Parliamentary elections took place in Romania on 6 December 2020. The Bucharest-based Global Focus Center, in cooperation with IRI’s Beacon Project, monitored online and social media to examine the prevalence of toxic narratives in the political discourse in the election period. Using the Pulsar media monitoring tool, researchers followed dozens of outlets as well as social media pages of prominent political players over the course of several weeks. The results, analysis and methodology, can be found in the four reports published below – and on Global Focus’ site.
The analysis presented in this report covers the two days of elections (Saturday, 5 December, when voting started for the diaspora; and Sunday, 6 December, voting for both diaspora and local population).
- The nominal winner is the Social-Democrat Party (S&D), with around 29% of the vote. The government coalition, however, is likely to include the second and third parties, Liberals and USR-PLUS, respectively (both of Renew/ALDE), together with the Hungarian party and other minorities’ deputies. The surprise was Alianta pentru Unirea Romanilor AUR (9%), a fringe political party established just a year ago, combining radical unionists (promoting unification with the Republic of Moldova) and far-right activists (supporters of Romania's fascist past). AUR, which ran a campaign based on nationalism and so-called traditional values, probably capitalised on the protest vote and uninspiring campaigns by the well-established parties.
- As it became clearer over the course of the weekend that the AUR would have an unexpectedly good performance in the elections, more articles were posted, either describing what was a largely unknown party to the Romanian public or presenting and commenting on declarations from notable AUR members, such as leader George Simion’s confidence that his party would bring an “enormous surprise” on election day.
- The results yielded by Newswhip show that public and media attention on AUR exploded one day before the elections (the last peak in the diagram). While the public interest diagram shows the party was not entirely unknown (see the peak on Nov 21, after an electoral debate on public television where George Simion presented AUR’s intentions for a union between Romania and Republic of Moldova), in the graph on media interest, AUR is virtually non-existent until December 4.
- One notable topic covered by online news outlets during the interval was the perceived involvement of the Romanian Orthodox Church in public debate during the election. As the Church saw its authority weakened through restrictions on Church attendance imposed by the government in an effort to address the deteriorating epidemiological situation, it adopted a very vocal and critical discourse. On election day, Transylvania’s bishop accused the government of “attacks against the church” since he had to hold mass outside of the Metropolitan Cathedral in compliance to COVID-19 restrictions. Such strong statements of dissatisfaction from Church officials, alleging that Christians and the Orthodox Church are disrespected by the government, fed into an important part of AUR’s rhetoric.
- As these elections had the lowest turnout in Romania’s post-communist democratic history, many articles throughout the interval covered the extremely low percentages of people that were participating in the electoral process. The prevalent narrative promoted by the most visible articles posted by “digi24.ro” and “libertatea.ro” was that the low turnout is the effect of the ongoing pandemic.
- Similar to the pre-election monitoring period, the PNL is the most impactful communicator on Facebook, as it has the highest “visibility” score, calculated by Pulsar. In what regards the “visibility” indicator, which measures the overall impact of the posts, PNL MEP Rareș Bogdan took the lead during the election, overtaking George Simion (AUR) as the most impactful influencer (but not by much).
- The importance of the COVID-19-related public health crisis as a subject of public conversation during the election weekend shrank considerably compared to the pre-election public debate. That is not to say people became less worried about health; quite on the contrary, the low turnout, especially among the more exposed elderly, seems to suggest that concerns subsisted, but they were just not the main subject. According to monitoring using Pulsar data, only 3% of the total messages posted on Facebook by political communicators discussed the epidemiological situation and the management of the current health crisis.
- Similar to other topics, the presence of economy-related narratives in the discourse of political communicators was lower, with only a little over 2% of the posts discussing subjects related to future economic plans, or the economy recovery after the pandemic.
- According to filtered data from Pulsar of the posts made by political communicators, the theme of electoral fraud was less discussed than expected. Only around 1% of the posts discussed the possibility that this year’s parliamentary election may be affected by fraud.
ELECTION RESULTS COMMENTS
The nominal winner is the Social Democratic Party (S&D), with 29% of the vote, followed by the National Liberal Party (EPP), with 25%, and USR PLUS (Renew) with roughly 15% of all votes. The surprise was AUR (9%), a combination of radical fringe unionists (promoting unification with the Republic of Moldova) and denialists of Romania's fascist past. AUR, which ran a patriotic and pro-family campaign, probably capitalised on the protest vote and an uninspiring campaign.
This result comes amid the lowest turnout in any parliamentary election in Romania’s post-communist democratic history, as only 31.84% of the electorate voted on Sunday.
We mentioned in the first report how AUR is well represented in social media and claimed a surprising percentage of the vote, despite only one poll giving it a chance of meeting the parliamentary threshold. It is likely that the difference between the surveys and the actual vote reflects hidden voting intentions (‘silence spiral’, i.e., people are wary of openly admitting their true intentions), low turnout, but also a self-fulfilling prophecy: the party was presented as a viable alternative and, therefore, it became one.
1. GENERAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE
- When looking at the “visibility” and “impressions” indicators (left and right pictures, respectively), it becomes apparent that the most followed news websites on election day continued to be mainstream ones. Mainstream outlets dominate the online media environment; all six most visible outlets according to both metrics do fact-based reporting and are fairly reliable.
- Articles with the highest visibility were posted by the same outlets that overall perform best in terms of audience volume. Many articles were written around the declarations of high-profile politicians urging their party’s electorate to vote.
- The top two articles in terms of audience from this period were on the topic of an alleged diaspora mail voting scandal. According to “libertarea.ro”, an online media outlet routinely conducting investigations on topics of corruption, around 45% of the votes sent in by the Romanian diaspora by mail were lost1. This article was viewed over 8,000 times. In many of the articles, accusations of incompetence abounded, with the USR-PLUS officially requesting an explanation from the government.
- The third most viewed story centred around the declarations of the head of the Department of Emergency Situations in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Raed Arafat, on the COVID-19 vaccination programme. His statement that “although the vaccination will not be mandatory, vaccinated people will have more freedom of movement” was widely distributed, generating discontent amongst some members of the public. The far-right party AUR used the article to support of some of the political points they had rolled out during the electoral campaign and shared it in a “no comment” post on their Facebook account,2 that was in turn redistributed by almost 500 profiles from their network of followers.
- As it became increasingly clear throughout the weekend that the AUR would have an unexpectedly good outcome, more articles were posted, either describing what was previously a largely unknown party or presenting and commenting on declarations from notable AUR members, such as George Simion’s confidence that his party would bring an “enormous surprise” on election day.
- One notable topic covered by online news outlets was the perceived involvement of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the public debate during the election. As the Church saw its authority diminished by restrictions imposed by the liberal government seeking to curb the deteriorating epidemiological situation, it adopted a very vocal and critical discourse. On election day, Transylvania’s bishop accused the government of “attacks against the church”, as he had to hold Sunday mass outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Such strong statements from Church officials, alleging that Christians and the Orthodox Church are disrespected by the government, fed into an important part of AUR’s rhetoric.
- As these elections had the lowest turnout in Romania’s post-communist democratic history, many articles covered throughout the day the extremely low percentages of people that were participating in the electoral process. The prevalent narrative promoted by the most visible articles posted by “digi24.ro” and “libertatea.ro” was that the low turnout is the effect of the ongoing pandemic.
2. SOCIAL MEDIA – PARTY ACCOUNTS
- Similar to the pre-election monitoring period, the PNL remained the most impactful communicator on Facebook, as it has the highest “visibility” score (473), calculated by Pulsar. AUR, the far-right party that experienced a meteoric rise thanks to its effective online communication, follows in second position (with a score of 241), with PSD having the third highest score (109). Thus, AUR managed to become very influential on Romanian Facebook thanks not only to the remarkable online presence of its leader George Simion but also through the effective coordination among party-affiliated accounts. There is little data pointing to a structured campaign per se.
- As regards the “impressions” metric, Pulsar’s metric measuring how many times a post appears on other timelines, the same two parties feature at the top of the list, with PNL first, and AUR second, at a distance. USR is third and PSD fourth.
2.A. The COVID-19 Public Health Crisis
- Despite the strong narrative in the media pointing at the pandemic as the main cause for the historically low turnout, the topic of the public health crisis and the condition of the healthcare system was marginal in the posts of the political parties over the election weekend, just below 2% of the posts in the monitored sample containing a narrative on this topic.
- PNL and USR-PLUS posted about their political programmes of investing in healthcare infrastructure, perhaps in an attempt to present themselves as responsible political groups who are going to tackle the important problems in society.
- An alleged disinformation campaign conducted through leaflets spread by the PSD was exposed in a post on PNL’s official page.3 The post gathered more than 230 engagements, and was shared over 50 times. The leaflets falsely claimed that “1 million citizens will not be able to vote because of being forcefully quarantined.” In fact, even quarantined citizens were able to vote through mobile ballot boxes.
2.B. The Economic Recovery
- As regards economic narratives included in party-generated posts on Facebook over election weekend, only 1% of the total posts were on the topic of economic recovery. These were posts created by PNL, that generally promoted the economic vision and measures stipulated in its governing programmes, mainly focusing on attracting investments and creating employment opportunities. The narratives were benign in nature.
2.C. Measures Concerning Education
The topic of education was not touched upon in the posts made by political parties during the election weekend.
2.D. Corruption and the Rule of Law
- Around 3% of the messages posted by political parties discussed at least a narrative related to corruption or the rule of law.
- This relatively large percentage compared with other topics is mostly due to the large number of posts from USR-PLUS (76% of the total) on the topic. This is unsurprising, as issues related to the rule of law, endemic corruption and a competent public administration represent the backbone of the alliance’s campaign. The narratives either promote the main proposals of USR-PLUS or accuse other long-established parties (especially PSD) of governing the country in an incompetent and self-interested manner over the years.
- Messages posted by the PNL also criticised PSD for the measures weakening judicial independence that were adopted during the latter’s time in government over the past four years.
2.E. Election Fraud Allegations
- In terms of the exercise of voting rights, AUR suggested in one post4 that some people may be hindered from voting through some “abusive restrictions.” Replicating the overall behaviour of the party and its leader George Simion during the electoral campaign, AUR tried to boost/exaggerate this fictitious allegation and create as much emotion as possible within their audience. They even offered legal assistance to any individuals encountering such problems. Similar to other posts by AUR, this one enjoyed a high number of engagements, receiving over 2,000 reactions and being shared over 200 times.
3. SOCIAL MEDIA – PARTY COMMUNICATORS ACCOUNTS
- Compared to the pre-election monitoring period, over the election weekend the far-right leader of AUR, George Simion, increased his dominance in the “Impressions” indicator calculated by Pulsar, having a score almost four times larger than the next most influential political communicator, National-Liberal MEP Rareș Bogdan. Gabriela Firea, former Bucharest mayor and foremost PSD influencer, Klaus Iohannis, the president of Romania and Vlad Voiculescu, PLUS member, follow as the next three political communicators, at a significant distance.
- The “Impressions” indicator is designed to show the number of times an entity’s posts was shown on other timelines, regardless of whether these were clicked on or not.
- In what regards the “Visibility” indicator, which measures the overall impact of the posts, PNL MEP Rareș Bogdan took the lead during the election, overtaking George Simion as the most impactful influencer. It is worth noting that former TV host-turned MEP Rares Bogdan is a popular flamboyant personality, oftentimes expressing nationalistic ideas. He was the first important political leader to declare that AUR (and George Simion) would enter parliament.5
- PLUS member Vlad Voiculescu camethird, followed by Gabriela Firea (PSD), Dacian Cioloș (PLUS) and Dan Barna (USR).
3.A. The COVID-19 Public Health Crisis
- The importance of the COVID-19-related public health crisis shrank considerably as a subject of public conversation during the election weekend, compared to the pre-election public debate. A mere 3% of the total messages posted on Facebook by political communicators discussed the epidemiological situation and management of the current health crisis.
- The majority of high visibility posts were represented by a series of messages created by former Bucharest Mayor Gabriela Firea, by far the most popular PSD communicator on Facebook. These ranged from generic, benign messages promoting the PSD’s strategy of dealing with the pandemic, to more misleading posts, blaming the poor state of heating in some COVID-19 hospitals in Bucharest on the recently voted PNL administration in the capital, despite these being long-standing issues that existed even when Mrs. Firea was mayor. Additionally, she accused the PNL government of not taking responsibility for its mismanagement of the pandemic and choosing to blame the population instead for spreading the virus.6
- One post notable for its manipulative undertones comes from Ramona Bruynseels, a virtually unknown politician representing PPUSL (an opportunistic political melange of social-liberal, populist and conservative ideas established by Dan Voiculescu, the owner of one of the most watched TV stations in Romania), suggesting that the number of COVID-19 cases might “explode” because of elections being held at this time and asking if President Iohannis would admit his responsibility for the subsequent deaths.
3.B. The Economic Recovery
- The presence of economy-related narratives in the discourse of political communicators was lower during the electoral weekend, with only a little over 2% of the posts discussing subjects related to future economic plans, or the economy recovery after the pandemic.
- Of these political influencers’ posts, the majority were reiterations of the official positions of their respective parties. Gabriela Firea features once again at the top of the list in terms of visibility, focusing her messages on the incompetence of the PNL government. Her posts routinely get between 300 and 600 shares. She also stated that soon after coming to power, a new PSD government would “reopen the economy and all its sectors”.
- PNL communicators mostly focused on redistributing benign messages about the economic proposals of the party. Florin Cîțu, currently the Minister of Public Finances (and the PNL proposal for prime minister of the next government) has posted about the need to stimulate entrepreneurship by reducing taxes, while PNL spokesman Ionel Dancă pointed towards the good credit rating of the country as proof of the good economic measures taken by the government during the pandemic.
3.C. Measures Concerning Education
- The topic of education was essentially unrepresented in the conversation generated by political communicators during the election weekend. Less than 1% of the posts touched on the topic, these coming from prolific communicator Gabriela Firea containing multiple narratives that were giving a sweeping criticism of the PNL government, on topics including education, among others.
3.D. Corruption and the Rule of Law
- A little over 2% of the total posts by political influencers contained narratives on corruption and the rule of law.
- The majority of posts focused on voter mobilisation to bring change to the country’s public administration through the new team of competent, honest MPs that certain parties promoted. Such narratives are mostly aimed at PSD’s well-known disregard towards judicial independence and are primarily disseminated by USR-PLUS and PNL.
- Notable PNL influencers, such as Prime Minister Ludovic Orban and Minister of Regional Development Ion Ștefan shared the popular narrative that a low voter turnout in the 2016 parliamentary elections benefited PSD, installing a corrupt government that launched an assault on the rule of law and incompetently handled the country making it vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
3.E. Election Fraud Allegation
- According to the Pulsar filtering results of the posts made by political communicators, the theme of electoral fraud was less discussed than expected. Only around 1% of the posts discussed the possibility of this year’s parliamentary election to be affected by fraud.
- In two of his posts, George Simion, the leader of the far-right AUR party, claimed that the political group was paying the utmost attention to stop the “vote theft”, urging the public not to believe the exit polls presented by the mainstream media controlled by the mainstream parties.
Another party leader to claim that a potential plan for electoral fraud was underway was PRO Romania President Victor Ponta. In a post on his Facebook page7 Ponta alleged that former president Traian Băsescu was trying to steal votes in the diaspora so that his party could pass the 5% parliamentary threshold. The popularity of the latter among a part of the Romanian diaspora, composed of Moldovans holding Romanian passports is well-known. Additionally, Mr. Ponta stated in a different post that the parallel vote count of PRO Romania would ensure that the “electoral fraud conducted by PSD and PNL in previous years” would not be repeated. It is worth noting that PRO Romania did not reach the 5% threshold to enter parliament.