29 January 2020

Disinformation campaigns and “fake news”- major challenges for the Western Balkans

Stelian Teodorescu

As advanced democracies are fighting disinformation, Western Balkans developing nations were “hit, also, by this new disinformation wave, being less prepared or resistant than occidental societies”, as Jelena Milic, director of the Centre for Euro Atlantic Studies in Serbia, was saying. Mainly, Russian Federation and China’s disinformation campaign from Europe are the main ”fake news” source according to some Euro-parliamentarians statements, from 14.03.2019, who have asked EU to fight hostile disinformation and propaganda. Western Balkans’ region, which was completely devastated by conflicts in the 90’s, after former Yugoslavia’s disintegration, got more and more targeted, in the last years, by foreign and internal disinformation.

Image source: Mediafax

Disinformation and “fake news”- issues for the entire world

Regionally, there are many warnings according to which disinformation campaign coordinated particularly by Russia have provoked damages, especially in Serbia, having the potential to be larger in the near future. In 2019, director of Serbia’s Centre for Euroatlantic Studies, J. Milic, expressed her concern on a possible disinformation increase, carried by Russia and China. Her statement was made at the 20th anniversary of bombs executed by NATO against Yugoslavia, meanwhile Belgrade was still having sensitive discussions with Kosovo, its former province which became unilaterally independent back in 2008.

J. Milic talked about Sputnik as the main disinformation campaign, claiming that “its editor-in-chief presents the agency in Serbia as Serbian mass-media”, instead of revealing its Russian origin. J. Milic was also stating at that time that according to its self-declared mission of “telling the untold”, “Sputnik Srbija” is promoting conspiring thinking by calling EU and US imperialist powers aiming at destroying the Serbian identity and autonomy.

Adnan Kuskic, president of the Centre for Electoral Studies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has underlined that “the lack of strong mass-media favours political elites to use their own disinformation tools to keep their influence, particularly when the political control stays unclear in the whole region”.

Laura Brown, spokesperson for the US Embassy in North Macedonia, has explained that the lack of trust in political institutions is actually what turned the region into a proper land for disinformation, underscoring that “many disinformation we acknowledge play an important role and are eroding country’s trust”.

Therefore, Western Balkans’ disinformation/”fake news” is a reality that’s an extremely important problem when it comes to understanding the region, as concluded by participants to the 4th Regional Conference on Security Challenges in the South East Europe (SEE), organised by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), held in Trieste, on 05.12.2019.

Undoubtedly, Russia uses many tools to promote its interest in the region, including military power/cooperation, manipulation of economic connections, interference in entities’ internal policies through different local actors and the use of interest information in influencing the public opinion from the Western Balkans. In order to achieve its goals, Russia used coercion, influencing structures in the region when operating different plans and actions, but also subversion.

The European Parliament blamed Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions, but also China’s, “which seek to undermine the foundations and principles of European democracies as well as the sovereignty of all Eastern Partnership countries”.  “Disinformation poisons hearts and minds”, and “We can no longer deny the fact that our institutions and societies are targeted by the Kremlin’s hostile propaganda, which is part of a broader strategy”, underlined rapporteur Anna Elzbieta Fotyga.

The shortcomings left by EU’s policy in the region are opportunities that Russia and China are willing to fill and use for their own good. Moscow, through disinformation and stabilization in the Western Balkans can indirectly undermine the European and Euroatlantic integration project of this region, intensifying their influence operations constantly based on increasing region’s tensions and exploiting the postponement of Western Balkans’ entities’ entry in EU and NATO.

The Russian Federation sees EU and NATO’s enlargement in the Western Balkans as a secondary threat for its national security interests and, therefore, it wants to underline entities’ integration process in the region.

For example, in October 2016, “Russia Beyond the Headlines”, a news agency sponsored by the Russian government, launched a free mobile news application, called “RBTH Daily”. Since January 2018, it is available in 14 languages, including Bulgarian, Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian and Slovenian and supports Moscow in promoting the regional political speech with its own versions on the international events. The Serbian language version favours the negative attitudes on the West, praising the Russian army and highlighting the military cooperation with Serbia. They promote titles such as “Russia will save Serbia’s military aviation”, their purpose being the promotion and consolidation of the idea that Russia, and not EU or US, is Serbia’s natural ally.

According to Euractv.rs, participants of a commission dedicated to this misinformation problem come to the conclusion that providing false information through media in Serbia and Srpska Republic (RS) is really concerning issue. Thus, the main problem that arises in Serbia is that the most influential part of the media, that is, 5-6 of the most influential newspapers and 5-6 pro-government television stations exclusively supports the current Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, and the Serbian Progressive Party he is a member of. Thus, it is underlined "there is no impartial journalism in most public spaces", as noted by KRIK investigative journalist Marija Vučić.

However, while Russia's information warfare in Serbia is seen as relatively well-implemented, international attention has been paid less to Russian intervention in other Western Balkan countries, which are aiming at EU integration, namely Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro. By its increasing influence in these states’ media, Moscow proves that it is trying to destabilize them simultaneously, undermining their proximity to Western organizations.

For example, the attempted coup and the attempted assassination of Montenegrin prime minister, in October 2016, was defined as retaliation to Montenegro's request to join NATO. However, even if Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, Russia continued to target this country with online misinformation campaigns, cyber attacks and economic coercion.

The news tends to promote certain narratives about the threat of a "Greater Albania", about NATO bombing operations on Belgrade in 1999, but also about the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up as an anti-Serbian initiative. These narratives not only discrediting the West, by fostering Serbian nationalist feelings, but it also increases interethnic tensions and resentments in the Western Balkan region. In such a context, it is noteworthy that while the core audience is in Serbia, "Sputnik Srbija" has significant popularity among the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, Montenegro and SR.

As a result, we can see that, to achieve its goals, Moscow is weakening and destabilizing the region, foster anti-European sentiments and reinforce its own interests, propaganda and misinformation being central actions for the implementation of these efforts. Thus, Moscow's strategy in the Western Balkans is based on a wide range of political and diplomatic tools, including, but not limited to media influence, support for Eurosceptic organizations and leaders, as well as the establishment of various NGOs and civic associations that play major roles in local business.

Anonymous information-a feature of Western Balkans’ disinformation

A key and extremely important feature of those news and information aimed at disinformation is that they are most often published without citing the sources, in addition to the fact that, following their introduction in the analysis process, they have a biased tone and a high subjectivity level. In the Western Balkans, the largest number of no-sources news articles was observed in Serbia, while publications citing "unnamed sources" were identified as the most common when northern Macedonia had the name "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia". All these information the result of a regional media monitoring project in the Western Balkans, carried out between May 14 - June 10, 2018, by the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) in Belgrade. According to this analysis, in about a third of Serbia's media reports on international actors no source was mentioned, thus creating a basis for potential misinformation, and most of them have shown pro-Russian and anti-US positions.

In the monitoring process of the main media institutions in four Western Balkan countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) and Northern Macedonia), CRTA focused on portraying international actors (EU, US, Russia and NATO).  As the first indicator of misinformation they took into consideration news or published articles containing information without mentioning their sources. The monitoring revealed that 33% of such articles/news was recorded in Serbian media, while most articles (43%) with unnamed sources were found in Northern Macedonia media.

Subsequent research has revealed that, in Serbia, in news with no sources, the tone is pro-Russian and anti-US. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), most of this news was anti-US and pro-EU. In Montenegro and Northern Macedonia, during the monitored period, certain pro-US media content was observed, quantified at 31% and 26% respectively.

Overall, while the presence of pro-EU comments and neutral news content across the EU ranged from 19 to 25% in BIH, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro, CRTA emphasized that in Serbia, neutral news content on EU dominated (reaching 27%). Pro-EU reporting is significantly lower compared to other countries in the region and is almost equal to pro-Russian content (14%).

As for the main topics addressed in the media content about international actors, research has shown that politics is a top topic in all the questioned countries, following either the topics related to army (Montenegro, North Macedonia / the former FYROM), economy (BIH ), Kosovo (Serbia).

For example, according to Macedonian documents obtained through the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Russian diplomats have been involved in disinformation and propaganda operations for nearly ten years, just to provoke ethnic disagreement in Northern Macedonia.

To this end, Russia has established honorary consulates in Bitola and Ohrid, while the Russian Embassy in Skopje has monitored the establishment of many "friendship associations" between Macedonians and Russians and has opened a Russian cultural centre in North Macedonia’s capital.

The Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) has highlighted that Russian media sources in Northern Macedonia have warned Macedonians through elaborate messages against the US and its European allies, claiming that they should not be trusted because they are trying to reconfigure Northern Macedonia and Serbia in favour of a "Greater Albania". By spreading such information, the Moscow-funded media is trying to destabilize the two Western Balkan states by promoting and developing ethnic tensions.

Fighting disinformation in Western Balkans- information filtration websites

During the last year, disinformation campaigns got a lot of attention internationally, the Balkan region being no exception, as it is one of the most fragile regions exposed to this threat. The misinformation threat should be taken seriously, especially in post-conflict sensitive societies, where it can have significant potential by restarting tensions that have triggered the conflict. However, it is often difficult to track Russia’s direct interference in these activities, in many cases, the initiative coming even from some local actors, rather than from an external source.

An eloquent example in this regard is that BIH, where Moscow has constantly put pressure to promote and support the idea of ​​RS’s independence, the Serbian entity. Therefore, President Milorad Dodik has Vladimir Putin’s unwavering support and has systematically sent threats to organize a referendum and declare this entity’s independence. Putin and Dodik met twice in 2014, before Dodik was elected president of RS. During one of these meetings, Dodik unequivocally expressed his affinity for Russia and thanked Putin for his political support and understanding. In such a context, we can emphasize that V. Putin uses the political split of BIH between the two component entities, SR and FBiH, to weaken country's perspective over an EU accession (and especially NATO).

Russia is launching messages to manipulate the cultural ties with the Slavic and Orthodox Christian majorities of these countries.

Hence, it was concluded that "in order to effectively counter disinformation, it is necessary for the media and journalists to check their data and sources, rather than just to transmit information," as Vukosava Crnjanski said, CRTA director, during report’s presentation, on 28.06.2019, in Belgrade. "In addition, policymakers and institutions should initiate mass media training programs, and citizens themselves should read the news and check the sources before transmitting them to social media."

In this context, there are a number of initiatives in the region, assuming that there may be other similar projects in Central and South-Eastern Europe:

- Raskrinkavanje.ba, based in Sarajevo, contributes to the disclosure and reveal of fake news, propaganda stories, commercial and political interests disguised as journalistic reports, in order to encourage and stimulate critical approach to media content and strengthen media education. The lowest note media content can get is "fake news", which is provided when it is undoubtedly established that the media deliberately fabricated a story or statement, presenting it as a truth, so deliberately misinforming the public. The publishing platforms for such content are called "fake news carriers".

Raskrikavanje.rs examines Serbian media focusing on 13 categories of problematic information (propaganda, clickbait[1], hidden advertising, satire and humor, error, bias, unfounded information, conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, misinformation, fact-manipulation, censorship, fake news).

- Fakenews.rs deals with Serbian and foreign media (when connected with Serbia), but also aims to increase users' ability to analyze media content, offering an online course as a guide that provides tools for detailed analysis of news that seems to be a possible misinformation.

The site is dedicated to media professionals, educators, future journalists and citizens who want to join the fight against disinformation. The blog is an educational one, because it explains the disinformation phenomenon from several perspectives, such as, for example, a series of posts about manipulative language strategies. The site is a Novi Sad School of Journalism project, a SEENPM member, as part of a larger initiative to build local capacities in Serbia in the fight against propaganda and media misinformation in the public sphere, carried out in cooperation with the media development organization, Transitions. 

Also, it is worth noting the announcement of former UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Jeremy Hunt[2], who also announced a package of 18 million pounds for three years to counter the misinformation and fake news in Eastern Europe and strengthen the independent media in Western Balkans.

Funding from the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) will support freedom of expression and independent local voices in the Western Balkans to stimulate balanced, non-biased content creation.

Conclusions

According to a study conducted in Europe by Open Society Institute, it was found that the Balkan countries are the most vulnerable and least resistant to "fake news", described as rumours, direct lies and disinformation issued by foreign governments, hostile states or entities, due to extremely controlled media and low education and trust in society.

In all Western Balkans countries that were analyzed, Russia has proven to have the most effective influence on the local media. Due to Balkan media’s scene nature, which is often divided ethnically and politically, a predominant influence can be traced in all Western Balkan countries, Russia relying on local media that support and promote pro-Russian news, with no need to make strong financial investments.

Russia has entered a new phase in its Western Balkans campaign, escalating disinformation and propaganda, but also aggressively intensifying messages of inevitable confrontations with EU and NATO. The stories conveyed about the Russian military power, about a weak Europe and an intention of the NATO Alliance, led by Americans, to dominate the region, are part of the disinformation and propaganda campaign aimed at disrupting region’s European and euroatlantic integration.

As a result, the global tendency to fight fake news, or rather disinformation, is joined by dynamic projects, especially in the Western Balkans, meant to inform, but also to educate the correct and real media audience.

The main purpose of such projects is to encourage public participation in their effort to improve integrity and, subsequently, confidence in the media.

Common to these projects are the sophisticated ways of verifying facts designed to establish a clear separation between disinformation and reality and make a difference trustable media sources and those that lack credibility.

Translated by Andreea Soare


[1] Clickbait is a form of fake advertising that uses hyperlink text or a link designed to attract attention and entice users to watch that link, read, view or listen to the online content portion, with a defining feature of being usually sensational or deceptive.

[2] A member of the Conservative Party, he served the cabinet from 2010 to 2019, including as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, from 2018 to 2019.