Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Petru Macovei, the executive director of the Association of Independent Press of Moldova, in his interview with Piotr Garciu. (Photo: Piotr Garciu)
From supposed cures for Covid-19 to conspiracy theories about Gulf sheikhs planning to take over Chisinau, disinformation remains widespread in Moldova. The popularity of pro-Russian outlets and domestic political influence on the media has made it hard to build resilience against fake news. Petru Macovey, the executive director of the Association of Independent Press of Moldova, explains how his organisation’s attempts to combat the phenomenon have met with a mixed response – and why he believes media literacy should be taught in school.
How would you describe the level of disinformation in Moldova?
In terms of propaganda and manipulation, Moldova is traditionally the leader in the region. The level of disinformation in our country is even higher than in Ukraine. Following discussions with my colleagues from Ukraine, Romania and Georgia, I concluded that [trying to deal with] these processes have been neglected in Moldova. Democracy in our country is at the lowest level in the region. We live in an environment where politicians use media to manipulate public opinion and not just during elections. Business interests overlap politics and some politicians use a controlled media for manipulation and disinformation purposes.
The second reason is that Moldova does not have the leverage to influence external propaganda. This problem is quite complex and has political roots.
What have been some clear examples of fake news?
In 2016, during the presidential election campaign, fake news was spread in relation to one of the most popular candidates, Maia Sandu. According to [this rumour], 30,000 people would have moved to Moldova from Syria if she had won the elections. This example will probably enter all textbooks on propaganda and manipulation. Of course, people who were more mindful did not believe it. But, many, especially those who are older, who are used to trusting everything reported on TV, believed it. This was one of the arguments they referred to while giving their votes to [Socialist candidate Igor Dodon].
A more recent example is related to the 2018 Chisinau mayoral elections. According to a faked [video] report, in the event that candidate Andrei Nastase became mayor, he would have given [control of] the city to sheikhs of the United Arab Emirates for the next 50 years for modernisation purposes. During which, mosques and Arab neighborhoods would have been built in Chisinau. We have a very Christian and patriarchal society so such stories easily influence voters.
In Gagauzia, an autonomous unit located in the south of Moldova, the pro-Russian narratives are very strong. Last year there was a fake news story which said that the United States promised to give 160 billion US dollars if Romania and Moldova united. The news was shared on social networks by people who, in my opinion, knew that it was a lie, but it was beneficial for them that people would believe it.
What is more dangerous for Moldova - external or internal propaganda?
Back in 2018, when the [pro-Western] Democratic Party lobbied for amendments to the legislation banning Russian news and analytical programmes in Moldova, I said that the danger of internal manipulation of public opinion was greater than external propaganda. Moldovans are slowly starting to develop critical thinking. Therefore, trust in the pro-Kremlin media, which is the mouthpiece of propaganda, is diminishing. But at the same time, the amount of local disinformation continues to grow. While currently we have the Socialist Party and not the Democratic Party in power, the methods of manipulation remain unchanged. If we compare what the media controlled by the Democrats said about their opponents a few years ago, the same is now being disseminated on the channels affiliated with the Socialists.
In 2015, the Association of Independent Press of Moldova launched the StopFals project, monitoring websites for fake news to debunk and organising awareness-raising events. Who are the main groups of people you wanted to reach out to?
The project mainly focuses on residents of rural areas. In cities, people have more access to different sources of information and are more prone to critical thinking. […] The second focus are future teachers, that is, the students of teacher training colleges and universities. These are the people who will be educating our children and therefore, it is important that they understand how serious the problem of disinformation is and how it can be countered.
How did the authorities react to the implementation of the project?
The response of the authorities to the StopFals project was varied. On a positive point, there were many cases when the government officials called and asked to debunk some myths, from the ministry of education or health… Another positive point is the establishment of an advisory council by the Information and Security Service of Moldova, which will deal with public policy for the protection of the information space. We are also included in this council. But we have not observed any activity of this commission yet.
As for negative reactions, two weeks ago one of the employees told us that the special security services were asking questions about the StopFals project…who was funding us and who decided which fake news to debunk… That means that the government is collecting information through security services. We cannot talk about pressure, but information is being collected.
What action has the state taken during the pandemic over fake news?
It’s actually a very funny story, because they [Security Services] just took the list of fake sites that was compiled as a part of the Stop Fals project since 2017. They copied it and sent it to the radio and telecommunications Agency requesting all these sites to be blocked. Yet some of these websites had already been blocked. But, according to Moldovan legislation, these sites could only be blocked during the state of emergency, which lasted until May 15. So the day after it ended, the block was lifted.
In Moldova, websites are not regulated by law; therefore, no measures can be applied if they spread fake news. Do you support this approach?
Considering that certain business groups have political control over some branches of government, such a decision may lead to illegal actions against independent media.
I am sure that they can simply block the sites which are inconvenient for the authorities, under an imaginary pretext that they published false information. [...] But, I believe that the deliberate dissemination of false and biased information should be punishable in our country.
What would be the most effective methods of teaching media literacy?
I like the approach when elements of media literacy are included in every school subject. This method is being implemented in Finland. For example, when talking about the Holocaust during history class, you can explain why many countries supported Nazi propaganda against Jews. The fact that the Holocaust happened with the tacit consent of the majority of Europeans is a good lesson on how the Nazi regime used media to promote the idea that Jews should be exterminated. Another example is the deportations that occurred during the Soviet times. The deportations also took place amidst the tacit consent of people and media propaganda.
How has fake news in Moldova increased during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, we had to hire two more people to monitor the fake news on the websites and debunk it. One of the most vivid examples was connected to the former chairman of one of the parties in Moldova, Ruslan Popa. We have twice debunked his delusional thoughts that Covid-19 was created by the United States. But, the most interesting thing Ruslan Popa said was that the coronavirus could be cured by herpes. His post on social networks had about 90,000 views.
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