Diana Sosoaca, a 45-year-old lawyer, is one of Romania’s most visible and influential opponents of vaccination, or anti-vaxxers. She is also a member of the Romanian parliament.
On Facebook, 24,000 posts and 18 million reactions containing the word “Sosoaca” have been registered over the past year. The name “Diana Șosoaca” appears in the title of 38 Facebook pages and groups. Those figures put Sosoaca, a member of the Senate, the upper house of Romania’s parliament, way out in front of all other Romanian politicians in terms of social-media reach.
In one of her most popular videos on Facebook from October 27, Sosoaca takes aim at Romanians who opted for the shot, intoning gravely, “You went to the vaccination centers like lambs to the slaughter.”
Few countries in Europe have been ravaged harder by COVID-19 than Romania. The Eastern European country of some 19.3 million people has registered more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus with more than 50,700 deaths since the pandemic broke out in early 2020, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Amid the ongoing crisis, experts say that many Romanian politicians have made things worse. Instead of carrying out responsible public-health messaging, much of the fear about the vaccines is being whipped up by politicians who are using their office as a platform to spread disinformation.
“We, the lawyers and doctors who have been banned, have shown you the truth,” Sosoaca said in her October 27 Facebook video. “It’s your decision. I showed you the side effects, the global news. Now the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States] has ordered that all vaccinated people who die as a result of COVID are to be recorded as unvaccinated,” said Sosoaca, who often makes flamboyant and unsubstantiated claims in the Senate against COVID precautions and restrictions imposed by the authorities.
In less than 24 hours, the video went viral, racking up some 46,000 shares and clicked on by nearly 1 million people.
In an earlier video uploaded on Facebook on July 29, Sosoaca claimed, without a shred of evidence, that the number of Romanians being vaccinated would have to be falsified to “look good” in the eyes of the European Union. “If there is no democracy in the EU, we have nothing to gain in the EU,” she said in the video.
‘A True Believer’
Like other Eastern European countries that were in Moscow’s orbit during the Cold War, Romania suffers from high hostility to vaccination. The EU states with the lowest vaccination rates are all part of the former communist eastern bloc, including Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Latvia, and Estonia.
Sosoaca does not limit her anti-vaxxer activities to social media, but also takes her message to the streets. She often appears at hospitals or vaccination centers, where she engages in heated debates with medical staff and others, all of it captured on video and broadcast live on Facebook.
In early September, Sosoaca and a group of followers set out to Iasi, a town in northeast Romania, to block vehicles bringing about a dozen people there to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The senator was cited by police for disturbing the peace. Sosoaca claimed she had heeded a “call by the villagers” to halt the vaccination caravan.
“Perhaps among the few who are true believers on the issue of anti-vaccination is Sosoaca,” said Ciprian Cucu, an academic focusing on disinformation, in comments to RFE/RL’s Romanian Service. “I don’t know if Sosoaca was always so committed, but somehow she became so. She sees conspiracies everywhere, grabs at all the rumors and passes them on.”
Sosoaca’s anti-vaccination message is amplified by others on social media, especially by Luis Lazarus, one of her most ardent backers and a popular anti-vaxxer himself who is no stranger to spreading the word on Facebook.
On July 21, Lazarus and Sosoaca teamed up on Lazarus’s Facebook broadcast to fuel unfounded rumors that a 21-year-old man had died in Romania six days after receiving a coronavirus vaccination. That broadcast got some 1 million views and was shared 17,800 times.
Sosoaca may be the most visible politician spreading COVID-19 disinformation in Romania, but she is certainly not alone.
Also at the anti-vax vanguard is George “Gigi” Becali, a former member of Romania’s parliament, but perhaps better known as the owner of FCSB, a soccer team with its own controversial history linked to the Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest.
Although he has no account directly linked to him, Becali’s comments on COVID-19 vaccinations and restrictions have spread like wildfire on Facebook. “Why should I get vaccinated? I’ve never been vaccinated in my life…. Even if I get treatment for [COVID-19], why should I get vaccinated? To make a genetic change or what?” Becali said in a Facebook post, repeating an unsubstantiated anti-vaxxer claim that coronavirus vaccines will alter people’s genetic makeup.
The clip was taken from an interview Becali gave on Romanian TV on January 24, less than a month after the country launched its nationwide vaccination campaign. The Facebook post with the interview segment racked up almost 2 million views, a much higher number than the original broadcast on the Antena 3 TV news channel or on its website. The clip was then widely shared by many other influential Facebook accounts.
Another Romanian politician who has preached the alleged ills of coronavirus vaccinations and restrictions is Cristian Terhes, a politician currently serving in the European Parliament for the center-right Christian Democratic National Peasants’ Party. He has over 85,000 followers on his Facebook page.
“Let’s continue the fight for freedom together. Who gave the right to some public officials, temporarily elected to a public office, to expose you to risks by imposing the vaccine? Such a decision must be made by each person with free and informed consent! What do you think?” Terhes wrote on September 30 in a post viewed by nearly 300,000 people and reposted 27,000 times.
The week before, Terhes used a speech in the European Parliament to spread disinformation that coronavirus vaccines are not safe, a performance viewed by 670,000 viewers on Facebook.
The messages and speeches imploring Romanians not to get vaccinated come at a very critical time for the country. Nearly a third of all COVID-19-linked deaths in Romania have been recorded in just the past few weeks, Reuters reported, as daily infection numbers rocket to record highs and intensive-care units are full.
“There is a very large part of Romanian society that is not necessarily anti-vaccine, but which is skeptical, which is not convinced by the images from intensive-care units or the words of experts, considering that it is all a big lie or exaggerated hysteria,” sociologist and disinformation expert Nicolae Tibrigan said.
Politician Terhes told RFE/RL’s Romanian Service that he did not peddle disinformation but information. “If these disinformation experts deny the existence of this evidence, namely that vaccines have adverse effects or that the authorities are forcing people to get vaccinated, then they are the ones who are misinformed,” he said.