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From TV to Telegram to TikTok, Moldova is being flooded with Russian propaganda

A protest against the Moldovan government and pro-EU President Maia Sandu in the capital Chisinau on Feb. 19, 2023.
Elena Covalenco
AFP via Getty Images
A protest against the Moldovan government and pro-EU President Maia Sandu in the capital Chisinau on Feb. 19, 2023.

In February, Moldovan president Maia Sandu publicly accused Russia of plotting to overthrow her government — an allegation first made days before by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Russia quickly denied the claim and turned the tables, accusing Ukraine of planning a false flag attack against the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria.

In Moldova, pro-Russian voices dismissed the coup plot as Moldovan propaganda.

"They say that this all is a hoax," said Valeriu Paşa, chairman of WatchDog.MD, a think tank based in Moldova's capital, Chisinau. "[They say] President Sandu [is using] these scary stories in order to make people forget about economic and social problems, and in order to install a dictatorship in Moldova."

Documents claiming to show Ukrainian invasion orders spread on Telegram and Twitter. A video claiming to show Romania massing military equipment on the Moldovan border racked up more than 300,000 views on Telegram, according to Logically, a company that tracks disinformation.

But the documents were forged, and the video was from a military parade held months ago, said Mark Sawyer, a senior intelligence analyst at Logically.

"It was old footage that was just recast as something new, which is pretty common," he said,

As Russia's war in Ukraine drags on, neighboring Moldova is feeling the consequences.

Civil society groups and social media researchers say Russia is ramping up its efforts to destabilize the former Soviet state, a candidate for European Union membership, through propaganda and false information.

"One of the key things that's been happening recently, particularly the last few weeks, is that there's been a lot of anxiety," said Kyle Walter, Logically's head of research. "Once the Ukrainian government said that there was intelligence that suggested that a Moldova coup was going to happen, [we saw] Russian disinformation and propaganda efforts targeting Moldova, but also targeting a potential alliance between Ukraine, Moldova and Romania."

None of this surprises Paşa, given Russia's deep involvement in Moldovan politics since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Moldova [has been] facing these Russian information ops and other kind of hybrid interference [since] far before that was cool," he said.

Today, these pro-Russian narratives are pushed heavily by news outlets, politicians, online influencers and social media ads. Or, as Paşa put it: "From very serious evening talk shows on political subjects to TikTok."

But things have escalated since Russia invaded Ukraine, and as Sandu's government has stuck to its pro-European stance.

The Kremlin was already "portraying the government of Moldova as a kind of western puppets," Paşa said. "But now they say that these are Western puppets who are here to destroy you as a country and as a traditional people and as a Christian country. And they are actually here because they have a special mission from their Western bosses to bring your country in the war against Russia, because they want to destroy Russia. Again, we're coming back to the narrative that the whole world exists just with one goal: to destroy Russia."

Recent public polling from WatchDog,MD found many Moldovans are receptive to Russian narratives blaming Ukraine and NATO for the war and pinning high energy prices on their own government rather than Russia cutting gas supplies.

Just days before Sandu's coup accusations, Moldova's prime minister resigned, blaming crises caused by Russian aggression.

Paşa says the Kremlin's goal is to stoke uncertainty and exacerbate tensions in an already polarized country, in a bid to keep it in Moscow's orbit.

"This is the first goal and the first success level of Russian propaganda always. Not necessarily making people to trust their version of what's happening, but to make people confused," he said.

"For Russia, in a country like Moldova, keeping this low level of social cohesion is very important," he added. "Otherwise, this country can mobilize and somehow make an a conscious effort to integrate quicker with the West and to know its place in the world."

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.