Of trolls and talking points

Opponents and critics of the Bulgarian Socialist Party government have seized with glee on a series of media reports arising from investigations by the bivol website about the use of internet trolling to fake public support for the party’s government and policies.

To even the most casual reader of the Bulgarian-language media, abuses on internet sites and their forums hardly would come as a surprise. For a long-time, it has been obvious how series of comments appear beneath stories on some topics, written in the same style, making the same point – and quite probably emanating from the same IP address.

The effect that trolls have on “debate” is in itself debatable. Mostly, a troll is the bane of the life of a moderator, although – like that other curse of the internet, the virus – the sophistication of the skills employed is increasing.

The creation of false identities has gone beyond those familiar hyperactive users of forums, such as “4ovek”, “Khan Krum” and so on.

At the centre of the current controversy are BSP MEP Iliana Yotova, BSP MP Anton Koutev, a Bulgarian-owned company Leadway Media Solutions and, of course, those legions of the non-existent, including stefan.savov and trayan.petkov.

The reporting by Bivol.bg (no relation or connection to Alex Bivol of The Sofia Globe), including of a video recording of the work of a hacker, has led to allegations of a connection between Yotova and the work of trolls.

Reportedly, trolls in the employ of the BSP were given topics on which they were required to be particularly active – controversies involving Monica Stanisheva, the spouse of BSP leader Sergei; Georgi Purvanov’s ABC political project; the BSP’s relations with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, its partner in the current ruling axis; fiscal policy; and the process of removing the immunity from prosecution of ultra-nationalist Ataka leader Volen Siderov after the January 2014 Varna Airport incident.

Through the hacking of Yotova’s e-mail – a matter that she has said she intends taking up with prosecutors – an alleged message has emerged from a Leadway Media Solutions employee, identified as Aneta Avramova, offering online internet activity services such as a package of 50 forum comments, 150 Facebook comments, 50 tweets and 15 stories in the media each month.

If the e-mail exchange is genuine, the last point would be one of the few publicly-available pieces of evidence of the extent of payola in the Bulgarian media. The issue of paid publications not identified as such is raised in every significant report on the state of the media in Bulgaria.

Reporting following on the Bivol reports has added that the activity of some of those trolling on behalf of the BSP do not confine themselves to spewing out political messages, but also post comments favourable to certain corporates and against those corporates’ rivals.

Yotova has responded to reports that she passed on to the European Parliament an invoice from Leadway Media Solutions for 4000 euro by saying that it was for a project in line with her activities as an MEP and permissible under the rules, which forbid MEPs from using EP funds for political campaigning. The project for which the invoice was issued had to do with polling connected to the socio-economic situation in Vidin, according to Yotova.

She has confirmed, according to a report by Euractiv, having a contractual relationship with Leadway but said it was a “private” one for an upgrade of her website. Yotova also alleged that the material allegedly coming from her e-mail correspondence was falsified.

Leadway Media Solutions, in turn, has insisted that it does not number the BSP among its clients. Koutev has acknowledged that there is organised posting of comments online, but has said that this is done by volunteers and no one is paid for it.

While this narrative continues to unfold, all that is clear is the safe prediction that, given the high stakes in the run-up to the European Parliament election, every tactic will be used and no holds barred – including in the media in plain view, and lurking beneath the bridge, those notorious trolls.

(Photo of Yotova: bsp.bg)




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.