How Bulgarian media turn into megaphones for Kremlin propaganda
America is building the Fourth Reich in Europe;
The International Criminal Court in the Hague is a terrorist organisation;
Poland is about to invade parts of Ukraine and the West is dragging Russia into the war;
Global elites are preparing to introduce digital collars for humans, the lockdown will never end and the goal is to abolish all human right through an international pandemic agreement.
Those completely unsubstantiated claims were not found on social media groups for conspiracy theories – they appeared on Bulgarian websites publishing news and political analyses such as Trud, Blitz, Pogled.Info, Fakti, etc. All those claims can be traced back to a common source – the Russian оnline platform Strategic Culture Foundation.
The Foundation, which also publishes a website in English, was listed by the US State Department among the “pillars of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem”. According to the State Department’s report, the Foundation is directed by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and has close ties to the Russian foreign ministry.
The Foundation is subject to sanctions by the US and the European Union but that does not seem to affect its popularity in the Bulgarian information space.
Factcheck.bg found over 100 articles from the Russian platform translated into Bulgarian and published without any editorial intervention by Bulgarian news outlets. Most of those publications do not mention the Foundation as their source – they just cite the author’s name – but the original texts can be found on the Russian platform. The precise number of Strategic Culture Foundation texts published by Bulgarian media is difficult to pinpoint because the platform has over 300 contributors who also write for other Russian media.
Who’s talking through the Strategic Culture Foundation
The Foundation was registered in 2005. Research in the field of social sciences and the humanities is listed as its main area of activity. Although it poses as a research institute, however, there is no evidence the Foundation has any other activity beside publishing articles on two websites – the Russian-language Fondsk.ru and Strategic-culture.org, which is published in English.
In its “About us” section on the two websites the Foundation makes no mention of any links to Russian state authorities but Russia’s foreign ministry lists the platform among its partners.
The “About us” section on one of the Foundation’s websites says it is “a platform for exclusive analysis, research and policy comment on Eurasian and global affairs”.
“We cover political, economic, social and security issues worldwide. Since 2005, our journal has published thousands of analytical briefs and commentaries with the unique perspective of independent contributors. SCF works to broaden and diversify expert discussion by focusing on hidden aspects of international politics and unconventional thinking. Benefitting from the expanding power of the Internet, we work to spread reliable information, critical thought and progressive ideas”.
The organisation maintains two separate websites – one in English and the other in Russian. The domain names and layout do not make it clear there is a link between the two. The idea is for the English-language website to look like an independent research institute employing Western scholars. In reality it provides a platform to Western authors spreading conspiracy theories, presenting their marginalised views as legitimate and widely shared in the Western world.
The Russian-language website also strives to create an academic impression – some of its contributors are former university professors, now spreading conspiracy theories in consonance with Kremlin propaganda narratives. The two websites publish different articles. All Strategic Culture Foundation texts that Factcheck.bg identified on Bulgarian media are translations from the Russian-language website.
The Foundation was created by former Politburo member and former leader of the Moscow city committee of the Soviet communist party Yuri Prokofiev, who also served as its director until 2015. Prokofiev, who was born in 1939, was also among the founders of a Russian NGO for citizens supporting the security services and law-enforcement authorities known as ROSSPO (‘РОССПО’ in Russian). Yuri Prokofiev is subject to personal sanctions on behalf of the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand for his activities in support of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Personal sanctions have also been imposed on the Foundation’s current director Vladimir Maksimenko and six members of his team.
In August 2021 the US sanctioned the Strategic Culture Foundation for attempting to influence the 2020 presidential election and undermining public confidence in the election process. In December 2022 the Foundation was placed on the EU’s sanctions list as part of the ninth package of sanctions for spreading pro-Russian disinformation, through which the Foundation supports actions undermining the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. The document also points out that the Foundation is financed by the Russian government and has links to its secret services, particularly the foreign intelligence service SVR.
The Foundation is sanctioned as a legal entity and is not on the list of Russian state-owned media outlets, such as Russia Today or Sputnik, whose content can not be distributed in the EU member states. Nevertheless, its inclusion on the sanctions list designates it clearly as a source of purposeful Russian disinformation. Because of its links to the Russian government the Foundation is banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and has no direct presence on those platforms.
What kind of content by the Foundation reaches Bulgarian readers
Publications by the Strategic Culture Foundation enter the Bulgarian information space almost always through the website Pogled.info. There they get picked up and reprinted by other outlets and are circulated on social media.
On March 8 2023, for example, Pogled.info published an article by Dmitriy Minin under the title “The earthquake in Turkey – just the beginning of seismic and political cataclysms on the Earth?” The source of the article is not mentioned. Only the author’s name is included, while the introduction to the text describes him as an expert but does not specify the field of his expertise. The same text in Russian can be found on the website of the Strategic Culture Foundation.
The author stirs up the audience’s fears by describing large-scale natural disasters that could theoretically happen in the near future: even more powerful earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, vast mountain lakes rupturing and flooding cities underneath. The suggestion that those events could be imminent is not backed up by any actual scientific evidence. He then goes on to suggest that those natural disasters can be controlled by the United States through seismic weapons like HAARP, which according to the text is ‘believed by many’ to have caused the earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February that took the lives of over 50 000.
The claims that seismic weapons exist in reality are not credible. They are part of an old conspiracy theory that has been debunked many times, including by Factcheck.bg.
According to Pogled.info’s view tracker, the article making those claims has been seen over 8000 times and the CrowdTangle tool shows it was shared on the online edition’s Facebook pages whose combined audience is nearly 100 000. Its distribution did not end there. On the next day it was published by Trud, whose website had 4.2 million visits in March as a whole, according to Similarweb’s traffic analysis. Two days later – on March 11 – the text was published on Glasove.com as well as Novini247.com.
A similar distribution path was followed by many other articles by the Strategic Culture Foundation, containing false or misleading claims, or promoting conspiracy theories. Some of those texts, published over the last few years, received even wider attention. They covered typical Russian propaganda topics such as the pandemic, vaccines, the war in Ukraine, the global economy and the international order as a whole. A review by Factcheck.bg which is not comprehensive found over 70 articles of the kind published on Pogled.info, more than 20 on Trud, seven on Blitz.bg, three on Glasove.com and occasional publications on other websites such as Epicenter, Fakti, Actualno, Novini247 and inews.bg.
The virtual pandemic
Articles by the Strategic Culture Foundation became a fixture in the Bulgarian media environment way before the sanctions were imposed. Many of the most widely read translations among them date back to the time of the Covid pandemic and deal in conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, the measures to contain it and vaccines.
An article published on March 20 2020 under the title “The coronavirus was not born in China but in the minds of the crazy overlords of money” scored a record number of views – it was seen more than 1.65 million times, according to Pogled.info’s view tracker. The text promotes the conspiracy that the pandemic was happening according to a plan conceived by the global economic elite years before the actual events. The article was written by Valentin Katasonov, a former professor in international finance at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. Its Bulgarian translation published on Pogled.info was shared on 164 Facebook groups and pages with a combined audience of over 1.5 million users.
Three days later the same text appeared on Fakti.bg, where it has been viewed over 63,000 times and shared on nine Facebook groups, potentially reaching an audience of over 186 000 users in total. Nearly a month later the it was published yet again, this time by a website called The Sofia Times and in March 2022 – two years later – it was recycled under a different title but without any changes to the content on Novini247.com.
Another article dedicated to Covid was published by Trud on March 29 2020 under the title “Why did the virus choose China, Iran, Italy and Spain as its main target”. It promotes the claim that Covid’s geographical distribution at the beginning of the pandemic is proof that the virus was manmade and that it was created by the United States. The text has been shared on 36 Facebook groups and pages with a combined audience of about 600 000 users.
Another text by military expert Vladimir Prohvatilov published by Pogled.Info in December 2021 warns that an international pandemic treaty is about to be signed, which will abolish all human rights and will establish “a global regime” ruled by the WHO and large pharmaceutical companies.
In reality the process of drafting an international pandemic prevention treaty started at the end of 2021. The key principles it is founded on include human rights, sovereignty, equity and transparency. The process will be completed in 2024 at the earliest. Vladimir Prohvatilov’s article has been read almost 88 000 times according to the website’s view tracker. It has been shared on nearly 60 Facebook groups through which it potentially reached an audience of over 1.2 million users.
Other popular publications claim that the pandemic did not really happen but was just virtual reality created by the WHO, that lockdowns would never be over, that the World Economic Forum was preparing to impose a global Covid certificate in the shape of a “digital collar for humans”, that vaccines against the disease were part of a plan for reducing the world’s population, and many more. Factcheck.bg found at least 15 widely shared articles containing claims in that vein, which are direct translations from the Strategic Culture Foundation’s website.
Russia – a victim of ‘global knavery’
“Global knavery” is a phrase used by Soviet philosopher Alexander Zinoviev to describe the West. A lengthy piece by the Strategic Culture Foundation dedicated to that label and its meaning was published by Pogled.Info on June 3 2022. The text, written by Alexander Mezyaev, makes its point by bringing up Nato and the United States’ intervention in the Kosovo conflict and the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević by the UN International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The article’s Bulgarian translation was read about 257 000 times according to the website’s tracker and it was shared on 7 Facebook groups with a combined audience of 165 000 users.
Invoking the Kosovo conflict is one of Russia’s main propaganda strategies for justifying its own aggression against Ukraine. The argument has been in use since as far back as 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. The Strategic Culture Foundation’s presence in Bulgaria’s information space was particularly prominent over the first weeks of the war last year. Factcheck.bg found at least 13 publications translated from the Foundation’s website and published on Bulgarian media in the first two months after the 2022 invasion began.
An article published by Pogled.Info on March 1 2022 for example claims that by sending military aid to Ukraine the West is “dragging” Russia into the war. Another text on the same website describes Ukrainians as “zombified Russophobes”, “neo-Nazis” who hate Russians on a racial basis, regarding them as Asian. The text claims that Germany is supporting Ukraine out of a secret desire for revenge for the defeat brought upon it by the USSR in the Second World War. The entire article is dedicated to justifying the aggression against Ukraine by the need for “denazification” – a motive Russia was actively using at the beginning of the war. Those claims are completely unfounded and have been debunked many times, including by Factcheck.bg.
The Strategic Culture Foundation was also the source of several publications on Bulgarian media, according to which Poland had “predatory plans” to acquire parts of Ukraine’s western territories. Those claims are also part of a familiar Russian propaganda narrative, according to which Ukraine’s neighbours are scheming to divide its territory among themselves and Russia is the only champion for the country’s survival. Even though they are not new, those claims have received a fresh boost of energy since the beginning of the war. Several text to that effect have been published on Pogled.Info, Blitz and Glasove, all of which are based on various Russian sources and at least four are direct translations from the Foundation’s website.
These are just some of the anti-western narratives reaching Bulgarian readers directly from the Strategic Culture Foundation, without any editorial comment and in most cases without specifying the original source. Readers are not told that these texts, presented to them as news, analyses or an “alternative point of view” were actually created and distributed under the leadership of the Active Measures Directorate of Russia’s foreign intelligence service and are part of an information operation on behalf of the Kremlin.
(Photo: flickr.com/ Victor Semionov)
This article first appeared on factcheck.bg