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Positive Messages to Counter Disinformation on Refugees

14 February 2023

The example of Bulgaria


This series of articles covers the anti-disinformation campaigns in three Central and Eastern European countries, where ECAS aimed to build the capacity of civil society organisations (CSOs) to address disinformation narratives or build resilience against these. Because of the region-specific challenges, which are both a precondition for and a result of declining rule of law and democratic values, the new ECAS branch in CEE is tasked with tailoring more than 30 years of expertise and building new knowledge to address these challenges. The article below presents the outcomes of this initiative in Bulgaria. You can find the articles covering the campaign in Slovenia and the one in Hungary at the respective links or at the bottom of this page.

For the campaign in Bulgaria, ECAS partnered with the Civic Participation Forum (CPF), a network with more than a 120 members ranging in their field of expertise and in size – from grassroots, local organisations to ones with national reach. The common goal for CPF is to empower citizens and organised civil society actively and effectively to take part in the democratic process and political decisions. For the campaign, a coalition was formed amongst 10 of their members. The alliance decided to address the narratives against Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.

Citizens in Bulgaria are flooded with disinformation and propaganda against refugees coming into the country, creating a negative image for this vulnerable group. This was true for previous refugee waves as well, but notably increased with the influx of Ukrainians after February 2022. Moreover, Bulgarians are generally susceptible to fake narratives due to low media literacy, leading many of them to form opinions based on the most widely-spread stories. Even if most of the Ukrainian refugees of the present refugee wave are not staying in the country long term, those who do (more than 80,000) are victims of stigmatisation.

The objective of the campaign was twofold. On one hand, to address the negative image of Ukrainian refugees that was developed through fake news and show Ukrainians as able to integrate and contribute to the country. On the other hand to produce a predominantly positive reactions to these examples.

To identify the messages of the campaign, the coalition used a recent 2022 study on the attitudes towards refugees, with the following results relevant to the issue at hand:

  • More than 76% of the respondents do not see any benefit for Bulgaria to accept refugees. Out of the rest who do (see benefits), almost 40% identify that refugees can be a helpful workforce;
  • In continuation of this, when asked what should refugees do to be accepted better, 86% answered that they should find a job;
  • Crucially, those that think that refugees “are a burden to the Bulgarian economy” are 31%, with 50% who “partly agree” with this statement, the rest disagreeing.

These results gave the coalition some actionable points and guidelines for an approach that would be effective and the specific narratives to be addressed. Firstly, there is a large swayable portion of the population that can be influenced with targeted messages, namely the 50% who agree to a lesser extend that refugees are burdening the national economy. Secondly, in order to change this view in a positive direction, the strongest argument is that refugees can boost the Bulgarian workforce, which would also result in higher acceptance rate. Based on this, the campaign aimed at showcasing personal examples of Ukrainians already working in the country and helping their communities through interviews either with themselves or with Bulgarian employers who have hired Ukrainians. The goal was to present these stories to the wider public and get more positive reactions than the statistical data from the study quoted above.

“About Ukrainian refugees, openly”

Two campaign strands were developed based on the interview type: one was called “About Ukrainian refugees, openly”, which included one video interview with a Bulgarian employer of Ukrainians. The second one was named “From Ukrainian refugees, openly” and included 5 videos with Ukrainians working in the country. The strategy of the coalition was to use CPF’s social media account as most recognizable to be the main carrier of the campaign products, while the other organisations share the content for organic reach. The strand “For Ukrainian refugees, openly” kicked off the campaign.

The products from the first campaigns strand “About Ukrainians, openly” did reach a huge audience (reach of more than 140,000, leading almost 40,000 visitors to read the content on CPF’s website), but the negative comments required an adaptation of the campaign plan going forward. Although not a majority from all 500+ comments, 170 had to be hidden due to hate speech. After transitioning the campaign to the channels of the media partner, there was a notable shift in how people perceived and reacted to the messages. The “About Ukrainians, openly” post reached more than 94,000 users, and generated 80% positive reactions. The three posts in the campaign strand “From Ukrainians, openly” (articles, video playlist), reached a total of 154,639 users, where more than 95% of the reactions were positives. This was not translated into the comments section, where more than 30% of the 177 comments still had to be hidden by moderators due to hate speech and incitement of violence.

 “About Ukrainian refugees, openly” 

An overall analysis of all campaign products shows several important points about the attempt to change the narrative surrounding Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria. Firstly, there is a substantial difference in perception of the messages based on its originator – Citizen Participation Forum’s posts, as an organisation that is well recognised with its values and mission, provoked much more backlash in comments from users and had lower rates of positive reactions, although still a majority compared to the total. In contrast, the posts on ProMedia’s page performed much better in terms of reactions, while keeping similar ratio of negative, hateful comments. Stemming from this is the next insight – strong opposers to narrative change are more active in the discussions, while supporters of the messages prefer to express approval more “passively” and don’t engage in conversation, possibly due to fear of backlash. Further, comments of disapproval – that were not hate speech and where there was no reason for their removal – were not ad hominem, but directed towards the fact that the campaign was funded by the EU or merely a repetition of the narrative that the campaign was countering. Finally, the messages were extremely cost effective to promote, with Cost-per-Click as low as EUR 0,008 for the products under “About Ukrainians, openly” and EUR 0,05 for the “From Ukrainians, openly” strand of the campaign. The cost of promotion of the Bulgarian employer under “About Ukrainians, openly” shows that this example succeeded in reaching a “viral” status.

The campaign proved a success in provoking reactions of acceptance from the wider public, with an average of 71% positive reactions at a very low cost. Building on this, CPF and its members have started a connected initiative to showcase the engagement of civil society in Bulgaria with Ukrainian refugees, following the same organisational methodology, which will ensure sustainability of the messages and of the knowledge that was built under the campaign.