Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, made securing the 2020 U.S. election a top priority. He met regularly with an election team, which included more than 300 people from across his company, to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network. He asked civil rights leaders for advice on upholding voter rights.
The core election team at Facebook, which was renamed Meta last year, has since been dispersed. Roughly 60 people are now focused primarily on elections, while others split their time on other projects. They meet with another executive, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive has not talked recently with civil rights groups, even as some have asked him to pay more attention to the midterm elections in November.
Safeguarding elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s top concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot have underlined how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.
2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commenters said they expected election fraud this year and warned against using mail-in voting and electronic voting machines.
$44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested that he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.
barred Mr. Trump from its platforms after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has worked over the years to limit political falsehoods on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a Meta spokesman, said the company had “taken a comprehensive approach to how elections play out on our platforms since before the U.S. 2020 elections and through the dozens of global elections since then.”
recently raised doubts about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia are also holding elections in October.
“People in the U.S. are almost certainly getting the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to any integrity on any platform, especially for U.S. elections,” said Sahar Massachi, the executive director of the think tank Integrity Institute and a former Facebook employee. “And so however bad it is here, think about how much worse it is everywhere else.”
Facebook’s role in potentially distorting elections became evident after 2016, when Russian operatives used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the U.S. presidential election. In 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.
banning QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.
Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund poll workers, pay for rental fees for polling places, provide personal protective equipment and cover other administrative costs.
The week before the November 2020 election, Meta also froze all political advertising to limit the spread of falsehoods.
But while there were successes — the company kept foreign election interference off the platform — it struggled with how to handle Mr. Trump, who used his Facebook account to amplify false claims of voter fraud. After the Jan. 6 riot, Facebook barred Mr. Trump from posting. He is eligible for reinstatement in January.
Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistle-blower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election safety features too soon after the 2020 election. Facebook made growth and engagement its priorities over security, she said.
fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel “Ready Player One.”
The future. Many people in tech believe the metaverse will herald an era in which our virtual lives will play as important a role as our physical realities. Some experts warn that it could still turn out to be a fad or even dangerous.
Mr. Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those focused on election security, said the four employees, though he receives their reports. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.
Several civil right groups said they had noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t involved in discussions with them as he once was, nor are other top Meta executives, they said.
“I’m concerned,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who talked with Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s chief operating officer, ahead of the 2020 election. “It appears to be out of sight, out of mind.” (Ms. Sandberg has announced that she will leave Meta this fall.)
wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and the chief executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They called for them to take down posts about the lie that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and to slow the spread of election misinformation before the midterms.
Yosef Getachew, a director at the nonprofit public advocacy organization Common Cause, whose group studied 2020 election misinformation on social media, said the companies had not responded.
“The Big Lie is front and center in the midterms with so many candidates using it to pre-emptively declare that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, pointing to recent tweets from politicians in Michigan and Arizona who falsely said dead people cast votes for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop enforcing against the Big Lie.”
3D printed Natural Gas Pipes are placed on displayed U.S. and Russian flags in this illustration taken, January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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April 6 (Reuters) – At least a dozen U.S. shale gas executives on Wednesday held discussions with European energy officials on increasing U.S. fuel supplies to Europe as part of efforts to replace Russian imports.
At the meetings in Houston, foreign affairs, economic ministers and commercial buyers discussed how to lower their imports of Russian oil, coal and liquefied natural gas following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, trade group officials said. The European Union plans to cut its reliance on Russian gas by two-thirds this year. read more
Delegations from Latvia and Estonia, diplomats from Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, and the United Kingdom toured the Golden Pass LNG export project in Sabine Pass, Texas, and later met in Houston with shale gas producers, Fred Hutchison, chief executive of trade group LNG Allies, said.
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Group discussions included top executives from Chesapeake Energy (CHK.O), Coterra Energy (CTRA.N), EOG Resources (EOG.N) and EQT Corp (EQT.N), he said. Individual meetings are planned between U.S. executives and Latvian, Estonian and Slovak commercial representatives.
“The situation in Europe is so precarious. All these countries that are dependent on Russian gas are committed to giving it up, in some cases completely,” said Hutchison.
Building LNG capacity takes years and ample new supplies will not be available until mid-decade. “The capacity challenges in 2022 are great but the opportunities in a few years are really terrific,” he said.
The meeting, coordinated by the American Exploration and Production Council (AXPC) along with LNG Allies, focused on ways to move Europe off Russian gas, including the need for more infrastructure in the United States and Europe, AXPC CEO Anne Bradbury said.
The need for new LNG plants was highlighted at a congressional hearing earlier on Wednesday by Pioneer Natural Resources Chief Executive Scott Sheffield. He urged Congress to embrace the construction of new U.S. plants.
“We need to build LNG facilities in the northeast,” Sheffield said.
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Reporting by Liz Hampton in Denver; Edited by Gary McWilliams, Richard Pullin and Barbara Lewis
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Europeans were similarly reluctant about shipping lethal weapons to the Ukrainian Army, even those categorized as defensive. Fearing a backlash at home, Germany and its neighbors limited themselves to sending protective gear like helmets or flak jackets.
But their resolve quickly stiffened with the start of the war. Shortly before Germany, the Netherlands offered Ukraine Stinger missiles and other weapons. Last Saturday, the European Union set up a nearly $500 million fund for members to send weapons. It was the first time the bloc jointly purchased lethal weapons to arm another country’s army under the E.U. banner — another Rubicon crossed.
“I don’t remember a time when the target of Western sanctions was so economically integrated into the West,” said Tom Keatinge, a senior researcher with the British Royal United Services Institute, a research group in London. Punishing Russia, he said, became an imperative for world leaders and everyday consumers. “It became about, ‘What are you, man on the street, going to sacrifice for Ukraine?’”
Countries that are geographically closer to Russia, like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the Netherlands — backed by the United States and Canada — pressed for a single huge set of sanctions that would genuinely hurt Mr. Putin, according to European officials who took part in the talks.
In particular, these countries were pushing for personally penalizing Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and suspending Russian banks from SWIFT, a kind of financial nuclear option that had by that point become a rallying cry for protesters on the streets of Europe and on social media. But SWIFT was still a no go for the Germans, several officials said.
A ‘Quantum Leap’ in Financial Penalties
It was before dinner on Feb. 24, on the evening after the invasion began, when Mr. Zelensky’s image flickered on a video screen. European leaders were meeting under the highest level of secrecy, without advisers or electronic devices. Clad in suits and ties, they were seated in the comfort of a high-tech conference room in Brussels. Mr. Zelensky appeared to be in a bunker, somewhere in Kyiv, wearing his now-famous military-green T-shirt. The contrast was not lost on anyone in the room.
President Biden warned Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Saturday that invading Ukraine would result in “swift and severe” costs to Russia, diminish his country’s standing and cause “widespread human suffering,” as Western officials made another diplomatic push to dissuade Mr. Putin from pressing forward with an attack.
It remained unclear if Mr. Putin would invade, according to senior administration officials. One senior national security official, who briefed reporters shortly after the call took place, said that there was “no fundamental change in the dynamic that has unfolded now for several weeks,” an acknowledgment that Mr. Putin has continued to build up a military presence that has effectively surrounded Ukraine.
After the call, a senior administration official said that the situation remained as urgent as it was on Friday when Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, warned Americans to leave the country in the coming days.
The official pointed out that the Russians were continuing their military buildup even as Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin prepared to speak, underscoring concern among U.S. officials that Mr. Putin was capable of initiating a major military incursion, even if it remained unclear if he would actually do so.
The officials discussed the call on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The Russian government was expected to present its assessment of the call soon.
The two leaders spoke just hours after the State Department ordered all but a “core team” of its diplomats and employees to leave the American Embassy in Kyiv over fears that Moscow would soon mount a major assault.
Reflecting the urgent concern in Washington over Russia’s growing military buildup surrounding its smaller neighbor, the Pentagon said it would temporarily pull 160 American military trainers out of the country, where they had been working with Ukrainian troops near the Polish border.
Even as Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin spoke by telephone — and after calls earlier Saturday between the top U.S. and Russian diplomats and between the countries’ defense secretaries — the path to a diplomatic resolution to the standoff appeared to be narrowing, with growing numbers of Russian and Russian-backed forces massing around Ukraine on three sides.
U.S. intelligence officials had thought Mr. Putin was prepared to wait until the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing before possibly ordering an offensive, to avoid antagonizing President Xi Jinping of China, a critical ally. But in recent days, they say, the timeline began moving up, an acceleration that Biden administration officials began publicly acknowledging on Friday.
“We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters on Friday, adding that an invasion could begin “during the Olympics,” which are scheduled to end on Feb. 20.
U.S. officials do not know whether Mr. Putin has decided to invade, Mr. Sullivan insisted. “We are ready either way,” he said. “Whatever happens next, the West is more united than it has been in years.”
Border with Russian units
Russia invaded and
annexed the Crimean
Ukraine in 2014.
separating Ukrainian and
Russian-backed forces near
two breakaway provinces.
Ukraine in 2014.
The United States has picked up intelligence that Russia is discussing next Wednesday as the target date for the start of military action, officials said, acknowledging the possibility that mentioning a particular date could be part of a Russian disinformation effort.
The Ukrainian government urged calm, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying that he had not seen intelligence indicating an imminent Russian attack, and that “too much information” about a possible offensive was sowing unnecessary fear.
The United States has ruled out sending troops to defend Ukraine, but it has increased deployments to NATO member countries in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon on Friday said it had ordered 3,000 more soldiers to Poland.
The White House is eager to avoid a repeat of the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy staff from Kabul last August as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. The United States and countries including Britain, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Latvia and the Netherlands have issued increasingly urgent calls for their citizens to leave Ukraine. On Saturday, KLM, the main Dutch airline, announced that it will stop flying to Ukraine, citing the security situation.
A State Department official emphasized on Saturday that the U.S. military would not be evacuating American citizens from Ukraine in the way troops did in Afghanistan.
Russia has accused Western countries of spreading misinformation about its intentions. On Saturday, its Foreign Ministry said it was pulling some of its diplomatic personnel out of Ukraine because it was “drawing the conclusion that our American and British colleagues seem to know about certain military actions.”
YAVORIV, Ukraine — With television cameras rolling, a Ukrainian soldier heaved an America-made missile launcher onto his shoulder and pressed a red button. The missile streaked out and blew a target — a pile of tires — to smithereens.
For the more than two months after Russia began its military buildup near Ukraine last fall, the United States was quiet about its military aid to Kyiv, merely acknowledging sending arms that had been scheduled for delivery long ago.
That has changed now. American cargo planes bringing weaponry and ammunition are arriving openly at Kyiv’s Borispol airport. And the Ukrainian army is making a point of showing media these newly delivered weapons at a military training area.
In the last two weeks, seven U.S. cargo planes carrying a total of about 585 tons of military assistance have landed in Kyiv. After the latest plane arrived, on Thursday, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, posted on Twitter, “this is not the end! To be continued!”
Along with ammunition for small arms, the planes also delivered a significant number of missiles to Ukraine. These include Javelin anti-tank missiles, which the United States has been providing to Ukraine since 2018.
It also included a type of American-made, shoulder-launched missile that can blow up sandbagged fortifications and destroy partially buried bunkers. On Friday, Ukrainian soldiers fired 10 of the so-called “bunker busters” for international media, including a Japanese television crew.
To critics of the policy of arming Ukraine, this weapon seems provocative. Within Ukraine, nearly half the respondents to an opinion poll published on Wednesday said they believed Western weaponry will deter Russia, but a third said they thought it would do the opposite — provoke an attack. The Russian government has objected to the weapons transfers, and Germany is staunchly opposed to them.
“I do not think it’s realistic to believe such weapons exports could turn around the military imbalance,” Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, said on a visit to Kyiv on Monday.
Ukraine’s policy of publicly displaying the new weaponry adds to their value as a deterrent, said Maria Zolkina, a political analyst at Democratic Initiatives Foundation. The media events, she said, will help “destroy the myth that an unprotected Ukraine as an easy catch for Russia.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has said the weapons airlifts strengthen Ukraine’s hand in dealing with Russia.
“The stronger Ukraine is the lower are the risks of further Russian aggression,” he said in a video conference with journalists this week. “The more defensive weapons we get today the less likely we will need to use them.”
The United States is not the only country that has been arming Ukraine in the airlifts that began last month. The United Kingdom sent about 2,000 light anti-tank missiles. With approval from the United States, the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia said they would transfer Stinger antiaircraft missiles, filling gaps in Ukraine’s weak air defenses. Poland has also said it will send antiaircraft missiles.
At the demonstration firing of the American bunker busters, only Ukrainian soldiers handled the weapon. They had been through a three-day course taught by instructors from the 53d Infantry Brigade of the Florida National Guard. The Americans stood aside, declining to appear on camera.
The launching tube and missile weigh about 15 pounds and look like a small, green log. When a missile was fired, the whooshing noise rattled dishes on a picnic table set up to provide snacks for the visiting journalists. Ukrainian soldiers cheered when missiles hit the targets of tires and exploded in a red flash.
“It’s very simple, just a gadget,” said Ivan, a 25-year-old Ukrainian senior sergeant, now trained in firing the new missile, who declined to give his last name for security reasons. The soldiers also covered their faces with balaclavas to protect their identities.
But the training itself was simple, Ivan said. “A boy or a girl of any age can fire it. It’s like an iPhone.”
RUKLA, Lithuania — The emigrants hitchhiked overnight to the Dysna River, the border of their native Belarus. They thought they could wade across the frigid waters, but the spot they chose in haste proved to be so deep they had to swim.
On the other side, at dawn two weeks ago, they found a house with a light on and asked for the police. They were fleeing the authoritarian regime of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and seeking asylum in neighboring Lithuania, a member of the European Union. Taken to a makeshift camp at a border guard station, they joined about a dozen Iraqis, some Chechens and someone from Southeast Asia.
“We’ve been here for weeks, months,” a migrant told them, according to one of the Belarusians, Aleksandr Dobriyanik. “We know you’ll leave here in just a couple days.”
uprising against Mr. Lukashenko’s fraudulent 2020 re-election sparked a crackdown in which anyone who sympathized with the opposition is a potential target. It has approved 71asylum requests from Belarusians this year. The U.S. State Department commended the country last week for “offering safe haven to many Belarusian democracy advocates,” including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader.
clashes with Polish police have made worldwide headlines.
Amid the crush of migration, the paths of Belarusians and other migrants intersect at holding facilities across Lithuania. At one migrant camp, a Syrian barber explained to his Belarusian tentmate that his family spent their life savings to get to Europe and now had “no way back.” Mr. Dobriyanik met men fleeing their native Chechnya region of Russia, who railed against President Vladimir V. Putin.
Lithuania, with a population of less than three million, has struggled to manage the thousands of new arrivals, and this month the government declared a state of emergency. Lithuanian leaders have called the migrants a “hybrid weapon” wielded by Mr. Lukashenko to “attack the democratic world.”
indefinite military service in Eritrea, then flew to Belarus as civil war flared in Ethiopia. The woman, who did not want her name used because she feared for her family in Eritrea, stayed in Belarus for months until she found a way to enter Lithuania.
“We came running from a dictator government,” she said, “and we were stuck in a dictator government.”
BRUSSELS — The migration crisis of 2015, when millions of migrants and asylum seekers surged over Europe’s borders, nearly tore apart the European Union. Many members offered asylum to the refugees; others, like Poland and Hungary, wanted no part of it.
Six years later, the current standoff at the border of Poland and Belarus has echoes of that crisis, but this time, European officials insist that member states are united when it comes to defending Europe’s borders and that uncontrolled immigration is over.
What is different, the Europeans say, is that this crisis is entirely manufactured by the dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, as a response to sanctions that the Europeans imposed on his country in the face of a stolen election and a vicious repression of domestic dissent.
“This area between the Poland and Belarus borders is not a migration issue, but part of the aggression of Lukashenko toward Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, with the aim to destabilize the E.U.,” Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, said in an interview over the summer.
is withholding from Warsaw billions of dollars in funds intended to help economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet in an indication of how seriously Brussels takes the current standoff with Belarus, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, visited Warsaw on Wednesday to meet with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland to offer solidarity — and even, perhaps, some border funds.
“Poland, which is facing a serious crisis, should enjoy solidarity and unity of the whole European Union,” Mr. Michel said. “It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack,” he added. “And in the wake of such measures, the only response is to act in a decisive manner, with unity, in line with our core values.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, urging him to push Belarus to stop its “inhuman and unacceptable” actions at the Polish border, her spokesman said.
Moscow supports Mr. Lukashenko with money and personnel. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin said, Mr. Putin told Ms. Merkel that there was nothing he could do and that the European Union should deal directly with Mr. Lukashenko. Which is exactly what Brussels refuses to do.
But the position of Brussels is delicate, presenting the European Union with a three-pronged problem. It must show solidarity about protecting the borders of the bloc, sympathy about the humanitarian crisis unfolding there and firmness about defending the supremacy of European law.
The Europeans can hardly ignore the sight of innocent children, women and men, however manipulated they may have been, in freezing conditions, stuck between Polish border guards and troops and barbed wire, and Belarusian troops. The soldiers will not only prohibit them from returning to Minsk, the Belarusian capital where many are arriving before moving to the border, but are also actively helping them breach the Polish border.
At least 10 people have already died; other estimates are higher, but Poland has barred journalists and nongovernmental organizations from the border area.
In response, Brussels is contemplating a fifth round of sanctions, perhaps as early as Monday, aimed at Belarusian officials and at airlines that are flying migrants from the Middle East to Minsk. But few believe that new sanctions will move Mr. Lukashenko any more than previous ones have done, especially since his efforts are a response to the sanctions already in place.
“This is a very serious crisis for the European Union, not just for Poland,” said Piotr Buras, a Warsaw-based fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a crisis of security, which could get much worse if Polish and Belarusian guards start shooting, and it’s a very serious humanitarian crisis, because Europe can’t accept people starving and freezing on the border.”
Given the nature of the crisis, Mr. Buras said, Brussels should separate it from the confrontation over the rule of law: “Whatever we may think about the Polish rule of law crisis, the E.U. must act in its own interest.”
But the Polish government, which no longer has a clear majority in Parliament, is itself politically stuck, Mr. Buras said. “The problem is not that the E.U. doesn’t want to help Poland because of the rule of law,” he added. “It’s the other way around — it’s very difficult for this Polish government to accept help from E.U. institutions that they are fighting on another front. And the government wants to present itself as the sole savior and defender of the Polish people.”
The European Union has offered Poland help with its own border guards, known as Frontex, significantly expanded since the 2015 crisis and based in Warsaw, said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a Brussels-based fellow of the Center for European Reform. And Brussels also has asylum support staff members who can help screen migrants to judge their qualifications for asylum.
But Poland has rejected both offers and insists on keeping the border area sealed. One reason is its fight with Brussels and its unwillingness to accept help. Warsaw also does not want the oversight of its actions that Frontex might provide, said Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow in London who is also at the Center for European Reform.
Nor do Warsaw or Brussels want a screening procedure that will act as a “pull factor” to give Mr. Lukashenko and more migrants the hope that they can get into Europe this way.
“The concern on the government side, and this is why they’re so firm, is that if there is even a process to let people in, this will create a narrative that this is a place where people from Iraq and Syria can be processed into Europe, and the numbers won’t be 4,000, as now, but 30,000,” said Michal Baranowski, the director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund.
So policymakers are in a real conundrum for now, Mr. Scazzieri said. In the longer run, he suggested that sanctions against the airlines would reduce the numbers of migrants, and if the borders remained closed and were reinforced further, fewer would risk the journey.
And at some point, he said, Mr. Lukashenko “will understand that too many migrants in Belarus will create domestic problems.”
Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.
COPACENI, Romania — As a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic crashed over Eastern Europe last month, devastating unvaccinated populations, an Orthodox Church bishop in southern Romania offered solace to his flock: “Don’t be fooled by what you see on TV — don’t be scared of Covid.”
Most important, Bishop Ambrose of Giurgiu told worshipers in this small Romanian town on Oct. 14, “don’t rush to get vaccinated.”
The bishop is now under criminal investigation by the police for spreading dangerous disinformation, but his anti-vaccine clarion call, echoed by prominent politicians, influential voices on the internet and many others, helps explain why Romania has in recent weeks reported the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19.
On Tuesday, nearly 600 Romanians died, the most during the pandemic. The country’s death rate relative to population is almost seven times as high as the United States’, and almost 17 times as high as Germany’s.
Europe’s second-lowest vaccination rate; around 44 percent of adults have had at least one dose, ahead of only Bulgaria, at 29 percent. Overall, the European Union stands at 81 percent, with several countries above 90 percent. Complicating matters, Romania has been without a government since last month, when a centrist coalition unraveled.
some form of a vaccine requirement. Here’s a closer look.
As she spoke, a 66-year-old Covid patient, Nicu Paul, gasped for breath on a bed nearby. His wife, Maria, also suffering severe pulmonary problems from Covid, lay in the next bed. Mr. Paul said he had worked for 40 years as an ambulance driver and never gotten sick — “God saved me,” he said — so he decided against vaccination because “there are so many rumors about the vaccine that I did not know what to believe.”
Romania began vaccinating its citizens last December and put the program under the military, the country’s most respected institution, according to opinion polls. The second most trusted institution, however, is the Orthodox church, which has sent mixed signals on vaccines, with Patriarch Daniel in Bucharest telling people to make up their own minds and listen to doctors, while many local clerics and some influential bishops denounced vaccines as the Devil’s work.
Colonel Ghorghita said he had been shocked and mystified by the reach of anti-vaccination sentiment. “They really believe that vaccines are not the proper way to stop Covid,” he said, adding that this was despite the fact that “more than 90 percent of deaths are unvaccinated people.” Old people, the most vulnerable demographic, have been the hardest to convince, he said, with only 25 percent of people over 80 vaccinated.
In central Bucharest, huge signs display photographs of gravely ill patients in hospitals as part of a campaign to jolt people back to reality. “They are suffocating. They beg. They regret,” reads a caption.
Dr. Streinu-Cercel said she was uneasy with trying to reach people by scaring them. “We should be talking about science, not fear,” she said, but “fear is the only thing that got the attention of the general population.”
Distrust of just about everyone and everything is so deep, she said, that some of her patients “are gasping for breath but tell me that Covid does not exist.”
“It is very difficult when so many people are denying all reality,” she added.
At a vaccination center at her hospital, only a trickle of people pass through most days, though vaccines are free and increasingly necessary following new rules requiring vaccination certificates to enter many public buildings.
One of those getting vaccinated was Norica Gheorghe, 82. She said she had held off for months on getting a shot but decided to go ahead this past week after seeing reports that nearly 600 had died in one day. “My hair stood on end when I saw this number, and I decided that I should get vaccinated,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Covid disinformation in Romania mostly followed themes that found traction in many other countries, according to Alina Bargaoanu, a Bucharest communications professor who tracks disinformation, with people spreading wild conspiracy theories under fake names on Facebook and other social media.
But as the pandemic dragged on, she added, this largely fake virtual phenomenon morphed into a political movement driven by real people like Diana Sosoaca, an elected member of Romania’s upper house of Parliament. Ms. Sosoaca led a protest in the north of the country that blocked the opening of a vaccination center, denouncing the pandemic as “the biggest lie of the century,” and organized anti-mask rallies in Bucharest. Videos of her antics have attracted millions of views.
Ms. Bargaoanu, the disinformation researcher, said she suspected a Russian hand in spreading alarm over vaccines, but conceded that many of the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy theories originate in the United States, making them particularly hard to debunk because “Romania is a very pro-American country.”
Colonel Ghorghita has taken to social media to rebut the more outlandish falsehoods, and also met with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to ask them not to fan the flames of disinformation. “They don’t have a duty to recommend vaccination but they do have a duty not to recommend against it,” he said.
The Orthodox church is particularly important because of its strong influence in rural areas, where vaccination rates are half those in cities like Bucharest, where more than 80 percent of adults have received at least one shot.
In Copaceni, a rural county south of Bucharest, workers at a small clinic offering vaccines said they were appalled by Bishop Ambrose’s anti-vaccine tirades.
“I am fighting to get people vaccinated every day, and then he comes along and tells them not to bother,” said Balota Hajnalka, a doctor running the clinic.
Boryana Dzhambazova contributed reporting from Sofia, Bulgaria, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.