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.
Parliamentary elections were held in Romania last Sunday, December 6, amid Covid-19 case numbers near their all time peak and an increasingly unpopular incumbent government led by the National Liberal Party (PNL) of Ludovic Orban. With opinion polling indicating a slim margin of victory for the PNL, their support was trending downward to the benefit of the main opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD). Initial results indicate that this late shift in opinion may have been enough to give the PSD a narrow lead over the PNL to come out on-top.
During the run-up to the election IRI’s Beacon Project partnered with one of the leading Romanian disinformation research institutions, Global Focus, to monitor the media content of leading media outlets as well as the Facebook accounts of leading political actors.
This report has been prepared with support from IRI's Beacon Project. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of IRI.
The electoral discourse has been largely clean, though not civil. The parties have, as usual, announced that if they do not win the election, the country will be facing a crisis. In general, candidates and major outlets did not indulge in aggressive conspiracy theories, with no substantial elector fraud allegations being found
Four reasons can be surmised at this point:
- It is expected that the current government will continue to maintain its hold on power after the elections, which lowers the stakes.
- Regarding the mainstream parties, a lot of strong radical criticism is possible without needing to resort to conspiracies and disinformation. The last Social-Democrat PM, Viorica Dăncilă, was so universally seen as a disaster that she is no longer on the party list for Parliament. The Liberals, who run the government, have been heavily criticised for their lack of vision in handling the pandemic.
- Beyond the established political parties of the Centre-Right and Centre-Left, only one appears to have arisen to challenge the establishment in any meaningful way, the right-wing Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) which appears to have receive enough votes to enter parliament in its first national parliamentary elections.
- The media sample studied was skewed towards the more mainstream outlets due to data collection methods.
All this has proven somewhat of a challenge for short-term research. Some expected toxic narratives were missing, which is always a good thing. Others were indistinguishable from legitimate criticism that one might bring on a political adversary.
COVID – as expected, is an omnipresent theme, connecting and penetrating all the others. Although it has been discussed in a politically polarising way, the discussions did not employ particularly “toxic” language and remained free of significant conspiracy allegations. That is not to say Covid conspiracies are not present in Romania, but they do not appear in our research as having significant electoral influence. About 10% of the posts or articles of the sampled parties and party communications touch upon it.
AUR – The emergence of a new nationalist right-wing party that fuses a segment of the unionist movement (advocating unification with Moldova) with a group that denies and relativises the crimes of the interwar fascists. While opinion polling put the party at or near the 5% threshold necessary for entering Parliament, they appear to have exceeded their expectations and initial results show they may have claimed closer to 9% of the vote. Significantly, the research found that Its communicators were able to punch above their weight in social media communications. The party’s leader George Simion was one of the most active and visible political figures on Facebook with over 2 million impressions (times appearing on Facebook user’s newsfeeds) which accounted for 30% of all the impressions monitored. While not present in the monitored media, they have also sent emails to their followers announcing that electoral fraud will take place: this suggests that it might be one of their lines of attack after the elections.
The Orthodox Church – Long considered an institution of political weight, it has been largely absent from the electoral conversation. This happens although it has been quite present in non-electoral conversations due to the insistence of local bishops (or even the Synod) to get exception from lockdown rules for various pilgrimages and religious services. It would appear that politicians have moved from an attitude of polite deference (if not outright pandering) to a more cautious approach.
GENERAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE
The COVID-19 Public Health Crisis
The focus of conversations around Covid-19 and the public health crisis were highly focused on the poor infrastructure of the healthcare system. This was highlighted by a fire on 14 November in the ICU unit of a hospital in Piatra Neamţ. While the majority of coverage was free from disinformation, one narrative that was promoted by the leader of the opposition PSD, Marcel Ciolacu, was that the PNL led government were intentionally slowing down the number of Covid tests given so that the nation case numbers would appear lower.
- In light of the ever-deteriorating situation of the country’s healthcare system capacity, as a result of daily record numbers of ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, many of the narratives connected to the public health crisis were accusing the national liberal government of incompetence and corruption in handling the epidemic in Romania.
- Due to the high public interest in the topic, this was a subject that a significant portion of the public debate focused on.
- After Facebook, the next six websites in our sample with the most posts on topics related to the public health crisis and the government’s handling of the pandemic were from “ziare.com”, “bzi.ro”, “bursa.ro”, “adevărul.ro”, “romaniatv.net”, and “money.ro”. Out of these, four are known to have distributed biased or misleading content in the past (bzi.ro, bursa.ro, romaniatv.net and money.ro).
- A trend analysis of the evolution of posts and interest in the topic reveals some of the most notable conversations and the most heightened moments of public interest:
- The first peak of interest in the general media noticeable in the chart above is represented by the discussion following a fire in the ICU of a hospital in the city of Piatra Neamț, that has left over a dozen patients dead. The event triggered a discussion with narratives focused on the chronic corruption that has resulted in an underperforming and overwhelmed healthcare system. Other posts and articles distributed by Social-Democrat Party (PSD)-connected accounts and fringe media outlets like Luju.ro misleadingly pointed towards the incident as yet another example of the National Liberal Party (PNL) government’s failure to manage the COVID-19 epidemic effectively, the fire allegedly being the result of overcrowding at the hospital. This peak in the intensity of the conversation is also representative of the population’s, and subsequently the media’s interest in issues regarding the state of the healthcare infrastructure in Romania, as the country has seen many corruption and negligence scandals over the years in this area, often with tragic consequences.
- The second peak is connected to two events. Firstly, an intensified discussion on Romania’s vaccination strategy, with PNL figures presenting the issue with a highly optimistic outlook, while other opposition party accounts, most notably PRO Romania, have argued that the excessive focus on the vaccine is just a distraction from the dire public health situation in the country, aimed at masking the government’s mismanagement. The second event is the thorough media coverage of the resignation of a local PSD leader, after having posted a photoshopped figure of Adolf Hitler on a picture of President Klaus Iohannis. The PSD official had accused the president and the PNL government of acting in an authoritarian and incompetent manner throughout the pandemic. Additionally, he accused the government of not communicating truthfully with the citizens and not carrying on necessary mass testing, an accusation that circulates very often among opposition groups and associated media outlets.
- One notable disinforming narrative that has gained traction in the build-up to the elections is the allegation that the Liberal government has purposely instructed for less tests to be conducted, to create the illusion of an improved epidemiological situation ahead of the vote. The allegation was also used by Marcel Ciolacu, the leader of the PSD.
The Economic Recovery
The major conversations presented around economic issues were largely in-line with typical political divisions and were largely free of disinformation. The democratic-socialist party focused their narratives on a perception that the liberal party was supporting international companies and banks over the general population. The governments decision to close local indoor markets as part of their Covid response measures was used by the PSD to promote a narrative that the PNL did not care about the local agricultural sector and instead favoured larger commercial supermarket chains.
- The outlets with the largest visibility publishing content related to economic issues during the election campaign, were largely mainstream pages that present fact-based reporting. The five most followed pages all fall in this category: “ziare.com”, “adevărul.ro”, “mediafax.ro”, “digi24.ro” and “hotnews.ro”.
- However, pages that still have been identified as posting misleading content in the past, such as “ziaruldeiasi.ro”, “romaniatv.net”, “bursa.ro” and “cotidianul.ro” also had significant readership figures.
- Despite the generally objective tone in reporting, some misleading narratives can still be noted, such as the notion that the PNL is intentionally favouring big finance and business (banks and private companies) over vulnerable groups (children and the elderly) in its economic measures. Such criticism comes from PRO Romania, PSD, and media connected to these parties. One such narrative which is often encountered is that the Liberals are refusing to double pupils’ monthly allowances (as they had committed to before the crisis) and instead use the exceptional budgetary measures to support banks and companies with ties with the party.
- Much of the most visible content published by online media outlets is represented by articles quoting the statements of various political figures. In general, the majority of articles with the highest visibility present relatively neutral narratives, such as commentary of the main proposals of the parties.
- Despite the fact that the campaign promises of both the Social Democrat and National Liberal parties are focused on increasing wages and the overall income of the citizens, the PSD has a particular focus on presenting itself as the only political actor that genuinely advocates for the interests of low-income citizens. Hence, it has extensively exploited the government decision of closing indoor grocery markets because of the deteriorating COVID-19 situation, presenting the act as further proof of PNL’s disregard for the livelihoods of independent agricultural producers. When the president announced that the markets would reopen, shortly before the elections, outlets with ties to PSD and other opposition parties switched to the narrative that the government is inconsistent and incompetent in the handling of the epidemic, its only concern being to get as many votes for the PNL as possible. The president on the other hand has declared that the decision was taken only after consultation with epidemiological experts that deemed the measure safe.
- Other criticisms shared in the media include accusations that PNL will not allocate funds for people with lower incomes and it could even proceed to cut pensions, a narrative very frequently used by the PSD. On the other hand, on economic matters, PNL figures are quoted which seem to demonstrate the corruption within the former PSD governments, as well as their irresponsibility and populism in the management of public funds
Measures Concerning Education
- Most of the election-related public debate on education gravitates around the present status of schooling, as the country’s students are taking classes online.
- Whilst the governing PNL party deems the measures necessary for curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the country, many of the challenger parties (notably centre-left PSD and PRO Romania) are dismissing the measures as simplistic, unnecessary and irresponsible. The young students are presented in their narratives as casualties in the PNL’s strategy to contain the spread without imposing a new lockdown that would erode its support base.
- Relative to other issues, such as the public health situation, the number of articles with narratives on the quality of education amid the pandemic has been rather small.
Corruption and the Rule of Law
Despite being the central topics of debate in the past election campaign periods, due to the extraordinary public health situation now, this subject has been of secondary importance in this election. Nonetheless, notable narratives have been identified. One of the primary narratives identified is that the government’s anti-corruption efforts specifically target PSD associates in order to deflect from the shortcomings of the PNL.
- In terms of visibility, our previous research has shown that outlets routinely publishing misleading content are dwarfed by mainstream outlets promoting fact-based reporting, the top four websites enjoying a visibility that is two to six times bigger than the next most popular outlets. This position is enjoyed by “ziare.com”, “libertatea.ro”, “hotnews.ro” and “adevarul.ro”, all of them gathering high audiences and being considered more or less balanced.
- Some of the more popular fringe outlets have only a fraction of the audience of the more mainstream websites with more neutral editorial policy. Websites such as “Luju.ro” or “Romaniatv.net” struggle to gain over 10k regular viewers of their articles on corruption or rule of law, where their editorial policy is often against measures supporting judicial independence. This is not to say, however, that there is overwhelming consensus amongst the Romanian population on the importance of strengthening the judiciary. Most likely, outlets spreading misleading narratives on the role of judicial institutions are underrepresented because the public supporting such messages tends to prefer other means of getting information, such as television or social media.
- Less widespread narratives from fringe websites include accusations of hypocrisy towards the PNL, as well as the depiction of government anti-corruption initiatives that target the PSD as a means to scapegoat the Social-Democrats for the Liberals’ political shortcomings.
Election Fraud Allegations
There were not significant narratives identified in this monitoring claiming electoral fraud. One instance was discovered in a fringe outlet and it was reported that the AUR party did sent out emails claiming there was some electoral fraud planned.
- No notable discussion on the topic has been observed. The only exception is represented by a single article in fringe outlet “National.ro”, claiming that President Iohannis is going to use his alleged personal control of the Romanian Special Telecommunications Service to interfere with and perpetrate a “fraud of great proportions” in the parliamentary elections. The article has gained little traction.
- However, we have been made aware that Alianța pentru Unirea Românilor - AUR has sent emails to supporters explicitly claiming that election fraud is planned.
SOCIAL MEDIA – PARTY ACCOUNTS
- Out of the 11 parties monitored, the one with the highest activity was PNL, the present governing political party. Unsurprisingly, the party is also the one with some of the most visible posts on Facebook. Other parties notable for their active presence on Facebook are Uniunea Salvati Romania (USR) and PLUS, which run together as an alliance and are known to reach a significant part of their relatively younger, urban electorate through the social network.
- One aspect that is worth noting is the intensive use of Facebook by fringe political parties. Pages like “Pro România”, “Partidul Puterii Umaniste – Social Liberal” (PPUSL) or “Alianța Renașterea Națională” are among the parties that post the most on Facebook.
- Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the disproportionately large visibility on Facebook of a new, extremist and nationalist party: “Alianța pentru Unirea Românilor – AUR”. According to data from Pulsar, it has the second largest visibility on Facebook among all parties, only behind PNL, despite posting just a fraction of its content. Worth noting are also the third and fourth most visible parties: the fringe PPUSL and the long-established PSD.
The COVID-19 Public Health Crisis
- Narratives criticising, defending, or providing alternatives to the current management by the PNL government of the COVID-19 epidemic in Romania have represented one of the most notable parts of the public debate in the campaign.
- From the total posts monitored, 7% contained a narrative connected to the COVID-19 epidemic in Romania.
- Most narratives from parties directly opposing PNL, such as PSD or PRO Romania, highlight the alleged incompetence of the government though, deeming its measures counter-productive at best.
- PRO Romania is generally focusing on condemning through its posts the socially and economically damaging restrictions imposed by the government, as one of its campaign pledges is the rollout of a mass-testing campaign, as a way to get the epidemic in the country under control.
- PSD has promoted a variety of narratives, all connected to the government’s alleged disinterested and even devious behaviour during the pandemic. One of the misleading sub-narratives is that despite the government’s claims, the country will not be able to roll out a vaccination campaign even if the Pfizer vaccine is approved soon, as it does not have the infrastructure for the ultracold storage that the doses require. Nonetheless, the narrative ignores the almost imminent approval of other vaccines that have less demanding storing conditions.
- The PNL is focusing on promoting positive narratives, trying to portray its approach as effective. Narratives utilised include detailed accounts of the population vaccination plan, presented as a rapidly approaching solution to the crisis.
- The most nationalistic narratives are promoted by AUR, a new and allegedly fast-growing far-right party. Such a narrative is that one of the true intentions behind the government’s closure of local grocery markets was the promotion of foreign supermarket chains as an alternative to, and at the expense of, local Romanian producers, through the labelling of local markets as potential COVID-19 transmission grounds, while keeping supermarkets open and deeming them safe.
- One other notable misleading narrative promoted by many opposition parties, from PSD to PPUSL, is the notion that the government is intentionally requiring for less tests to be made, or has outright falsified the official reports, so that the number of cases reported would decrease before election, leaving the PNL administration with an improved reputation.
The Economic Recovery
- From the total posts created by political parties that were monitored, 8% touched upon one or more economy-related topics.
- Narratives promoted by USR-PLUS on this topic are exclusively concerned with the need of abolishing what is perceived as extortionately high and inequitable special pensions for certain officials (most notably MPs), as well as the need to name competent and responsible officials to manage public funds. In this respect, the USR-PLUS electoral narratives are conventional for the party’s traditional agenda and do not address post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
- Many of the narratives promoted by AUR in its messages are reminiscent of some of the economic beliefs from the nationalistic Communist times: extreme aversion towards holding external debt, as well as criticism towards privatisations that have allegedly had “tragic consequences for Romania’s economy”. Additionally, an oversimplifying narrative is proposed for explaining the COVID-19-generated economic crisis, which is blamed entirely on government incompetence. Thus, the AUR Facebook page suggests that in the immediate future large wage cuts and tax rises will be implemented. More so, it falsely states that from an economic standpoint, Romania is the most affected country in the EU after Spain.
- The PMP party is largely promoting narratives regarding better tax collection and thoughtful budget expenditure, blaming past administrations for wasting or even stealing taxpayer money.
- The PNL is largely promoting benign narratives, focused on its future investment plans in sectors deemed “critical”, such as healthcare, or the road infrastructure.
Measures Concerning Education
- Compared to other narratives, the ones concerning education occupy a small share of the public debate during the campaign; a mere 2% of the posts analysed deal with this issue.
- Apart from the PNL, the majority of parties oppose the closure of schools, highlighting the long-term effects of the loss of quality education.
- The PMP focuses on the alleged lack of scientific proof for the risks of keeping schools open, arguing that compared to other places, educational institutions can safely reopen sooner after basic social distancing measures have been ensured on the premises.
Corruption and the Rule of Law
- From the total number of posts of political parties that were monitored, a total of 5% were on the topic of corruption or rule of law.
- The vast majority of the posts on this topic were published either by the USR, PLUS or the alliance USR-PLUS Facebook pages, their cumulated content adding up to more than 75% of all articles posted on this topic. These messages represent the central part of the campaign, the key narratives advocating for a need of complete overhaul of the state administration, which is criticised for being overcrowded with superfluous institutions and incompetent civil servants named by cronies.
- An outlier is the fringe “New Romania” populist party (PNR), that promotes unequivocally a law imposing tighter controls on members of the judiciary. This approach is motivated by a disinformation narrative used extensively between 2016 and 2019 by the PSD government under Liviu Dragnea’s leadership, arguing that the Romanian judicial system is frequently abusing its power, unrightfully sentencing to prison individuals on the basis of political reasons.
Election Fraud Allegations
- Although there were reports of AUR emails being sent out claiming there would be attempts at electoral fraud these conversations were not present in the monitored Facebook pages during the pre-election period of this study.
SOCIAL MEDIA – PARTY COMMUNICATORS ACCOUNTS
- The most visible two communicators on Facebook in the past two weeks were Rares Bogdan, high-profile PNL MEP and former TV host known for his passionate monologues, and George Simion, the leader of the nationalistic fringe party AUR that has had a quick rise.
- For comparison, President Klaus Iohannis has a mere third of the Facebook visibility score of George Simion, being in eighth position overall. The visibility score is calculated to aggregate the overall online influence of a social media user.
- Perhaps even more surprising is the astounding performance of George Simion in the “impressions” indicator, which measures how likely it is for some individual’s post to be viewed on a timeline, regardless of whether the viewer clicks on the content or not. There he stands as a lone top influencer, with a score over three times higher than the next public figure, Rares Bogdan.
The COVID-19 Public Health Crisis
- The epidemiological situation is an important topic of discussion among political communicators too, with around 10% of the posts containing narratives connected to the public health crisis in the country.
- In the messages scraped from the pages of PNL politicians, the prevailing narrative is about solidarity and common action and cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus, many of these being formulated in the shape of messages for the National Day (December 1). Generally, public communicators rally behind the messages and narratives published by the party pages, thus discussing the vaccination strategy, future investment plans and other topics promoted in the electoral campaign of the PNL.
- PSD communicators generally propagate the key party narratives, but in a slightly more incisive way. More misleading narratives are noticeable, such as the one spread by former Bucharest mayor, Gabriela Firea, claiming that the thousands of Romanians that have died of COVID-19 would have been spared if masks ordered by the PNL government had been of a better quality.
- Messages from USR-PLUS communicators range from generic posts on the necessity of increased investments in the healthcare system from USR MP Stelian Ion, to very critical messages from PLUS member Vlad Voiculescu towards the authorities’ complacency in tackling the epidemic in Romania, in light of a vaccine about to be approved soon.
- One narrative that has been prevalent throughout the pandemic argues for the need of special status for the Romanian Orthodox Church to exempt it from restrictions on public gatherings, due to its “special role” in Romanian society. PMP leader Eugen Tomac has also pushed for this narrative, arguing that the churches should stay open and that police should not make the mistake of stopping people from gathering for prayer. Another party leader propagating similar traditionalist and conservative messages is Victor Ponta, president of PRO Romania party, one of his pledges being that regardless of the epidemic situation, he will “fight without making any compromises to preserve the Romanian traditional values, religion and culture”.
The Economic Recovery
- Out of all the posts made by the political communicators analysed, around 6% were discussing narratives concerning the economic situation in Romania.
- Much of the liberals’ communication is in line with economic measures proposed by the party, many of them reiterating in different forms the bottom lines of the party’s campaign promises concerning the economy: gradual, sustainable income rise for the population and large investments in infrastructure. Many economic results to date are presented in comparison to PSD’s governing performance, in instances where it is advantageous.
- Certain PSD communicators, such as MEP Claudiu Manda, propagate narratives presenting alleged impending economic doom that will come if the PNL wins the elections. Thus, overly negative views include the prediction that “hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost”, wages will be slashed, and thousands of companies will file for bankruptcy. The narrative that the economic effects of the incompetent PNL administration are worse than the ones of the COVID-19 pandemic is widely present.
- The communication of USR-PLUS candidates is similar to the one of the party accounts, with posts on matters like the abrogation of certain privileges, such as the special pensions for certain high officials, or the implementation of the exception from paying tax for people earning minimum wage.
- Similar to PSD, the majority of PRO Romania influencers focus their messages on the government’s economic mismanagement, arguing that the economic crisis is bound to get much worse if a new, responsible administration brought by PRO Romania is not voted upon. The solution proposed is represented by a large programme to subsidise struggling businesses, especially SMEs.
Measures Concerning Education
- Similar to the parties’ communication patterns on Facebook, political influencers rarely touch on narratives concerning education, merely 2% of the articles analysed containing narratives on this subject.
- Candidates from USR have posted some brief proposals for afterschool programmes to be implemented, in line with the party’s commitments.
- A notable difference in covering the subject of education comes from PRO Romania, where its two leaders, Victor Ponta and Călin Popescu Tăriceanu have posted extensively on the issue of education. One of the narratives is describing the cohort of students in school at this time as a “sacrificed generation”; the long-term damage on a generation that has missed on education is deemed to be more serious than an allegedly temporary mild increase in cases. Apart from stressing the seriousness of the issue around the lack of quality education, Victor Ponta also posted examples from different countries, where schools have been opened despite having comparable COVID-19 transmission rates as in Romania. The government is depicted as disinterested and irresponsible throughout all narratives.
Corruption and the Rule of Law
- Only 4% of the monitored Facebook posts made by political communicators contained narratives on corruption or rule of law.
- Unsurprisingly, the majority of the posts on these topics come from USR-PLUS, which are either revealing to the general public several cases of corruption, or describing certain measures the alliance is planning to implement in curbing corruption or strengthening the rule of law. Some of these intentions are the creation of a special prosecuting agency for illegal deforestation acts, or the creation of a better law for recovering material or financial damage caused by various acts of corruption.
- Leading PRO Romania figures such as Călin Popescu Tăriceanu are disseminating the disinformation narrative that because of the COVID-19-related restrictions and the alleged interest of President Iohannis to gain absolute power, Romanian democracy is in imminent danger. He is depicting an image of civil rights being gradually cancelled one by one and urges voters to mobilise in order to stop and reverse this phenomenon.
Election Fraud Allegation
- No substantial discussion on the topic has been observed, with the exception of a single Facebook post from former PSD Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, in which he was warning USR and PNL not to “even try” to commit election fraud, as his organisation has established “the most efficient system” of parallel ballot counting to date.
The research tested five areas of possible toxic discourse against three samples extracted by Pulsar. One sample is formed by the general media filtered down by specific keywords related to the five narratives and areas. Another is the discourse of the official parties’ social media pages. The third is the discourse of the main party communicators (who are thought to be potentially freer to express divisive views). The first sample has a dedicated media search, while the second and third were lumped together. The samples used for this report cover the period between November 23 and December 4.
(NB: samples do not include audio/video/still transcripts or Hungarian language material)
Ideally three layers of automatic filtering would have been applied. A string of keywords would have tested whether a certain entry qualifies as a politically relevant development. Another string would have tested whether they fit in one of the areas of potentially toxic discourse. A third string would have tested whether toxic words appear. For example, “covrig” (pretzel) does not signal anything on its own. But in the context related to the pandemic it is mentioned as a sarcastic reference to the disease, given the phonetic similarity (“COVID”). Due to conditions stated above the third string was fully realised for just one narrative.