The video offers one example, among many, of the push by illiberal politicians—from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to Italy’s Matteo Salvini—to project influence beyond their borders by capitalizing on otherwise local grievances elsewhere, and of the vulnerability of countries such as Greece to precisely those efforts. With Greeks and others across Europe casting ballots this week in elections for the European Parliament, the impact could soon be clear.
“If you look at the media, or Parliament, you’d think that attempts to influence public opinion in Greece are not happening,” Stratos Safioleas, a communications expert who helped run the country’s campaign to win the right to host the 2004 Olympics in Athens, told me. Safioleas, who also saw the same Facebook video in his News Feed, continued: “Here we are, days away from the European elections, and yet there’s no public conversation around this.”
Greece is particularly susceptible not just to illiberal campaigns, but also to the transnational disinformation campaigns that have become de rigueur across Europe. The country’s media—like much of the rest of the country—have been hit hard by job cuts, and newsrooms have been decimated, leaving a parallel ecosystem, made up of Facebook groups and blogs with tens of thousands of members, to pass unnoticed. Years of brutal government-spending rollbacks, political and economic crises, and the migrant influx have also had an impact on public opinion: 74 percent of Greeks think immigrants are a burden; 89 percent believe Greek culture is superior to all others; less than a 10th think people they don’t know are to be trusted.
More recent events have divided the country further. As the Facebook video was being circulated, the government in Athens was closing in on a controversial deal with neighboring Macedonia that would have involved the former Yugoslav republic changing its name to ensure that Greece relented on a veto barring Macedonia from joining NATO. The negotiations had been fraught here in Greece, which had long argued that Macedonia’s very name infringed on the historical legacy and claims of the Greek region of North Macedonia.
That deal between the two countries has proved fertile ground domestically for the illiberal politics that appear to be gaining traction across Europe. Far-right and populist politicians here began calling the government—especially Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and former Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias—traitors, NATO lackeys, and puppets of George Soros, the billionaire targeted by conspiracy theorists the world over. In closed Facebook groups, some of which I joined for the purpose of reporting this story, claims were made of imminent prosecutions for treason against the government, or that Greece had not struck a deal with Macedonia, but had actually given up its entire region of North Macedonia for the creation of a nation funded by, you guessed it, Soros and protected by NATO. Anti-Semitic posts that claimed Tsipras was a “pawn of Soros” who had “sold Macedonia for a few more months in power” and that linked to obscure websites were liked and shared by thousands.