The minister of the electronic government, Bokhanov, has issued a warning that many people do not understand how the Kremlin uses misinformation to gain influence. How Bulgaria intends to get back at its attackers.

Boschidar Boschanov
[bBozhidar Bozhanov, Bulgarian Minister of E-Government]

A few quick texts exchanged on WhatsApp lead to the cabinet member reaching an agreement on the time and day for the interview with the digital department. In a coalition administration comprised of four parties, some of which are significantly different from one another, Boschidar Boschanov serves as the Minister for Electronic Government.

This individual, who is 34 years old and a member of the Democratic Bulgaria party, has been in office since the month of December. In the past, he worked as an IT specialist and established a firm that specializes in information security. In an interview with the german newspaper  Tagesspiegel, Bokhanov discussed the risks posed by misinformation as well as the measures that his administration plans to take in response to it.

Mr. Bokhanov, thank you for your attention. Gas shipments have been halted and cyber assaults have been launched in recent weeks as part of Russia's pressure campaign on the country. What's the reason for the attacks on Bulgaria?

—Russia intends to impose influence on Bulgaria. It wants to retain the impact that has been there for a long time. Russia would undoubtedly prefer to have a Trojan horse in the European Union.

Disinformation operations are also being used more often, according to observers.

—We're witnessing a rise in misinformation, but it's hard to quantify since Facebook doesn't share any statistics. It's one of my favorite pastimes to put numbers on objects. In Bulgaria, Facebook is the most popular social media platform. Twitter, Tiktok, and Instagram, on the other hand, are probably in the same boat. A rise in DDoS assaults and ransomware attacks isn't out of the ordinary on the cyber front.

At the outset of the conflict, my message was that although Russia's emphasis on Ukraine means that we won't see an increase in assaults, we must be prepared for an increase in attacks in the following months. That's unfortunate, since I was correct the whole time. We aim to "deputize" Bulgaria and reduce the Kremlin's control in several spheres, including the economy, politics, secret services, and the media.

Russia is going after a nation that has been a long-term partner of Russia's. Are there any specific goals Russia is pursuing?

—Russia's purpose is seldom really clearly defined, but it often involves sowing conflict and disruption. The Kremlin takes advantage of the fact that Bulgarian society has traditionally had favourable views toward Russia by engaging in targeted misinformation not just during the conflict but also for many years before to it. Using specific narratives, such as that of a powerful Russian army, of a traditional conservative Slavic power represented by the Kremlin and Putin himself, of a decadent Western world and an aggressive NATO and EU, etc.

There are a lot of individuals who aren't conscious that they're being fed false information, and as a consequence, their perspectives have only hardened over the years. This is reflected accurately in the polls as well: Prior to the start of the conflict, there was almost sixty percent, which is an unacceptable amount of support for the Kremlin in Bulgaria. This lost some of its allure as a result of the conflict. Approval ratings have dropped by more than half. But according to the results of another survey, a majority of Bulgarians believe that the West is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine and that it was the West that spurred the Russians into fighting. This survey gives credence to their story, which can be seen here.

What other narratives are particularly common in Bulgaria?

—One of them goes after Ukrainian refugees who have found shelter in Bulgarian hotels or who travel across the country in fancy automobiles. There are certainly several individuals who have arrived in their expensive automobiles. There are one hundred thousand people in Ukraine, and some of them own automobiles. One of the most prevalent storylines is one that pits refugees against the people of Bulgaria in an effort to achieve political advantage. Another version of this story goes like this: Ukraine is responsible for the deaths of people in Donbass, and thus Russia has to free Donbass. This is the language that comes out of the Kremlin.

You remarked not so long ago in a parliamentary hearing that nations in Eastern Europe are especially susceptible to misinformation tactics. why is it that?

—The reason for this may be found in history, namely in the relations with Russia. Due to the fact that we are border nations, we take in the majority of refugees. Poland is a safe haven for millions of people, many of whom previously fled to Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. As a result of the nations' close closeness to Russia, the residents of those countries are developing a rising dread that the conflict may expand to their territory as well if it continues. Fear is exacerbated when disinformation is spread.

The newly formed Bulgarian administration is the first in the country to demonstrate a serious desire to address the issue of misinformation in Bulgaria. Why?

—My party and the party that supports further change are the parties that lean toward the West the most. There has always been an administration that existed before to ours that was in some ways pro-Kremlin; this government played with the West and even shook hands with Angela Merkel. During this period, she also oversaw the implementation of important Kremlin projects, such as pipelines. First and foremost, we are making an effort to address the issue that has arisen.

What are you doing at the moment?

—After considering a large number of possibilities, we've determined that there is not much that can be done on the regional level. Because of the country's limited economic resources, Bulgaria is unable to exercise self-governance over the social media industry. Direct steps to prohibit websites are not something that we can and should not undertake. To begin, this is an extremely risky endeavor to undertake, and secondly, there is no way that it could possibly succeed.

This is due to the fact that the misinformation operations are carried out in the following manner: they use anonymous websites that provide false news, and then utilize troll factories to distribute comments on these articles and amplify them via Facebook's algorithms.

Even if we discover a website that publishes bogus news and determine that it is anonymous, lacks legal notice, and has no owner, it will be impossible for us to stop it due to technological limitations. Blocking DNS won't do anything since you may just alter the name of the page and Facebook would still include it in its index. As soon as we are in a position to block, people responsible start working on a new website. If we had the capacity to ban content, it would be a very effective but dangerous instrument of censorship.

What other options do you have?

—We use two different strategies. The first is on the European continent: the Digital Services Act (DSA), which is now in the works, is an excellent method for making social networks more accountable. They need to be more upfront with their algorithms and provide more data from their research. The only way to make them more effective in preventing the spread of false news is to enhance them in this manner. At this time, the platforms are not making sufficient efforts to address the issue. There is certainly a greater need for collaboration between governments and platforms in this area.

This kind of cooperation can more easily be accomplished because to the DSA. As a result, the DSA is the first tangible instrument that can be used to govern algorithms. The process of putting it into action will take some time, but it is the only one that is both sustainable and does not run the danger of establishing a censorship apparatus.

And what about the other method?

That sums up the investigation. We are going to organize a system to keep an eye on the media. This is something that a lot of different private firms undertake for purely financial motives. For reasons relating to the safety of the country, we intend to carry it out. We are going to take a look at the news that is currently relevant as well as how it is being spread. Following that, the government will be able to respond to it via their communication.

Could you give me an example of this?

At the outset of the conflict, we were facing an issue with commuters. It was said that because of the conflict, Russia would cease providing fuel supplies, and there would not be sufficient amounts of gasoline. A line of customers had formed in front of each of the petrol stations. Because of this, there is a potential for a lack of gasoline. And as a consequence, the price went up. The price of gasoline is naturally increased by the gas station if there are large lines forming in front of the pumps.

After doing a retrospective investigation, we discovered that there had been a significant increase in the number of complaints of gasoline shortages shortly previous to this event. Therefore, if we had been proactively watching the patterns in the news, we would have been aware that this narrative was being spread by trolls and publications. We would have been able to notify people in advance that there is no scarcity of gasoline and that attempts are being made to incite panic that there would be shortages. A proactive overview will be provided by the new unit so that we are aware of what is occurring on social media and can react to it in a timely way.

In addition to the steps taken with social media, how vital is it for Bulgaria to enhance its journalism and media?

—This is of the utmost significance. The country of Bulgaria's media landscape is not faring particularly well at the moment. The rating of our country's press freedom by Reporters Without Borders has increased this year, although it is still much behind that of European countries. In addition, the Kremlin exerts its influence over the media via financial support. We are unable to verify anything, but the Kremlin's statements are being used as the basis for storylines that are being spread to our media, particularly by certain journalists. There is still a great deal of work to be done here.

In addition to this, we are concerned with improving the media's skills. On the other hand, this is an investment for the medium to long term. It is unrealistic to expect media literacy to be effective in the next four weeks given the current state of the conflict. For this reason, we are concentrating on short-term and medium-term actions that have the potential to have an effect more quickly.

[Translated from German]
Source: Tagesspiegel
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