the VIIth revision conference of the Convention regarding the biologic and toxic weapons (BTWC) in 2016, when Russian officials were the first to launch this disinformation campaign which continues to last even now.
Since then, Kremlin’s lies are updated permanently, on diverse occasions, especially in vulnerable regions facing epidemic outbreaks. In this sense, the first “pseudo-investigations” start to be published, translated in various languages, and generated maps which emphasize the visual impact of the “laboratory” threats financed by the US. Likewise, this tactic is applied to the American base camps (even though on these images there are NATO bases!).
Maps created by Kremlin’s propaganda strategists and distributed on social media networks and disinformation websites with military thematic
Source: news-front.info / Facebook: WE DO NOT WANT TO FIGHT AGAINST THE RUSSIANS! (ro. NU VREM SA LUPTAM IMPOTRIVA RUSILOR!)
The second source which confirms the narration about the “laboratory” in the Republic of Moldova is News-Front.info – a pseudo-news agency which tackles military subjects, especially the Russian Federation’s military operations in Syria, also covering Kremlin’s military aggressions in the eastern part of Ukraine. The website launched on 25th November 2014 is deeply linked to the start of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” against the Ukrainian state, even though its servers are located in USA (Arizona, Phoenix) and registered though a third party. Usually, the website is used intensely by propagandists for spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation in European countries, using articles translated in Bulgarian, German, English, Spanish, Serbian, French and Hungarian languages.
After the report provided by alexa.com, the global traffic of the website reaches 14593 visitors (an average between the number of daily visitors and the total accesses of the pages on a period of three months), at this level the Russian traffic reaches a number of 2 116 visitors. A quarter of its visitors (25.2%) are from Russia, followed by Germany (7.1%), Ukraine (6.5%), USA (5.9%) and so on. Romania occupies the 12th place in the visitors of News-Front.info, with only 1.3%. The situation is sort of explainable, given the conditions that the majority of its accesses are obtained through yandex.ru (9.2%), ok.ru (6.7%) and vk.com (6.6%). I have also identified some “military focused” inter-linked websites: rusvesna.su, politnavigator.net, ukraina.ru, politobzor.net and nahnews.org.
Thus, the “anonymous” contributor from News-Front.info tackles the “laboratory” narrative through a conspiracy theory, using a series of contradictory interrogations, but also notions that lack any elementary logic.
For example, on Sputnik the author mentions that “the laboratories work exclusively for preventing biological risks, and the Chisinau project is destined for preventing HIV/AIDS and hepatitis”, and later on changes to an accusatory attitude towards Americans who “ignore The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxic Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC)”. Unfortunately, for some “conspiracy theorists”, any regional epidemic can be put automatically on the CSI American “laboratories”, even though Soviet secret service and presently the Russian one’s own a series of facilities that produce “poisons” (viruses, neurotoxins etc.) tested on human beings.
On News-Front.info 30th January 2018 – an article was published entitled: “Pentagon’s biological weapons and Moldova” which presents a partnership network and the funding of “The Center of Science and Technology in Ukraine -STCU”, with an accent on the GUAM member states (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and R. Moldova) and with a reference to the “original” and more complex “investigation” made by a certain Dilyana Gaytandzhieva. Also, in this case, real proof is missing and the reader is spammed with a series of scanned documents, collages and special modified maps with visual impact created for misleading and moreover to discourage any further reading of the critical information. Thus, the analysis entitled “The Pentagon’s Secret Laboratories” has been distributed across the internet on various sources, from News-Front.info to Segodnea.ru, thus reaching “patient zero” represented by a published article on the Bulgarian disinformation website MESBG.org – Център за Близкоисточни Изследования (The Center for Middle Eastern Studies). To be noted, the article’s adoption by propaganda websites was coordinated, practically distributed on a 24h basis, on 15, 16 and 17 January 2018.
Turning back to the article published on Front-News.info, I discovered that its source refers to the website Fapte.md with servers in Chisinau and an anonymous register dating back in 2017. It could be the same “administrator” given the conditions that many pro-Kremlin and pro-Dodon articles can be identified. The disinformation about the “laboratories” is reused in R. Moldova on 20th January 2018, five days later after the campaign and recycled by Sputnik.md six months later.
On the other hand, the fact that Sputnik’s pseudo-analysis doesn’t offer any official source and any credible proof regarding the ASF production in those “laboratories” should make any reader, who has a minimum amount of critical thought, more cautious. Also, quoting Hrolenko’s second analysis is nothing more than an enforcement of the false narrative. In this situation, any aberrations can be combined with factual data, logical only in appearance, like in this case: the author-translator (anonymous) refers to people and animals that get sick due to these laboratories, mentioning different reactions that “ethnics” (!) have to the pathogens – a kind of updated eugenics and the myth of global conspiracies.
By repeating this false narrative that “viruses and dangerous illnesses are created by humans”, the disinformation designers want to rapidly convince the reader and prepare another lie: the virus H5N1’s strains have been developed by “two groups of researchers – European, led by Ron Fushe and American, led by Yoshihiro Kavaoka”. In fact, the two scientists developed a new strain of the virus (avian influenza) to demonstrate that it can be transmitted air born and through saliva. Thus, their studies were made public in specialized reviews, being analysed by the academic society as threatening signals if the virus would mutate.
*Nicolae Țîbrigan has a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Bucharest and also finished Security Studies Masters Programme at the same university. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Doctoral School of Sociology. Since 2013 he is a research assistant at the Institute of political Sciences and International Relations “Ion I.C. Brătianu” of the Romanian Academy.