Authors: Goran Georgiev, Todor Galev
The Bulgarian version of the nine-language Russia-controlled online outlet News Front could be classified as a small outlet, with around 150 thousand visits per month(1) as compared to mainstream media, which have from a few to tens of millions of visits per month. The company behind the media, based in Russian-occupied Crimea and registered there a year before the occupation, i.e. in 2014, was founded by two persons with clear links to the Kremlin regime – a local council member and a head of the Crimean branch of the pro-Putin political party “Rodina” (Homeland) Konstantin Knyrik, and a for- mer Kremlin official Mikhail Sinelin (2). In 2021 the media outlet was described by the US Treasury Department as a disinformation and propaganda outlet, controlled by Russian intelligence services and was designated pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and two sanctions lists for acting on behalf of the FSB(3).
News Front is the main Kremlin-controlled news outlet in Bulgaria, as other major Russian media, such as Sputnik, do not have a Bulgarian version. As such, it is one of the main sources of disinformation and propaganda narratives, that proliferate the entire online ecosystem. Even though News Front is a relatively small outlet in terms of visibility and potential reach, the number of articles published by it in the first four months of 2022 and related to the war in Ukraine, is only half (51%) of the number of the articles on the same topic published by the largest online media (blitz.bg) (4). News Front’s coverage Ukraine as a topic has increased steadily since the beginning of 2022, reaching its peak in March, i.e. the first month of the Russian full-scale war in Ukraine
CSD examines a sample of about 200 articles (5) published in the Bulgarian-language version of News Front over a period of about two months (4 March – 28 April 2022) and uses content analysis techniques to extract a list of disinformation narratives related to the war in Ukraine. The analysis shows that the main strategy of News Front is not to inform its readers about the emerging news, but to provide them with counter-narratives in support of the Kremlin’s official policy regarding the latest developments as soon as, or sometimes even before, they make international headlines. The outlet seems to rely on the possibility that its readers have already been exposed to the baseline of mainstream news, and as such does not seek to provide more information about events, but simply to directly contradict the established baseline.
The outlet disseminated the full range of established pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives related to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Among the articles, anti-Western and anti-NATO disinformation narratives were the most prominent. With the rapid development of the war in the first months, News Front constantly changed its angles to support the latter disinformation narrative.
News Front has applied several different strategies to spread and affirm a number of interrelated disinformation narratives:
- Referring to “established” or “prominent” sources providing misleading information, e.g. the Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, who has a long history of producing and spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives (6), or what are presented as independent Western experts, especially from the US, e.g. citing Breitbart, a far-right US media outlet.
- A variation of the above strategy is to refer to a credible and well-known international source of information, but to use a misleading translation of the original text or to use excerpts from the original news without context, e.g. in several cases from Fox News, BBC or New York Times articles.
- Reinforcing people’s fears on certain issues, e.g. articles claiming that US/ EU/Western experts say that the Baltic countries are at risk of being put on Russia’s list of countries for denazification.
- Using different narratives for different European leaders, emphasising and exaggerating divisions in common EU policies and activities. Olaf Scholz and Emanuel Macron were often portrayed as worried or uncertain about their relations with the Kremlin, while Joe Biden and Boris Johnson were branded as outright aggressors.
- Tweets and external news articles that are blown out of proportion, when in fact they are much milder in their criticism
- Personal accounts of alleged witnesses, such as that of a prisoner of war and a survivor of the Mariupol theatre explosion, are used to spread the pro-Kremlin narratives.
- Last but not least, the outlet usually picks up where the mainstream media reports leave off and develops the story further with unproven facts and unsubstantiated claims, following the general strategy described above – not to provide the full story with detailed information and references, but to focus on its own interpretation of news that has already been reported.
In addition to the above described strategies for spreading disinformation, News Front follows one of the Kremlin’s tactics in its information war with the West, namely to produce and disseminate as many disinformation and propaganda narratives as possible, aimed at addressing the views and the preferences of different target groups. During the two-month period studied, the Bulgarian ver- sion of News Front published in total about 1600 articles, which mention or report about the war in Ukraine, i.e. roughly 30 articles per day
The analysis classified more than 50 different original narratives present in the reviewed articles, which were grouped into about 30 clusters on the basis of their similarity. At the same time, the main Kremlin narratives used to justify the full-scale war in Ukraine, referring to denazification, demilitarisation and special military operation, were present in only a small proportion of articles – between 25% and 6% of all articles published during the period studied. This shows that the outlet does not aim to impose and validate mainstream Kremlin disinforma- tion and propaganda messages, but rather focuses on producing and dissemi- nating as many different narratives as possible.
Examples of News Front disinformation narratives, related to the war of Ukraine (4.03-28.04.2022)
|Anti-West narratives: the West is responsible for starting and maintaining the war
people with damaging policies;
|Anti-West narratives aiming to debilitate the actions of the West:
tions or false flag operations;
organizing themselves into new “military-civil adminis-
from the Nazis
Ukraine and the refugees;
tries (including EU members);
civilians as shields;
forces are saving civilians;
(1) Based on data from SimilarWeb as of April 2022.
(2) Radio Free Europe, Russian propaganda in faces: who owns the Crimean Internet, 21.07.2016.
(3) U.S. Department of the Treasury, Treasury Escalates Sanctions Against the Rus- sian Government’s Attempts to Influence U.S. Elections, Press release, 15.04.2021.
(4) Measured in terms of number of visits, News Front accounts for 1% of the total number of visits of blitz.bg for the same four-month period
(5) Sampled randomly out the total 1665 articles, published in this period and related to the war in Ukraine. The collection of articles was done with Sensika media monitoring tool, using as a key word “Ukraine”.
(6) For the given period, News Front published one article, authored by her, but cited her investigation into six more articles on the same topic. (article 1, article 2, article 3, article 4, article 5, article 6)