Misinformation and disinformation have often had an international dimension to them. In some cases, disinformation campaigns are intentionally targeting international audience, to support geopolitical interests. “Operation Infektion”, the KGB campaign from the ‘80s, tried to convince the world HIV/AIDS was a US invention, so that the USSR could claim a higher moral ground.

The narrative claiming Ukraine was run by Nazis started not in 2022, but even before the Maidan Revolution in 2014, to prepare “the ground” for a military invasion.

Other narratives, usually connected to conspiracy theories, such as “the Earth is flat”, “the moon landing hoax”, or “9/11 was an inside job”, have become global because of their inner mechanisms. They build on distrust of authority, provide simple explanations for complex phenomena, and make people feel special for having access to hidden truths.

However, with the growth of social media networks and online outlets, false narratives are getting even more globalized either by being imported and adapted by different countries after they appear, or by direct translation into local languages. This process doesn’t even require any advanced techniques to be applied, since the flow is not as much “pushed” by the original actors as it is “pulled” by the local agents, who have their own interest in it. Another interesting development is that many narratives now come from English-speaking countries (mostly US, but also UK to some extent), competing with Kremlin-backed outlets or social media profiles.

Adopting and adapting QAnon

One relevant example is the QAnon conspiracy theory, centered around the narrative that various public figures are part of a Satanic, paedophilic cabal, engaged not only in sexually exploiting children, but also in drinking their blood and performing various rituals. QAnon became a movement in the US starting in 2017, during the term of Donald Trump, who was seen as the main opponent of the cabal.

While starting as a US-centric theory, QAnon spread to many countries in Europe but also to Japan, partly due to the COVID pandemic, as crises are known to foster the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda.

The largest QAnon movement outside the US can be found in Germany, according to several researchers. German adopters of QAnon have been linked to the “Reichsbürger” movement - a group founded on the claim the German Empire (of 1871 - 1918) still exists, while the Federal Government is a tool of Allied occupation post WW2 and the Rammstein US military base is the occupation force. Still, they managed to adapt QAnon messages to their own agenda, downplaying references to Trump, replacing them with a focus on overturning the government. In December 2022, several people associated with the QAnon-Reichsbürger movement were arrested for planning coup, believing Germany is being governed by the so-called “deep state”.

Conspiracists in Japan also found inspiration in QAnon and built Japanese "chapters” of the movement, that cover "classic” topics, like antivaccination, 5G misinformation, or the belief that globalist elites want to decimate the population. On top of these, they added their local, Japanese themes, such as claiming that the Japanese imperial family was replaced by "fakes" and that Emperor Hirohito (1926 - 1989) was a CIA agent.[1]

QAnon is also popular in France, drawing support from the “Gilets jaunes” (“Yellow Jackets”) and anti-vaccination activists, in the UK, where it found traction with Brexit supporters, and in Romania as well, adopted by the so-called “patriots” who promote anti-vaccination, anti-LGBT tropes, and believe there is a World War between Good and Evil.

QAnon was easy to “import” because it was developed as a “big tent” conspiracy theory, i.e., one that thrives on additions to the core beliefs as long as its main tenet – fighting the “oppressive system” that rules the world, is still valid. Interestingly, QAnon’s early adopters in countries other than the US consider themselves sovereigntists, i.e., they are both nationalists and populists, so people who would normally reject what they perceive as a “US hegemony”.

More Examples from Romania

Though QAnon Romania remains a fringe movement, there are other examples of US misinformation fuelling Romanian narratives, such as the existence of the “deep state” and the election fraud.

  • The “Parallel state”

In 2017, Donald Trump and his supporters started using the term “deep state” to refer to a secret group of bureaucrats and media and law enforcement figures he claimed were working against him. Meanwhile, in Romania, Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader, Liviu Dragnea, was pushing for reforms of the judicial system many thought would weaken it. Faced with large protests, SDP leaders and several media organizations claimed protesters had been paid by George Soroș and were part of a coup orchestrated by foreign interests.

Quite quickly, these narratives were gathered under the term: the “parallel state”, an adaptation of the term “deep state”. Like in the US, soon enough, anyone who criticized or opposed Dragnea’s vision for the government was being considered a collaborator or an enabler of the deep state. This included even NATO and the European Union: “I think that all our foreign partners should acknowledge that they have encouraged, even partly financed this parallel state and this foul system.”[2] After Dragea’s downfall, the narrative suddenly disappeared and it is now a marginal theme, referenced only occasionally.

  • Disinformation around the elections

A few years later, in the fall of 2020, Romania held local elections, with attention focusing on a few tight races, with SDP incumbents challenged by candidates backed by NLP (National Liberal Party) and SRU (Save Romania Union). One such race took place in District 1 of Bucharest, between Dan Tudorache (SDP) and Clotilde Armand (SRU).

Because the results were very close, both sides accused each other of election fraud. Firstly, Armand accused an SDP member of mishandling the election documents. But when the vote tally seemed to go towards her, media outlets and influencers close to SDP started to claim SRU members had committed fraud. Antena3 TV station claimed that CCTV footage from the electoral office shows SRU members illegally accessing archived ballots. SDP officials, and some influencers close to the party, reposted the clip on their social media, calling for a revote.

Law enforcement clarified that the video showed no wrongdoing: the people in the room were checking vote tallies, not the votes themselves, and did so under the appropriate supervision. Still, disinformation continued.

In the meantime, US 2020 elections were underway, with Donald Trump pre-emptively claiming that he can only lose if there is a significant election fraud. What followed his loss is well known: protests, conspiracy theories under the “stop the steal” banner, culminating in the storming of the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, on January 6th. Though the Trump campaign tried everything to overturn the results, including bringing over 60 court cases, there was no fraud to be found.

However, the audacity and the persistence in pushing this false narrative didn’t get unnoticed, and several media outlets and influencers from Romania got inspired to keep the fraud narrative afloat.

In April 2021 and again, in August 2021, several articles in Romanian media falsely claimed that the recount had shown there had been fraud and that Armand (SRU) had lost. Romania TV presented new images claiming to show Armand looking into bags with votes; those reports have also been proven false.

In Romania, as in the US, the election fraud narrative is not present in a significant way but comes up any time there is an “occasion” for it to do so. For example, one Romanian misinformation influencer, Oana Lovin, used the 2022 Eurovision incident[3] to bring back the fraud election claims. She posted a screenshot from the debunked “election fraud” video footage, writing “these folks won’t allow you to vote for a damn song and you believe they would let you choose your leaders?”.

The persistence in spreading the fraud narrative without any evidence and disregarding the evidence to the contrary, suggests this disinformation campaign will continue for the foreseeable future, for an audience already convinced of its truth.

A Romanian Connection to English-speaking Alternative Media

Since English is the dominant foreign language in Romania[4] and misinformation agents need constant inspiration to keep the “threat level” high, they got plugged into the alternative media ecosystem from the US and the UK, following pundits like Carlson Tucker, organisations such as Project Veritas, and various outlets like Lifesitenews, GlobalResearch, or DailyMail.

This connection implies more of adopting narratives from alternative media[5] and presenting them to the Romanian audience, but also directly translating articles. For example, the Romanian anti-vaccination outlet ActiveNews published hundreds of articles promoting various conspiracy theories, translated from English. Topics range from conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, and George Soros, attacks on leaders of the US Democratic Party, such as Nancy Pelosi, and even basic “moral panic”. For instance, the narrative that claimed the US government wants to make gas stoves illegal found its way to Romania, as a proof that the world elites want to decide how we live our lives.

Ironically, all false narratives that connect to the overarching view that globalists want to take over the world through fake pandemics, dangerous “serums” (i.e., vaccines), wars, and digitalisation are being supported with messages coming directly from this global ecosystem.

Besides pointing this out to our friends or family members who may be tempted by the “fight against globalism” movement, we may consider the following set of implications:

  • Firstly, people who are actively engaged in fighting misinformation should strive to connect to their foreign peers, since fighting a global phenomenon would benefit from a global approach.

  • Secondly, while it has become a common topic to discuss Russia’s contribution to misinformation, we should pay attention to Western-grown narratives as well.

  • Last, but not least, we should strive to counter these narratives closer to their source; by the time they become global it might be too late.

For more expertise on ways to recognise and counter disinformation, head to the Hive Mind free self-paced course on this subject and register today:

Background illustration: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels / Pexels license

[1] See: https://www.dw.com/en/why-the-pro-trump-qanon-movement-is-finding-followers-in-japan/a-56333553

[2] See: https://www.digi24.ro/stiri/actualitate/politica/dragnea-nato-si-ue-au-finantat-statul-paralel-944886.

[3] Eurovision organizers changed the points awarded by Romania and Moldova, claiming they had identified incorrect voting patterns. (https://www.romaniajournal.ro/spare-time/eurovision-judging-scandal-regarding-romania-and-r-of-moldova/).

[4] Though it has Slavic influences, Romanian is a Latin language, closer to French or Italian than to Slavic languages. Romania is also mostly pro-Western, so Russian is not at all interesting for Romanians.

[5] Outlets and influencers that spread misinformation, conspiracy theories, and propaganda while pretending they give voice to “alternative opinions” that conflict with mainstream positions.