Growing polarisation has led to an atmosphere in which activists and civil society organisations in Bulgaria are the targets of hate speech. As conspiracy theories and misinformation gain legitimacy in public discourse and spread online, environmental, children’s, and women’s rights activists often come under fire. Velina Barova explains what is driving the online attacks and explores what it would take to support activists and organisations defending democracy and human rights in Bulgaria.

In recent years, the online climate for human and civil rights activists in Bulgaria has worsened. The most recent peak came in 2018 and 2019 when attempts to ratify the Istanbul Convention and adopt a strategy for the rights of the child led to a storm of abuse and threats against organisations supporting the rights of women, children, and LGBTQI+ people. Today, though less widespread, online attacks continue to target civil society organisations.

A study by the Bulgarian NGO network Bluelink looking at online hate sheds light on the phenomenon, as well as the experiences of people subjected to it. The study finds that through discourse in media and politics, hate speech against civil society is carried over and normalised online with real consequences for the lives of activists.

Since 2018, the narratives include open racial hatred, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, as well as anti-European and anti-Western language. They are based on aggressive nationalism, ethnocentrism, and the denial of basic human rights to Roma, migrants, women, and LGBTQI+ people. The study also found an increase in the number of environmental organisations under pressure in the past decade.

The abusive language common to online hate speech speaks to its paranoid, far-right strain. Civil society activists are often labelled “sorosoids” (activists supposedly in the pay of George Soros), “granters” (organisations who rely on grants), “foreign agents”, and “green racketeers”. Slurs conflating liberal values and the European Union with homosexuality are also frequent.

Women’s rights under attack

Civil society representatives share stories about hate speech and threats of physical violence sent to them privately or to pages they administer. They recount offensive comments under their posts and insults based on their appearance or sexual orientation. Some have seen their profiles specifically targeted or abusive fake profiles created. Photos and personal information have been posted in blogs and groups and civil society websites hacked.

2018 was the toughest year for women’s and LGBTQI+ organisations. A storm of organised attacks was carried out in opposition to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe treaty combating gender-based violence. The Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW), which actively supports the convention, received hate speech comments under every post on their Facebook page, as well as insulting direct messages to team members. Initially started by the ultra-conservative Christian organisation Society and Values, the campaign was taken up by the far-right electoral alliance the United Patriots, which was then a minority partner in the governing coalition, as well as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

liberal democratic values […] are increasingly displaced by illiberal ideas

BFW director Nadezhda Dermendzhieva admits that the situation improved in 2020; she cannot recall receiving a threatening personal message since. Petya Sheremetova, public relations specialist of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation, has observed the same decrease in online abuse since the pandemic. But the less toxic situation for women’s organisations is largely explained by the Covid-19 pandemic shifting the focus of online activity to the virus and vaccines.

Although the worst of 2018 to 2019 has passed, “the environment is not as favourable as it should be,” Dermendzhieva admits. She still sees troll attacks against sponsored posts on the Bulgarian Fund for Women’s Facebook page. Gloriya Filipova from Bilitis, an organisation supporting the rights of LGBTQI+ people in Bulgaria, notes a different trend: due to lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions, increasing numbers of people believe in conspiracy theories and vent their frustration online.

Behind the hate

According to the BlueLink study, hate speech follows an established pattern: attacks are generated by social media posts, spread through multiple followers, legitimised and normalised in the media, and then fed back into social media. Perpetrators prefer the online space, often Facebook, and mainly use false information, distortions of the truth, misinformation, and propaganda clichés.

Various factors explain the widespread animosity towards civil society organisations in Bulgaria. Nationalist politicians often portray NGOs as foreign imports and target them to consolidate support among their constituents. Local oligarchs and countries such as Russia also fund and provide logistical support to anti-liberal and anti-civil society narratives. Representatives of civil society organisations identify their work in support of environmental protection or the rights of various groups in society as the main reason they become targets.

In this context, liberal democratic values such as tolerance, pluralism, and respect for civil society actors are increasingly displaced by illiberal ideas of isolation, national superiority, and the exclusion of minorities. This trend is not only observed in Bulgaria but also in other EU member states such as Hungary and Poland.

Activists identify two distinct groups of users who send hate messages: individuals who are encouraged by online anonymity and those participating in coordinated attacks against specific causes. According to Dermendzhieva, apart from radicalised individuals, the attacks on women’s rights organisations come from “paid trolls of pro-Russian far-right groups,” and the influence of US-funded religious fundamentalists, referring to a 2018 publication by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

Civil society is facing a “well-organised and financially backed organisation of people […].”

Georgе Bogdanov, executive director of the National Network for Children Bulgaria, an umbrella organisation for Bulgarian children’s rights groups, believes the storm around the Istanbul Convention and the Strategy for the Child shows that civil society is facing a “well-organised and financially backed organisation of people who aim to destroy not only human rights but also democratic foundations in Bulgaria, which are very fragile.” In his opinion, civil society underestimated the first indications of sentiments against the strategy on children: “The signals in this direction were quite obvious and we did not take action as civil activists at the time, but left things in the air – as civil society, we underestimated these voices.”

A strong wave of attacks flooded the organisations working in support of children’s rights during the public debate on the 2019 to 2030 National Strategy for the Child. The policy was first approved by the National Council for Child Protection in December 2018. After a wave of misinformation on the text, rumours and fake news circulated among parent groups, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy withdrew the strategy in April 2019 after an order Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

A serious problem highlighted by the BlueLink study is that the media, as well as high-ranking politicians, legitimise hateful language by giving a platform to extreme views and inciting heated, often unbridled clashes. At the same time, the decline in professional journalistic standards caused by technological change, market pressures, and the consolidation of media ownership contributes to the spread of hate speech.

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Environmental organisations are in the firing line alongside other civil society actors. Facebook has helped the spread of stereotypical criticism and labels against environmental organisations and groups whose sole purpose is to target environmental organisations have appeared on the platform. “It has become a battlefield out there,” Filipova explains, “There are profiles on Facebook just for going around and spreading hate on the pages of organisations.”

For Sheremetova, rhetoric from the media and politicians equating environmental organisations with political actors helps drive the animosity. “Although ‘For The Nature’ in Bulgaria is not related to a party but is a coalition of civic groups and non-governmental organisations, and has always emphasised this, our opponents often explain our actions as motivated by parties that also advocate for environmental protection in their programmes. […] It could be said that some people in power are fighting both their party opponents and us in this way. This is incorrect because nature protection is a nationwide cause and has always gathered supporters of various parties, as well as activists who do not sympathise with anyone politically.” She also points out that the language of hatred towards environmental organisations has reached the highest institutional levels: “Leaders of ruling political parties, MEPs, MPs, even а deputy prime minister, have allowed themselves to spread baseless accusations against us publicly, including from parliamentary rostrums.”

Taking a stand

Respondents in the BlueLink study reported a number of ways they have tried to deal with online hate: ignoring it: reporting abuse to Facebook; blocking users; sharing experiences with other activists; seeking legal aid; and reporting offences to the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the cybercrime department of the General Directorate Combating Organised Crime.

However, many of these measures are ineffective. Removing posts and comments is cumbersome and the example of a successful lawsuit against a website that slandered a journalist is more of an individual success story than a trend. “What an activist can do on the Internet is like shooting with a slingshot against a tank. Hatred has to be neutralised at its source; in Bulgaria, this is politics and the media,” commented one respondent.

“Organisations do not have much chance when the source is as powerful as a media or state institution. What we can do is show what we do,” Sheremetova said. “Supporters who not only do not fall for the suggestions and accusations against us, but are always ready to protect us too, are a big help.” While hate speech will probably continue, Sheremetova believes organisations will not cease their activities. Dermendzhieva agrees: “I don’t think we should respond to these attacks but focus all our efforts on building our positive image through everything we do.”

According to Bogdanov, politicians need to understand that online pressure and hate speech against civil society constitute a deliberate communication war aiming to push Bulgaria towards leaving the EU and NATO and to discredit civil society organisations. He believes that if civil society organisations are left alone without the support of state institutions, they will be taking part in “a lone battle for democracy”.

Some activists point to the lack of enforcement of legislation on hate speech as the main obstacle to tackling the issue. To Filipova, LGBTQI+ rights organisations that did not receive assistance from the Commission for Protection against Discrimination are telling examples. The commission declared the reported cases beyond its competence. In January 2021, however, the administrative court of Sofia overturned a decision that refused to consider appeals by Sofia Pride organisers against a political campaign to ban the event in 2019.

There is a long road ahead to improve the climate for civil society in Bulgaria. An important factor driving hate is the lack of opportunity and support for young people in Bulgaria which can lead to their radicalisation. “Youth activities that develop communication skills, empathy and acceptance should be much more present,” explains Filipova. Bogdanov believes that support to civil society organisations at the European and international level is what is most needed. “These types of campaigns and the forces behind them must be exposed to the public.” Other activists believe the state can help by providing services to people who are subject to online harassment, such as psychological support.

The answer will be more complex than anyone solution but it is clear that action is needed. “There is a very thin line between hate speech and freedom of speech. There must be freedom of speech, but when there is hatred, institutions cannot fail to recognise these signs of attack,” added Bogdanov.

Even if hate speech does not directly lead to physical violence, it can still leave mental and physical damage as well as limit people’s freedom of speech. As the Bluelink study concludes, “Free speech is not an absolute right and should only be preserved as long as it does not infringe on the rights of other people.”

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