The present report illustrates the growing import of fringe content and voices into mainstream media with a case study of the cooperation between arguably mainstream Realitatea TV/ Realitatea Plus (in particular the show Behind the Scenes of the Parallel State with Anca Alexandrescu) and the fringe one-man-show Luis Lazarus Zeus TV (one of the most influential promoters of far-right, anti-vaccine and Kremlin-aligned narratives)The present report illustrates the growing import of fringe content and voices into mainstream media with a case study of the cooperation between arguably mainstream Realitatea TV/ Realitatea Plus (in particular the show Behind the Scenes of the Parallel State with Anca Alexandrescu) and the fringe one-man-show Luis Lazarus Zeus TV (one of the most influential promoters of far-right, anti-vaccine and Kremlin-aligned narratives).
At the beginning of the last decade there were still clear barriers in place to contain (though not cancel) the influence of fringe ideas (including extremist ones and disinformation or conspiracy theories) on the mainstream discourse on television. If a “mainstream” TV station had controversial or disreputable shows, these were separated by an invisible wall from the flagship, mainstream shows. Flagship, mainstream talk-shows received the best slots and hosted the best guests while fringe shows had to content themselves with what was left. Meanwhile, TV stations that most egregiously deviated from the acceptable norms were isolated and shunned – like OTV, a tabloid television station, whose licence was revoked twice for racist and anti-semitic attitudes and closed down for good when its owner went to jail for extortion.
For the purposes of this report, “mainstream” signifies that a TV news station is acceptable to large segments of society, for example by being reflected in other mainstream media on an ongoing basis and having mainstream politicians and other influential personalities appear on its shows[i].
“Fringe” signifies ideas or actors that are largely / officially frowned upon, as they place themselves outside the societal consensus on acceptable norms/ values. In this report and in our monitoring, we focus on those fringe ideas and actors that also tend to be toxic: (ultra)nationalist, pro-Kremlin, ultraconservative, territorially revisionist, etc.
The separation between mainstream and toxic / fringe content on the same TV station has eroded gradually. On some TV stations, debate of current events and peddling of conspiracy theories appear to be equally important and are present in the same shows.
The separation between mainstream and fringe media organisations remained in place for a while, but is currently eroding as some mainstream media organisations not only share ideas with fringe organisations, but also give a platform to voices that had been previously relegated to these fringe organisations.
We illustrate the continuity of problematic discourse, as well as the overlap of voices promoting that discourse, between mainstream and fringe media organisations with a case study of commonalities between mainstream Realitatea TV/ Realitatea Plus (particularly the show Behind the Scenes of the Parallel State with Anca Alexandrescu) and the fringe one-man-show Luis Lazarus Zeus TV in the periodof 10 – 20 December. Luis Lazarus Zeus TV Is a promoter of far-right, anti-vaccine and Kremlin-aligned narratives and in November last year it was the strongest voice in social media to put forth such ideas, according to GlobalFocus Center monitoring[ii]
In this period of time, more than 20% of the guests at Behind the Scenes were also present at Zeus TV. This includes prominent names such as pro-Kremlin MP Diana Șoșoacă and Luis Lazarus himself. We also show how Behind the Scenes and Luis Lazarus work together to radicalise opinion and make toxic and fringe positions acceptable among the population.
Such cooperation impacts Romania’s democratic resilience, as it allows radical populist political agendas to enter the mainstream unchecked and shape political debate. Even worse, it impacts the resilience of the population towards pro-Kremlin propaganda by lending mainstream credibility to radical actors and ideas.
The quality of news television in Romania has continuously eroded over the last years[iii]. Nevertheless, even among the more controversial TV stations, there used to be an amount of segmentation among talk-shows. The flagship talk-shows applied or at least simulated the application of professional standards and respect for mainstream values like rule of law and equal rights. But, in the less popular time slots, there were shows that largely did not bother with the pretence. The quality of the guests reflected this separation, with prominent reputable personalities only accepting to participate in the first category of conversations.
Thus, there was a wall between these two categories, but it was not impenetrable. Junior politicians could graduate from the second category to the first, while talk-show hosts could be demoted from the first to the second. For example, Antena 3 TV host Dana Grecu (Chera) went from moderating a prime-time political talk-show to one on paranormal phenomena later on within the same news (!) organisation[iv].
There was also another, stronger distinction between mainstream media organisations and fringe organisations like the OTV, the station that launched the political career of Dan Diaconescu, the president of the radical populist Dan Diaconescu People’s Party[v].
The erosion of the difference between mainstream and fringe shows within the same organisation could largely be attributed to a race to the bottom between TV stations Antena 3 (now rebranded Antena 3 CNN[vi]), and Romania TV. In their competition for a larger audience, they moved towards the fringe, bringing content and guests from the fringe shows into the prime-time, as well as generally diminishing the talk-shows’ quality. Researchers of ActiveWatch[vii], an independent media watchdog, interviewed for this report, argued that the year 2016 represented a turning point, when conspiracy theories related to George Soros became acceptable on prime time. Donald Trump’s rise to power may have accelerated this transition by making previously fringe ideas more acceptable.
In this report, we will look at the circulation of actors and ideas between arguably mainstream Realitatea TV/ Realitatea Plus[viii], and the clearly fringe Luis Lazarus – Zeus TV. We also included in the analysis the Gold FM radio station, which is a spin-off from Realitatea.
Gold FM is an ex-music station that has been taken over by the son of Cozmin Gușă, co-owner of Realitatea TV. Gușă Sr. is a self-declared friend of Vladimir Putin. More details about Mr Gușă and other actors mentioned in this report can be found in the Supplement below.
For this research we looked at all the episodes of the regular talk-show Behind the Scenes of the Deep State between December 10th and 20th and tried to see, in a first stage of the analysis, how many of the participants in Behind the Scenes… also take part in shows at Zeus TV or Gold FM (even when outside the reference period). This is indicative of the continuity between mainstream and fringe media organisations[ix].
Somewhat unexpectedly, we discovered that who is not invited can be just as relevant as who is invited. Thus, our data offers a window to the rivalries within the far-right / anti-vaccine / Kremlin-aligned community.
In the second stage, we looked at common ideas between the two groups, with a particular focus on the presentation of Romania’s struggle to gain accession to the Schengen space.
Community and competition. We discovered significant overlap between the ideas promoted, as well as the voices invited to convey the messages in the talk-shows that we studied. Luis Lazarus, the Jack-of-all-trades at Luis Lazarus Zeus TV was a main guest at Behind the Scenes… on 14.12.2022 and was described as a renowned personality on the website of Gold FM on 31.01.2023[x]. Anca Alexandrescu, hostof Behind the Scenes is discussed positively in relation to Diana Șoșoacă in a show on 02.02.2023, and ideas from her show are picked up several times on the Gold FM website. Cozmin Gușă of Gold FM was invited several times on both Zeus TV and Behind the Scenes.
There is also significant overlap among the other guests. From 25 (other) guests present at Behind the Scenes… between December 10th and 20th, five were also present in at least one of the other shows[xi]. Of these, Diana Șoșoacă, H.D. Hartmann, and Marius Ghilezan appear on all three shows, while Viorel Cataramă and Laurențiu Primo[xii] appear on Realitatea TV and Zeus TV, but seem to be shunned at both Gold FM and its sister Gold TV. These guests are significant peddlers of Kremlin-aligned narratives and conspiracy theories.
Diana Șoșoacă, arguably the most pro-Kremlin Romanian MP, has been losing traction for a year on Faceboook (the main social network to discuss politics in Romania), possibly due to shadow-banning. She is compensating this fall through taking part regularly in Behind the Scenes or going on Zeus TV,
The result of this overlap can be that several episodes from Behind the Scenes can be indistinguishable from shows at Zeus TV or Gold FM: same radical ideas, same hosting style[xiii], same guests.
The great absentee from all three shows is MP George Simion, president of far-right AUR. This seems to be explained by rivalries between him and some of the hosts and guests. Diana Șoșoacă, the pro-Kremlin MP, left the alliance with Simion’s AUR party soon after the 2020 elections and has not mended bridges ever since. Gușă and Lazarus, while not typically speaking against the more popular Simion, have conspicuously boycotted his wedding, even though Simion tried to use the event as a show of unity among the far-right / anti-vaccine / pro-Kremlin actors.
George Simion organised his wedding to resemble the one of Romanian interwar fascist leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu[xiv] but with more modern PR strategies[xv]. Like Codreanu before him, Simion attempted to use the wedding as a show of unity of the far-right ecosystem around him as a natural leader[xvi]. Cozmin Gușă declined the invitation and sent Adriana Bahmuțeanu as special reporter for Realitatea TV while Luis Lazarus and other significant voices in the anti-liberal pool, like Gheorghe Piperea, just declined. Simion had to contend himself with a (heavily promoted) photo op with four less significant radical voices, including Dan Diaconescu, Lazarus’ former boss at OTV,
When Simion and AUR seemed to have a weak moment (for example failing to mobilise a large protest, Cozmin Gușă was more direct in his criticism of Simion. For example in October 2022 he called Simion a tool of the system (i.e. deep state) and the AUR party a zombie/ walking dead.
Continuity of ideas. A significant moment in the period we study was the show on 14.12.2022 that brought together ‘guest stars’ from Zeus TV and Behind the Scenes…This „summit” was hosted by the latter[xvii]
The show’s ostensive purpose was to discuss Austria’s opposition towards admitting Romania to the Schengen space, but also found time to discuss drug laws and the energy crisis[xviii], memories from the lockdown and the outsized influence of president Klaus Iohannis. The host, Anca Alexandrescu, also allowed generous space for self-promotion for some guests[xix].
The show started with mainstream and, from a democratic perspective, highly legitimate topics like opposition to Austria’s position in the Schengen issue and criticism of president Klaus Iohannis’ political overreach. On this, the host and the guests put a radical, conspiratorial spin; for example, Laurentiu Primo suggested that Romania’s relationship with Austria was a form of slavery to which people were becoming accustomed and Diana Șoșoacă claimed that [all] political parties “trembled with fear” in front of Klaus Iohannis.
Such claims are more radical than everyday political speech, but not by much. Already the Romanian politicians and media were radicalised on the topic of Austria and Schengen and unable to build a discourse that would be politically relevant but, at the same time, ideologically moderate[xx]. Mainstream discourse, sometimes from mainstream or even pro-Western sources, could already be subsumed to Kremlin-aligned narratives like “The West is not Romania’s friend and will let us down during a crisis” or “Support for Ukraine should be purely on some form of quid-pro-quo basis, we should be rewarded for supporting Ukraine”[xxi]. Thus, the discourse in the show would be a continuation rather than a break with mainstream discourse.
Similarly, criticism towards Klaus Iohannis in the show is not significantly more aggressive than what the president had to face from his mainstream political opponents[xxii].
After an interlude, the second part of the show moved to Romania’s help for Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. As is typical for Kremlin-aligned propaganda, they did not entirely support the Russian position. Instead, Diana Șoșoacă accused Parliament officials of having falsified the vote for a unanimous declaration in support of Ukraine. This claim went unchallenged, despite legislation requiring the host to ask for proof for such accusations.
Then, the guests argued that the energy support given by Romania to Ukraine and Moldova is part of a greater plan to impoverish Romanian citizens. Not only did this go unchallenged but the host actually supported it. The mastermind of this plan was not specified but it came among many complaints aired in the episode about the woes inflicted by the West.
Again, it was suggested that any help to these countries was considered unacceptable as long as it was free/ cheap.
Behind the Scenes has made an active[xxiii] effort to normalise fringe far-right and pro-Russian actors and ideas. In terms of actors, it offered a mainstream platform to far-right Kremlin-aligned actors from Zeus TV. In terms of ideas, it linked, in our example, support for Ukraine to energy poverty, connecting it to widespread concerns[xxiv] among the population. This comes to show how the distinction between fringe and mainstream media organisations is becoming irrelevant.
This type of behaviour is consequential. While the segmentation between fringe and mainstream content/organisations was unfortunate for the quality of democracy by opening the gate to toxic content in mainstream media, at least it was effective in terms of democratic resilience. This arrangement protected at least part of the population from the most radical messages and it supported the idea of a hierarchy, where fringe shows were at the bottom and mainstream shows at the top in terms of quality.
It is worth noting that in several research interviews and discussions
organised by GlobalFocus Center since the end of the war, respondents and
participants showed a belief that the answer to disinformation was a more
discriminating public. This is a difficult task in itself but it becomes harder
when the elites provide mixed signals, putting together in the same bucket
fringe and mainstream actors and ideas.
Supplement: Main actors / accounts in this report
Anca Alexandrescu[xxv]: Former advisor of former PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea (who is now himself the president of a nationalist party), Anca Alexandrescu is currently the host of the “Culisele statului paralel” (Behind the Scenes of the Parallel State) show on Realitatea TV.
Andrei Bădin[xxvi]: A seasoned Romanian journalist, and a representative example for the political-journalistic nexus that dominates part of the Romanian media. He worked for a number of TV stations (B1 TV, Antena 3), and is now managing the fringe Flux24.ro, an online outlet pushing anti-Western narratives and conspiracies, often aligned with the Kremlin’s disinformation agenda. He is currently a frequent guest on the show Culisele Statului Paralel with Anca Alexandrescu on Realitatea Plus.
AUR – Alianța pentru Unirea Românilor (web[xxvii], Facebook[xxviii]): the main far-right Romanian party, having won 9% in the last parliamentary elections in 2020. The party started as a one-man operation, at the initiative of ultranationalist George Simion (see below), having a focused agenda of unifying Romania with the Republic of Moldova. The party has had anti-vaccination positions and has become one of the most relevant anti-EU/anti-liberal voices in Romanian politics.
Diana Șoșoacă[xxix]: MP, lawyer, former member of AUR and the former spokesperson for the ultraconservative Orthodox Archdiocese of Tomis (who spoke against COVID-19 vaccination and incited public disobedience against preventive measures[xxx]). She is one of the very few MPs who visited[xxxi] the Russian Embassy during the war in Ukraine, and one of the extremely few politicians who openly expresses pro-Russian opinions. During the write-up for this report she visited (again) the Russian Embassy and stated on Behind the Scenes that the Romanian State, through former president Traian Băsescu refused a Russian offer to return[xxxii] Romania’s pre-war state treasure moved to Moscow during WWI and never returned.
Dorin Iacob: member of the police forces before 1989. After the fall of communism, he worked for the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). In 1998, Iacob joined the Romanian National Party (PNR) as its vice-president. PNR was a political party founded by Virgil Magureanu, the former director of the Romanian Intelligence Service, who promoted a nationalist-chauvinist agenda.
George Simion[xxxiii]: MP, leader of the populist party AUR, football gallery founder and militant for a union between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. According to GlobalFocus Center monitoring he is the most impactful far-right/ Kremlin-aligned voice in Romanian social media[xxxiv].
GoldFM: formerly a music station, it was taken over by the son of Cozmin Gușă, co-owner and the most prominent voice of Realitatea. Gușă Sr. is one of the significant pro-Kremlin voices in Romania, self-proclaimed friend of Vladimir Putin[xxxv] . He is credited with having arranged a private visit to Moscow in 2009 for then-president of the Senate Mircea Geoană[xxxvi] (currently Deputy Secretary General of NATO); and his shows on GoldFM reflect his options. The radio station also features maverick populist anti-liberal/anti-EU journalist Ion Cristoiu and Kremlin-aligned media personality Iosefina Pascal. In 2022 Gold Fm averaged around 16 000 listeners per day[xxxvii] but it also has a strong online following on Facebook, with 13 000 – 14 000 views per video. Gușă also features prominently on Gold TV, an online video platform.
Laurențiu Primo[xxxviii]: founder of the Meritocracy Movement, an NGO that campaigns for replacing democracy with “a meritocracy”, described as a superior political system which is going to allow popular control over political decisions in Romania. Mr. Primo ran in the presidential elections of 2019 but with little support. Through his YouTube channel (Meritocratia[xxxix]) and public statements, Mr. Primo is a constant promoter of anti-liberal, anti-establishment conspiracies. His opinions on the war in Ukraine are aligned with Russia’s disinformation narratives stating that “the West has provoked Russia to start the war”, “NATO/Germany declared war against Russia”, “the West/the US act as an aggressor, seeking to achieve their geopolitical goals.
Luis Lazarus[xl]: Luis Lazarus is a former host at OTV, the television station that launched the populist politician Dan Diaconescu People’s Party to parliamentary success in 2012. Currently manages the Zeus TV video-based Facebook account. In January 2012 it drew >450 000 interactions on his Facebook page and his videos gathered on average between 100 000 and 150 000 views each. In November, with more than 1 million interactions, he was the most effective of the pro-Russian communicators monitored by GlobalFocus Center.
Marius Ghilezan[xli]: author and journalist at the “România Liberă”[xlii] newspaper since 1991. Ghilezan is constantly promoting anti-Western, anti-liberal narratives supporting the idea that the war in Ukraine is waged at the expense of Eastern Europe and in favour of Western economic and geopolitical interests, that Western powers (mainly the US) are controlling regional governments in order to impose their interests and to upset the balance of power Russia is trying to maintain (in his opinion, a study-case for this alleged malign interference is the Republic of Moldova).
Realitatea Plus: a nominally mainstream TV station that
nevertheless hosts fringe content. The station airs[xliii] shows like
Sovereign Romania (“România
Behind the Scenes of the Deep State
(“Culisele Statului Paralel”) or Behind
the Scenes of Power (Culisele Puterii)[xlv] in prime time. In January the station had an
audience of 75 000 viewers[xlvi]
(average per day). We selected for the purposes of this report Behind the Scenes of the Deep State with
Supplement: guest overlap between selected shows at Realitatea TV / Realitatea Plus, Zeus TV and Gold FM/Gold TV
All guests in this list appear in at least two of the three shows selected for this report. The list of shows where guests overlap is not extensive.
[i] The term “greyzone” might apply, but we have chosen to keep referring
to these TV posts as mainstream since at no point was there a cordon sanitaire put in place to isolate any of them from society.
[v] The People’s Party gathered 14% percent of the vote in 2012 (http://alegeri.roaep.ro/?alegeri=alegeri-parlamentul-romaniei-2012-14_05_2014), but it quickly disintegrated due to lack of internal organisation and structure.
[vi] Antena 3 is the CNN partner in Romania
[viii] Realitatea is also a so-called “must-carry” TV station (https://www.paginademedia.ro/cna/lista-must-carry-2023-20999701) which means that cable providers have to broadcast its signal under the penalty of law
[ix] Of course, a case study is not a measurement of the phenomenon at national level.
[x] All links are presented in the addendum.
[xi] Diana Șoșoacă, H.D. Hartmann, Marius Ghilezan, Viorel Cataramă, Laurențiu Primo.
[xii] All these are Kremlin-aligned voices (see Supplement below)
[xiii] …As the host pontificates rather than moderates.
[xvi] Bride and groom are literally crowned during the Christian-Orthodox wedding ceremony and there is a host of traditions and songs that treat the bride and groom as king and queen. Thus any guest would have to offer the groom special deference (to be instrumentalised politically later on) or fall afoul of tradition.
[xvii] The guest list included Diana Șoșoacă, Luis Lazarus, Dorin Iacob, Laurențiu Primo, Andrei Bădin, and Miron Manega.
[xviii] Anca Alexandrescu and Diana Șoșoacă speculated that energy production is kept low and energy is sold cheaply to Ukraine, to somehow harm the Romanians.
[xix] Diana Șoșoacă praised her own purported influence as an independent MP and Laurentiu Primo presented his book promoting the replacement of democracy with meritocracy.
[xxi] These narratives are quite common and have been seen in GlobalFocus Center monitoring,
[xxii] For example: https://www.zf.ro/eveniment/reactia-lui-marcel-ciolacu-dupa-declaratiile-presedintelui-iohannis-19627199
[xxiii] We cannot, nor do we need to, conclusively say whether their final goal is to support the Kremlin or just to exploit sensational subjects.
Propaganda Without Borders – A study of pro-Kremlin propaganda among far-right and radical voices in Hungary, Poland, Romania and Serbiap. 5, 6
[xxxiv] Measurement is done as total interactions on Facebook (the most politically relevant social network in Romania) according to Crowdtangle.
[xxxvi] https://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-politic-6442789-audio-mircea-geoana-intalnire-taina-moscova.htm. Geoană was also president of the Social Democratic Party and presidential candidate of the SDP.
[xliv] An allusion to the sovereignist movement to which many fa- right and pro-Russian voices adhere.
[xlv] Co-hosted by Miron Mitrea, sentenced for bribery, suspected for involvement in electoral fraud. He actually described techniques of electoral fraud in a book written in prison. https://adevarul.ro/politica/din-cartea-lui-miron-mitrea-metodele-folosite-1681061.html
This report is part of an international research project financed by USAID, coordinated by the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Beacon Project on countering Russian Disinformation and Propaganda. The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not reflect those of IRI.