Context – Why do we care about politicians’ communication online?
The National Coalition for Romania came to power about 3 months before Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, controversial legislation that led to democratic setbacks has become common. Support for Ukraine has seemed to be the coalition’s only indisputable position.Externally, Romania is a reliable partner of Ukraine. The speeches of politicians in Brussels and in the USA are clear, we recognize the importance of the war for our security and remain loyal to the Ukrainian cause. But as the 2024 elections approach, what our politicians communicate in Romanian changes from what they say in English.
At home, exploiting misinformation narratives in order to gain a few votes amongst nationalists is no longer a tactic specific only to the AUR party. Lately, the ruling parties have not refrained from making controversial statements, taking advantage of the scandal such as the Bistros canal dispute and the issue of the rights of the Romanian minority in Ukraine. This trend of politically exploiting misinformation, normalizes the ambivalent discourse on Ukraine and legitimizes opinions that question Romania’s support for the neighboring country, a country that is fighting for our freedom.
Political communication about Ukraine. Who ruled the online charts?
In Romania, Facebook remains the favorite social and information network with 12.4 million users in 2020-2022 according to Statista. Most political parties, institutions and politicians use this network to communicate their activities and views on issues of public interest. This has led to the creation of an ecosystem of online websites, in addition to the traditional ones, whose sole purpose is to spread information on social media. These websites, whose notoriety comes mainly from Facebook, are themselves beneficiaries of subsidies from political parties. In addition to those already known and documented by the last Recorder report, there are networks of websites, unknown to the general public but popular in the anti-West bubble, such as informatielibera.ro (content in Romanian and Hungarian), 60m.ro, radio gold fm and many others. Mapping them and their politically served agenda is not included in this monitoring.
The official party pages had flat but constant communication related to the situation in Ukraine. What is missing, however, is meaningful content that analyzes the stakes for Romania of the war at the border, the importance of supporting our neighbors and denouncing Russia. It would be easy to say that the lack of this communication comes from Romanians’ disinterest in Ukraine, but the support the population has given to refugees suggests otherwise. The people were interested in the subject, but politicians either avoided or did not feel the need to overstate their support for Ukraine.
More likely, the lack of zest in Romanian politicians’ speeches in advocating for Ukraine can be attributed to a general lack of political communication abilities, without being suspected of malice, rather of indifference. Their visits to Kiev seemed more like contractual obligations towards NATO than conscious choices. But what were their online statements over the past 12 months and which were the main political messages that became viral?
The first mainstream wave of Populism – Ukraine’s minority law
Ukraine’s national minorities law was adopted in December 2022 as part of the country’s bid to become a candidate country in June 2022. To meet the conditions related to minority rights, this law improves but does not abandon language quotas in education. More precisely, from 5th grade onwards, children can no longer learn exclusively in their mother tongue and have different language quotas in different disciplines.
This law did not worsen conditions for the Romanian minority, as has been claimed online by both politicians and the media. In fact, the legitimate dissatisfaction is about the small changes in the rights granted by the new law. What the politicians, the influencers, and the press conveniently omitted to say is that Ukraine’s invasion was motivated by Russia under the pretext of defending the ethnic Russian minority on Ukrainian territory. It would have been reasonable to understand that it was not the Romanian minority that Ukraine was targeting and to hold talks on that premise. What happened instead? Sure, there were talks between Klaus Iohannis and Zelenski, but not before our leaders vociferously criticized Ukraine’s decision.
We are not surprised that George Simion proposed stopping assistance to Ukraine, but his position was not isolated. Marcel Ciolacu, the leader of the PSD party, also slammed Zelenski for not protecting the Romanian minority in a PSD press release. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the lack of approval from the Venice Commission, and Rareș Bogdan, a PNL MEP, said that Ukraine is offending us with this law.
As we can see in the graph below, interest in the issue of the Romanian minority in Ukraine has increased substantially since 2022. This topic was artificially amplified and Romanian politicians gained a few more popularity points. Nothing to say about the fact that our politicians criticized the absence of an opinion from the Venice Commission of a country at war with candidate status. On the other hand, they did not consider the Venice approval necessary for their controversial laws such as the justice laws.
The problem comes in when we consider the impact of normalizing this discourse. Promoting a law that does not sufficiently improve conditions for the Romanian minority as an anti-Romanian law normalizes the discourse of the Kremlin and its promoters in Romania. To claim that Ukraine is against Romanians is a very dangerous narrative in the context that even our security is defended by Ukrainians on the battlefront. The lack of fervor towards this part of the reality, but the patriotic promotion of the new-found electoral theme of the Romanian minority only goes to show how little our politicians know about wartime communication. The danger? Voices as extreme and categorical as possible are at the top of the list on this issue. George Simion, presenter-turned-influencer Dan Negru, Diana Șoșoaca and many other nationalist figures have dominated the Romanian news feed, not objective information.
The second wave – Bîstroe Canal
Bîstroe channel follows the script of December’s minority rights scandal, only it had a much wider spread. The context of this years-long dispute between Romania and Ukraine has been twisted and used to create a media spectacle. The stakes? The vilification of Ukraine through inflammatory political statements without evidence. It all started with Sorin Grindeanu, former PSD Prime Minister and current Minister of Transport and Infrastructure posting: “There are signs that Ukraine is currently dredging the Bîstroe canal, which could have an impact on the environment and the Danube Delta”. Discussions were held with Ukraine and the situation was resolved in a much less dramatic way than reported in the press. But politicians hurried with aggressive political statements without backing them with facts.
The Social Democratic Party has followed the transport minister’s lead, with PSD MEP Victor Negrescu’s speech promoted on the party’s website. More categorical and confrontational was Marcel Ciolacu, the PSD leader whose official page promoted the message “Work on the #Bîstroe Canal must stop NOW! The Romanian state and people have shown solidarity and helped Ukraine the hard way. But the Romanian people do not accept to remain without this natural wonder that is the Danube Delta! I want to be very clear: lies, manipulations, and minimization of the problem must stop! The Romanian authorities must take swift decisions so that the works on the Bastia can stop immediately and the situation can return to normal.” The purpose of this message is obviously to force toxic discourse on an electorate infatuated with rhetorical nationalism, without any real basis or interest in defending the Delta, long abandoned by politicians to the detriment of clientelism.
Much like the December scandal, politicians have gained short-term popularity on Ukraine’s back, inadvertently risking Romania’s credibility as an ally of Ukraine. Internally, anti-Ukraine narratives have thrived, once again legitimising ultra-nationalists and far-right politicians. Topping the list of popular sources on the Bistroe scandal is the ever-present George Simion, along with Romania TV, 60m.ro and stiripesurse.ro.
The bottom line? Disinformation about Ukraine is spread with the blessing and even endorsement of some Romanian political leaders in their desperate attempt to remain relevant to an electorate increasingly exposed to the AUR narrative. The stakes? Declining support for Ukraine among Romanians as war at the border drags on and objective information becomes increasingly difficult to access online.
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