Disinformation, Propaganda and Fake News in Croatia // Blurring the Truth - Disinformation in Southeast Europe / Nehring, Christopher ; Sittig, Hendrik (ur.).
Sophia, Berlin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Media Programme Southeast Europe, 2023. str. 95-113
CROSBI ID: 1265808
Disinformation, Propaganda and Fake News in Croatia
Vrsta, podvrsta i kategorija rada
Poglavlja u knjigama, znanstveni
Blurring the Truth - Disinformation in Southeast Europe
Nehring, Christopher ; Sittig, Hendrik
Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Media Programme Southeast Europe
Disinformation ; Propaganda ; Fake Newse ; Croatia ; COVID-19
Ever since its foundation in the early 1990s and especially during and after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, disinformation and propaganda have been a major (security) challenge for Croatia. Despite more than thirty years of experience in dealing with the manipulative use of information, these challenges still exist and still pose a danger to Croatian society. Yugoslavian and Serbian politics (both official and unofficial), for example, persistently tried to impose the narrative that democratization and free, multi- party elections are unnecessary and harmful to the future of communist/socialist Yugoslavia. At the same time, they spread a lot of disinformation, especially in the time immediately before, during and after the first multi-party elections in Croatia (April to May 1990), comparing the Croatian nation and its newly elected government to the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime of World War II. Even after the end of armed conflict disinformation and propaganda activities did not cease. On the contrary, due to the turbulent international environment disinformation intensified. These historical processes and events form the background and basis for disinformation in Croatia today. Yet, as this paper will show, they are also the reason for the extensive experience Croatian society, media and politics have in dealing with disinformation – experience that has led to a relatively high level of resilience. Some narratives, e.g. narratives about ethnic dispute with Croatia’s neighboring countries, or pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives concerning the war in Ukraine, have thus had comparatively low impact.
Informacijske i komunikacijske znanosti, Sigurnosne i obrambene znanosti, Vojno-obrambene i sigurnosno-obavještajne znanosti i umijeće
Sveučilište Sjever, Koprivnica
Gordan Akrap (autor)
Disinformation in Southeast Europe
By Hendrik Sittig
Disinformation is not a new phenomenon. Disinformation existed hundreds of years ago. Today, however, it is becoming much more widespread and powerful thanks to the internet and social networks in particular. Moreover, the spread of fake news has increased in recent years - and with the Covid pandemic and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, it has reached new dimensions. Disinformation and fake news are the digital plague of our time. They threaten our democratic society. They polarize, divide and destroy. And most of the time, they are deliberately produced and disseminated for precisely this reason. Russia, in particular, has made this dirty game a permanent instrument of its politics at the international level. The Kremlin has repeatedly tried to divide liberal democratic societies and to influence elections and political decisions in other countries with targeted campaigns. But also domestically, disinformation is repeatedly used in many countries to discredit political opponents.
It is absolutely clear: democracy relies on pluralism, it needs pluralism - that is, many opinions that lead to a decision in the social process. But the information through which we form our opinion must be true. It has to be true especially when used as a basis for making political decisions. Anything else would be fatal. Viewed from this vantage point, democracy has begun easing into a pathological state when responsible politicians present false information as “alternative facts” and talk about a “post-truth era” in which feelings and personal convictions are more important than facts and the truth.
The countries in Southeast Europe in particular seem highly susceptible to disinformation campaigns. Poorly financed mainstream media, less evolved media competence and a low level of trust in the work of journalists provide an ideal breeding ground for the spread of false information. At the same time, simmering ethnic conflicts, such as the one between Serbia and Kosovo, or the politically complicated situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina are ideal starting points for fueling tensions, sowing mistrust and further destabilising fragile societies.
With this book, the Media Programme of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung aims to give an overview of the current situation in the ten countries that the Media Programme observes in Southeast Europe. What kind of disinformation campaigns are there? How do they spread? What role do foreign as well as domestic actors play? What countermeasureips are already being taken?
I would like to thank to all of the authors, who are proven experts in the field in their respective countries, and especially to Dr. Christopher Nehring, guest lecturer of our Media Programme at Sofia University on “Media, Disinformation and Intelligence Services”, who curated this book.
Director of the Media Programme Southeast Europe of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung
Introduction: Disinformation Today
By Christopher Nehring
Why Disinformation Matters
When the editors first had the idea to compile this volume, the war in Ukraine and the disinformation that followed in its wake were still a faraway nightmare. Before the Russian attack on Ukraine, disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic was still topic number one. This changed dramatically during the time the editors and authors of this volume strove to compile an overview of disinformation in Southeast Europe. Yet, as all regional case studies of this volume demonstrate, the topics and content of disinformation may vary, but the patterns, actors and above all, the aim of disinformation is remarkably persistent: by sowing discontent, deepening societal, political, ethnical, racial or economical conflicts and polarizing societies, alliances and partners, disinformation is employed to undermine democracy, its institutions, representatives and foundations. The major threat today’s postmodern, digital and globalized disinformation poses is an attack on the very foundation of democracy. By blurring and undermining categories such as truth, facts or scientific knowledge, disinformation “corrodes the foundation of liberal democracy, our ability to assess facts on their merits and to self-correct accordingly.”1 Hence disinformation is much more than just a bundle of more or less elaborate lies, smear campaigns or covert political propaganda. By attacking our belief in the very existence of truth and facts “disinformation campaigns are attacks against a liberal epistemic order, or a political system that places its trust in essential custodians of factual authority. These institutions – law enforcement and the criminal justice system, public administration, empirical science, investigative journalism, democratically controlled intelligence agencies – prize facts over feelings, evidence over emotion, observations over opinion. They embody an open epistemic order, which enables an open and liberal political order; one cannot exist without the other.”2 This is what makes disinformation so dangerous – and why any modern, digital democracy and media system needs profound knowledge about the purpose, patterns, topics and actors of disinformation. And thus, the study of disinformation leads the way towards a more resilient society, media and politics.
About this Book
This is neither the first nor the last study of disinformation. Yet it differs significantly from others in many regards. Firstly, it is the first and only study summarizing the state of disinformation in Southeast Europe. While regional studies abound, none so far has looked at all countries of the region between the Danube and the Mediterranean in a single comprehensive analysis. Secondly, this volume not only generates a concise overview of disinformation in the SEE region, but does so by explaining specific case studies, addressing current questions, showing the sources, potential, consequences, forms, narratives and a variety of countermeasures against disinformation in the region at large. Hence, the study not only explains and demonstrates the negative effects of disinformation, but also strives to point to approaches on how different countries deal with disinformation and thus how societies can become more resilient against the manipulative use of information.
Even though bringing together 12 authors from as many countries has been a challenging task, this volume is a testament to the successful collaboration of authors with different backgrounds and perspectives. To achieve this, we deliberately decided to present the findings and results of our research, observations and analyses in a language and style understandable to the common reader without prior expert knowledge of either the region or disinformation. To unify all case studies, the editors and authors of this volume agreed upon a common structure for the articles. This structure builds upon six analytical subcategories: (1) Terminology and definitions; (2) Audience and perspective; (3) Narratives, case studies and examples; (4) Media, sources, multipliers of disinformation; (5) Political context; (6) Countermeasures and resilience.
Last but not least, it goes without saying that disinformation is a global and dynamic phenomenon. This means that some of the more specific results or case studies in this volume may become obsolete within a certain amount of time. Yet, its focus on the big picture and general trends of disinformation in Southeast Europe ensure that we will make a significant contribution to a better understanding of disinformation in our time. Here, the Russian war in Ukraine and its repercussions in SEE has once again demonstrated how long disinformation in this region of geostrategic importance has not received the attention it deserves.
Terminology: A Beast with many Names
What is disinformation? Defining what we mean when we use the term “disinformation“ is no easy task. Likewise, focusing on terminology and the definition of disinformation is not a vain academic undertaking. Defining the meaning of “disinformation” is an act of power: The power to accuse an opponent of using improper, illegal and unethical instruments, the power to stigmatize information as untrue or illegitimate and the power to censor, ban or delete this information. Similar to the terms “propaganda” and “fake news”, “disinformation” has turned into a slogan or even polemic used in societal and political discourse and mutual accusations or employed by populist politicians to reject criticism.3 Yet, defining “disinformation” also matters outside of political discourse. Internet companies and social media platforms, for example, not only define “disinformation”, but also to act upon that definition when flagging or deleting certain content. Deleting or flagging a tweet, post or video thus becomes a real-life demonstration of what power over public discourse means – and why definitions matter.
In today’s political and public discourse there are many different terms used to describe forms of information manipulation and the manipulative use of information. Or in other words: disinformation is a beast with many names! So many names that they are often – and incorrectly – being used interchangeably. The most prominent terms include: Disinformation, fake news, misinformation, hybrid warfare, information war, propaganda, active measures, strategic communication, influence operations, psychological or political warfare and deception operations. Yet, while all forms of information manipulation and the manipulative use of information share some common features, not all of them are disinformation. One might even argue that blurring the understanding of what disinformation is and what, for example, sets it apart from propaganda, is an effect of disinformation itself.
Probably the most common definition of disinformation in today’s political discourse was put forward by the European Commission in 2019: “Disinformation is false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted for profit or to intentionally cause public harm.”4 And while this definition certainly captures most features commonly associated with disinformation, it misses some: First of all, one can argue that the definition also applies to propaganda, fake news or (dirty) PR-campaigns; secondly, it does not include any information about the actors and origins
of disinformation; and, thirdly, it misses the main purpose and aim of disinformation: to not (only) cause public harm or generate profit, but to exert influence. This influence most often (but not exclusively) is political, and most often achieved by “negative” means, i.e., by sowing discontent, deepening societal, political, ethnical, racial or economical conflicts and polarization and undermining trust in democracy, institutions, facts etc.5
Taking the EU definition of disinformation as a basis, this study will use the term as meaning “false, inaccurate, decontextualized and misleading information COVERTLY and DELIBERATLY designed, presented, promoted and spread to manipulate and exert political, financial or other influence”. This definition has certain advantages. First of all, it specifies that disinformation – unlike misinformation – is knowingly and deliberately designed and spread as a means to exert influence.6 Secondly, it focuses on the exertion of influence as the main purpose of disinformation which includes other purposes, such as profit or causing public harm. And thirdly, this definition specifies that disinformation, unlike, for example, propaganda, usually disguises its origins and authors via elaborated schemes. This is also what sets propaganda—today understood as strategic manipulation of a large audience by governments or powerful actors7—aside from disinformation. There are extended debates in academic discourse whether disinformation should be categorized as a subcategory of propaganda or whether propaganda is another form of disinformation. This study argues the former. US institutions, for example, up until the 1980’s used the characteristic of hidden and covert origin of information meant to influence political and other events, organizations or groups, as their main criteria to differentiate between various forms of political influence: Covert or “black” propaganda” was opposed to official, overt or “white” and “grey” propaganda via semi-official institutions.8 Historical approaches to disinformation have focused on the genesis of disinformation as military and intelligence deception operations and hence correctly asserted that due to its clandestine nature and covert origin “disinformation was, and in many ways continues to be, the domain of intelligence agencies.”9
Applying this definition to certain Russian actors of disinformation may demonstrate the significance the question of covert or overt origin of manipulative information has: Official or semi-official Russian media outlets such as RT or Sputnik – while certainly deliberately spreading untrue or decontextualized information to manipulate and exert influence – have to be labelled “grey propaganda” or simply “propaganda”, as their relation to a state actor pursuing an official agenda is known. Accordingly, disinformation is the term reserved for manipulative information spread by actors such as, for example, “Redfish” or “Maffick Media”, front companies who pose as PR-companies or media outlets, while in fact being directly linked to the Russian state and covertly spreading misleading information to exert political influence.10
Thus, the question of definition and terminology is very important for the articles in this volume. It is one of the goals of this study to show and discuss the most common terms and definitions used in the countries of Southeast Europe and ask the question who and how has defined what disinformation has come to mean. In this regard, the results of the case studies highlight the problem: in general, definition and terminology receive little attention in Southeast Europe – with severe consequences for the fight to make societies more resilient against manipulative information. In most countries, the generic term “fake news” – meaning everything from covert political propaganda to poor and sensational journalism – is the most common term used to describe the manipulative use of information. In Montenegro, for example, the term has even found its way in the Criminal Code, while, at the same time, remaining unspecified. It thus comes as no surprise that malevolent politicians and pressure groups in the region happily apply and reinforce the term “fake news” to discredit any criticism and/or attack from the media, journalists or political opponents. This trend also shows that having a clear definition and distinction between different kind of manipulative information might be a first step in the fight against disinformation and towards a more resilient society.
Narratives and Case Studies of Disinformation
What is the content of disinformation campaigns and which geopolitical narratives does disinformation promote in Southeast Europe? This is one of the key questions every author of this study has attempted to answer and describe by drawing on empirical examples.
While Propaganda seeks to incite and rally support for a cause and to persuade a given target group of an idea, ideology or product, the content and narratives of disinformation are negative and disruptive. Instead of rallying support for Communism (which was the task of official and unofficial propaganda), for example, Soviet disinformation narratives focused on undermining Western democracy, liberalism or capitalism. This trend continues in today’s Russian disinformation whose general narratives focus on undermining trust in and credibility of democracy, the state of law and liberalism and all its institutions.11 The majority of disinformation today appears as “anti-narratives”: anti-US, anti-NATO, anti-EU, anti-natural-Covid-origin, anti-Covid-vaccinations, anti-Ukraine, anti-LGTBQ, anti-pluralistic etc. Disinformation feeds on conflict while trying to intensify conflict, cleavages, differences, mistrust and discontent.
As all case studies of this volume suggest, there are three main topics and narratives that dominated disinformation in Southeast Europe during the past years: (1) Covid-related disinformation; (2) Nationalism and ethnic conflict; and (3) the Russian war in Ukraine and its repercussions throughout the region.
Introduction: Disinformation Today
These three narratives are explained at length for each country of the region in the studies include in this volume.
In general, disinformation narratives show a high degree of adaptiveness and flexibility, always adjusting their focus to the latest hot topic and the headlines of the day. Today’s digital disinformation does not strive to create long-lasting, holistic and elaborated master narratives. Today’s disinformation narratives are loud, shrill, fast, often contradictory and seemingly provide easy answers to complex political and societal problems. Russian disinformation, for example, adapted the 1980’s disinformation campaign about an alleged artificial origin of the AIDS-virus as an US-bioweapon-experiment both during the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.12 China, on the other hand, tried to spread narratives during the Covid-19 pandemic that stressed an alleged failure of Europe’s Covid containment measures as a marker of the inferiority of European democracy as opposed to “the Chinese model”.13 And Covid disinformation itself has two majors narratives. The first, which has lost both in quality and in quantity over the years, focused on an alleged artificial origin as a part of a global (Chinese, US, Russian, big money- or other) conspiracy; and the second on discrediting anti-Covid vaccines.14
Another very important and representative example of disinformation narratives in Southeast Europe is nationalism and ethnic conflict. While ever since the days of Imperialism the big powers have used conflicts between ethnic groups and nationalism as a tool to instigate and activate conflict, this narrative is particularly important in the Southeast Europe today. As the studies of this volume clearly show, nationalist groups in all countries of the region are particularly active in using and spreading disinformation. Here, they can also count on official and covert Russian support, since nationalist movements of the region are opposed to both NATO and the EU (which in turn serves Russian interests). Nationalist movements are not only active in spreading disinformation. Nationalism is also one of the most important narratives and content of disinformation in the SEE region. The studies of this volume provide ample evidence for that, for example the Bulgarian-North Macedonian conflict over EU-accession or the study of Bosnia where political elites use disinformation to uphold ethnic division and electoral ethno-national mobilization.
As the studies also show, the Russian war in Ukraine and the following EU and NATO initiatives for increased cooperation and EU enlargement in the SEE region has triggered a new wave of anti-NATO, anti-EU- and pro-Russian disinformation. It is no surprise, as all studies mention, that the second side of Russian disinformation following the war in Ukraine sees increased ethno-nationalism and an intensification of ethnic and national conflict. Again, the disinformation over the conflict of EU accession of North Macedonia and the Bulgarian veto against it is one of the most obvious examples.
The Target Groups of Disinformation: Audience and Perspectives
Most studies of disinformation focus on the perpetrators – the authors, producers and distributors of disinformation. And while identifying and understanding their strategies, instruments and motives is certainly of the utmost importance, we should never forget that disinformation is custom-made and specifically designed for an audience. The challenges and problems disinformation pose vary according to the perspective of the observer and the recipients of disinformation: for journalists, the challenge is to judge the trustworthiness and truthfulness of information and not to allow themselves to be instrumentalized as an accelerator and mouthpieces of disinformation. For them checking facts, recognizing and debunking disinformation as well as countering disinformation with proper journalism are the most important tasks. As studies suggest, it is in fact quality media that is the most powerful (yet unintentional) multiplier of disinformation. So, for example, one of the most powerful images published by the Russian troll factory “Internet Research Agency” during the Trump election campaign, the so-called “Jesus-ad”, did not reach more than a handful of followers on Facebook – but an audience of millions when published on the frontpage of the New York Times as part of
an article on Russian election interference.15 This poses a huge dilemma for serious journalism: with their reporting, even if debunking, journalists may actually help disinformation reach a significantly broader audience outside its own echo chambers.
While multiplying disinformation may be the biggest challenge for journalists and the media, the main problems for their readers—and viewers and for political and public discourse in general—is that they are the main targets that disinformation seeks to influence. For these target groups, the main challenge is to recognize disinformation and the rationale behind it and to become resilient against the manipulative use of information and attempts at exerting covert influence. In this volume, each author takes these different perspectives and target groups into account and assesses the challenges disinformation poses in his/her country from their perspective, discussing how they are being dealt with. As the studies reveal, a major problem for all target groups of disinformation in the SEE region is their interconnectedness. Politicians, for example, are not only a main target of disinformation, but they and the political parties they belong to are also a major force in spreading disinformation. In Bosnia, for example, several examples of party-political “troll farms” with interconnected farms of web portals have come to light. Hence, the same is true for journalists and the media in general: while quality media is the second main target group of disinformation, tabloids, party-political outlets or notable foreign propaganda, such as the Russian Sputnik in Serbia, are themselves dynamic actors in spreading disinformation. As a result, the general public, which is the third main target group for disinformation,
is confused, disorientated, disappointed and easily mislead. While surveys from most countries show that the majority of people think they come into contact with manipulated information on the regular basis, they have a hard time defining what disinformation is, where it comes from and, most of all, to attribute disinformation to its origins. Media illiteracy is a major factor in all SEE countries and plays a very important role in the reaction of the public towards disinformation. Mistrust, disbelieve and confusion in the public domain and political communication are a result of this complex situation.
Media, Sources and Multipliers of Disinformation
Disinformation is in many ways closely tied to and shaped by the media via which it is spread. Classic, analogue disinformation was spread via press articles, books, posters, leaflets/flyers, letters, movies, documentaries, rumours, interviews or radio shows. Today, the overwhelming majority of disinformation – in Southeast Europe just like anywhere else – is spread online via websites, posts, images, videos, commentaries, leaks, ads or memes. The head of the Soviet intelligence service’s disinformation unit Ivan Agayants is reported to have stated: “Sometimes I am amazed by how easy it is to play these games. If they did not have press freedom, we would have to invent it for them.”16 A postmodern modification of Agayants’ saying might read: “If the internet did not exist, we would need to invent it for disinformation.”
In many ways, online communication and digital culture form the perfect conditions for disinformation. Due to the characteristics of online communication the online sphere has made disinformation a lot faster, easier, cheaper and more direct. Facilitation, amplification, acceleration and globalization are thus some of the main features of digital disinformation. “Troll factories”, such as the infamous Russian “Internet Research Agency”, or automated programmes designed to manufacture and spread disinformation (bots)” are two of the most obvious testimonies of this development.
Furthermore, the digital sphere provides the actors and authors of disinformation with easier and better cover of anonymity compared to the analogue world. Amongst the most famous methods and tools of digital disinformation are, for example: “Hacking and leaking secret information” and setting up huge quantities of fake websites, fake accounts and fake profiles. High-profile actors of disinformation even use “false flag”, “double deception” or “spoofing” techniques, copying the technology, language, symbols and outlets of known hacker groups, terrorist organisations, intelligence services or serious media outlets.17 In other cases, known state propaganda outlets create affiliates, officially engaging in PR, journalism or advertising, while in fact being run by government-affiliated journalists and spreading political disinformation. Some examples include the Berlin-based media outlets “Maffick Media” or “Redfish”, daughters of RT’s video outlet “Ruptly”, staffed with RT-journalists.18 And while Russia and China19 are suspected to be the main actors of disinformation in the SEE region, tracking disinformation all the way back to its true origins and attributing it to an institution or individual has become a lot harder (and often impossible). Just like hacks, cyberattacks and acts of cyber espionage, the fight against disinformation struggles with its very own “attribution problem.”20
Playfulness, gamification and cross-mediality are other characteristics of today’s disinformation that are heavily influenced by digital media.21 Social media memes or video-clips about the war in Ukraine, designed to spread false or misleading information and trigger strong emotions amongst a (mostly very young) audience22, are a case in point. Here, text, images, memes, caricatures, sounds and videos are employed to spread disinformation. In the age of social media, the content and the form of digital disinformation have thus become increasingly interwoven.
Last but not least, one of the most important characteristics of disinformation in the digital age is that unlike disinformation during the Cold War, disinformation today does no longer present or advance “master narratives” about events, conflicts or persons. Disinformation in the digital era presents a plurality of different “alternative explanations”, none of which is holistic, all-encompassing or even coherent, but all of which combined, seek to undermine the very existence of truth or facts as such.23 Covid-related disinformation as opposed to AIDS-related disinformation in the 1980’s are a telling example: during the 1980’s the Soviet secret service KGB invented and spread the conspiracy theory according to which the then new human insufficiency virus (HIV) had been artificially created by the US Pentagon as a bioweapon and spread around the world after being tested on prisoners.24 At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a plurality of adapted versions of this “artificial origin theory” were spread. Yet, the differences soon became apparent: Covid-related disinformation did not seek to present one singular, coherent “Covid master narrative” about the pandemic and its consequences. Instead, Covid-related disinformation pushed for broad variety of different narratives, such as the “Wuhan-Lab-Theory” or vaccination-related conspiracy theories (“microchips and Bill Gates”). None of these theories were elaborate enough to incorporate the origin, the political and economic consequences AND the new vaccines at the same time. Instead, disinformation focused on undermining public trust in everything – public health systems, science, the political system, vaccination or the pharmaceutical industry. This cacophony of crude theories was not meant to persuade – it was meant to plant doubt, to distract and disturb, to spread mistrust, fear and uncertainty. And, as all studies in this volume suggest, in SEE countries, Covid-19 disinformation, sadly enough, was very successful. Mistrust against governments and political communications, the instrumentalization of the pandemic in election campaigns and media illiteracy played a crucial role for Covid disinformation across the entire region. As a result, vaccination rates in all countries in the region remained low, while death rates remained above the European average.
A last important feature of digital disinformation is its privatization and commercialization. Most public and academic discourse focuses on state organized and state sponsored disinformation. Yet, at the same time, commercial disinformation is very often overlooked, but no less problematic. Not every pro-Russian or Covid-denialist website is run by the Russian state or PR-companies secretly owned and run by intelligence officials. In the digital age, posting and spreading crude, extremist, denialist, anti-liberal or pro-Russian disinformation has turned into a lucrative business model. While
in Germany, for example, marketing and PR companies offer fake online ratings for all sorts of businesses25, and the French football club Paris St. Germain was accused of entertaining its very own “troll factory” to smear players, agents and journalists26, Southeast Europe knows several examples of commercialized political disinformation run by private, non-state affiliated individuals for monetary reasons. The town of Veles in North Macedonia, for example, became world famous for its “fake news industry” during the 2016 US-presidential election. Several dozens of websites, posting and reposting pro-Trump and/or anti-Hillary Clinton content were run by smalltown adolescents, some of which earning the poor youths more than 10.000 US-$ month.27 A similar model, but with Russia-related content was revealed to journalists in Bulgaria: “Dimitar”, a private operator of numerous fake news websites, had also set up websites and social media profiles posting and re-posting pro-Russian and anti-Western disinformation for the solemn reason of generating clicks and online user interaction which earned him money via ad placements.28 Commercial disinformation like this is not only often overlooked, but also frequently dismissed as less harmful or less important. Yet, while commercial disinformation might be only the “ugly cousin of political disinformation”, it is disinformation nonetheless with anonymous authors intentionally repeating, designing and spreading malign content. And even though their personal interest might not be political, the results certainly are. Commercial disinformation revolves around and feeds on political disinformation like a parasite, accelerating and amplifying its magnitude and effects. Thus, in many ways the commercialization of disinformation, turning old-fashioned dezinformatsiya into todays “disinformation industry” with an economic model of its own, is the very epitome of the interconnectedness between disinformation and media, between content and form – between disinformation and the internet.
Today’s digital disinformation is a truly global phenomenon. However, its forms, content and underlying mechanisms are designed to affect smaller entities such as national states or specific groups in society. There, regional specifics play an important role. Producing, adapting and designing disinformation
for SEE countries needs to take into account the particularities of the region. When political movements, parties or other actors are being supported as part of influence campaigns or when politicians or other important figures are smeared and discredited, political and media culture play an important role. Insider reports and investigations of the infamous Russian troll factory “Internet Research Agency” in St. Petersburg, for example, have shown how the production of large-scale disinformation is organized by different departments within one larger unit, each department focusing on one region, country or language.29
This is what we mean when we talk about the political and national context of disinformation, which is an important point of reference for our analyses. Struggling with national and ethnical conflict and being at the geographical crossroads between Europe and Asia and political crossroads between NATO and EU on the one hand and China and Russia on the other, Southeast Europe is today a hotspot for disinformation. The analyses presented in this volume show remarkable results regarding the political context of the most thriving topics of disinformation during the past years:
Disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic reflects global conspiracy theories and disinformation, and needed little adaption to the political context of SEE countries.
Quite the contrary is true for disinformation about the Russian war against Ukraine. Here, narratives, topics and campaigns are designed for each country and its political landscape individually. This plays an important role for the content of disinformation, for example, whether a country is a member of NATO and the EU or not. This was not only true for the question of embargos and sanctions, but also concerning general anti-NATO sentiment or “neutralist” or “sovereigntist rhetoric” (e.g. in Romania). Disinformation about the war in Ukraine is heavily influenced not only by regional and national political context, but also by the wider geopolitical context. One example of this are disinformation campaigns against the accession to the EU of several countries in Southeast Europe, e.g. in Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
Nationalism and ethnic conflict (or nationalistic conflict with neighbouring countries) are perhaps the most important element of the political context against which disinformation in the SEE region is produced and spread. In Bosnia, for example, conflict between the three main ethnic groups is the most important point of reference for disinformation.
In most countries foreign countries – Russia and, to a lesser degree, China and Turkey – are very active actors of disinformation. Domestic groups, parties or movements, however, also play a crucial role: one the one hand, they often function as proxies for foreign (mostly Russian) interests. On the other hand, they also utilize disinformation as a weapon in domestic politics and as means to pursue their own interests. In Bosnia and Montenegro, to name only two, parties are known to have their own “troll farms” with an interconnected system of websites, portals and social media profiles as outlets for (domestic) disinformation. In Romania, similar mechanisms are used by political parties and business interests to discredit anti-corruption measures as being part of a “deep-state conspiracy”.
Countermeasures and Resilience
How to fight disinformation and make our societies more resilient against the manipulative use of information? There are various approaches to fighting disinformation, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, some dating back decades, some children of the digital age. This study identified eleven such countermeasures:
Institutional approaches: This state-centred approach of establishing a state agency in charge of monitoring, analysing and countering disinformation has been around for a long time. The first example was the “Active Measures Working Group” installed by the US Government during the 1980’s to engage with Soviet disinformation.30 In 2021, both the Swedish and French governments, for example, revived this approached and founded state agencies engaged in identifying and debunking disinformation (“Swedish Psychological Defense Agency” and “VIGINUM”).31 Likewise, the German government established an interagency working group (AG “Hybrid”) that serves as a platform for exchange of information on developments in disinformation between security agencies and several ministries.32 The Bulgarian reformist government elected in late 2021 had similar plans to establish an interagency group of disinformation specialists, who should exchange expert knowledge, engage in debunking disinformation and making public administration more resilient.33
Since intelligence agencies are important actors in spreading global disinformation, it comes as no surprise that security policy – counterintelligence and investigative police work together with penal prosecution – has traditionally been a tool to fight disinformation.34 Yet, it seems that today’s troll factories, masquerading as PR companies or media outlets, are harder to deal with for law enforcement than old-fashioned, officially recruited “agents of influence”35. For security services to engage with disinformation there needs to be a legal basis for prosecution, e.g. anti-disinformation laws (2a) or other laws providing a legal basis to investigate and prosecute disinformation.
Debunking disinformation is another, very common approach to tackling disinformation. Engaging with disinformation, exposing its fabrication, malicious messages and untruthfulness and correcting its content seems like one of the most natural ways to counter disinformation. Here, fact-checking has been one of the most popular tools in recent years. As this volume shows, various debunking- and fact-checking-initiatives exist in almost all countries in Southeast Europe. One famous example is the fact-checking and debunking-initiative run by the European Commission’s External Action Service “https:// euvsdisinfo.eu/”. Many, but not all public media in Europe, entertain similar outlets. Yet, there is no centralized or unified approach to fact-checking and debunking, but a plurality of different initiatives and outlets within European countries. Some of them are transnational and cross-media cooperation networks of platforms and initiatives tasked with fact-checking and debunking by major European news agencies or social media networks.36 Fact-checking as a tool to fight disinformation has gained such popularity that some perpetrators of disinformation have tried to seize the format and turn it fact-checking into disinformation by developing “fake fact-checking outlets”.37
Forms of censorship, in its most neutral sense, understood as the deliberate repression of information notwithstanding the quality or origin of its content, are also one way to fight disinformation. Censorship may take on various forms, for example the legal ban of media outlets, such as the EU’s ban of RT or Sputnik after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the deletion of content such as posts, tweets or commentaries.
Technological, i.e. automated software, solutions play an ever more important role in this. Social media platforms have already started to employ automated software to either flag and mark and/or delete content deemed as disinformation.38 These solutions mainly tackle the technological side of disinformation such as automated “bots” spreading disinformation or so-called “deep fakes”39. Other technological countermeasures may be directed against the “economy of disinformation” and the business models behind it. Such measures include control of automated ad placement and other regulatory measures of social media platforms and “big tech” companies. Simply banning, deleting and “shadowing” them will always come late, while control or prohibition of automated distribution of advertisement provides a proactive solution against the business model behind disinformation.
While these five approaches focus on engaging with and fighting disinformation (“negative approaches”), others promote proactive solutions designed to make societies more resilient against disinformation in the first place (“positive approaches”). Here, we can observe a shift from “debunking” to “pre-bunking”, from post factum investigations and fact-checking towards “information vaccination” and “inoculation”40:
As journalists and fact checkers have asserted, simply deleting or flagging online content is not sufficient. Juxtaposing malign and questionable content with quality information and trustworthy news might be one way to break through self-reinforcing cycles of filter bubbles and echo chambers. This way, algorithm-fuelled automated content generation, suggesting “ever more of the same information” can be substituted by a “more of something else” principle.41
High quality journalism, high level journalistic education, press ethics, press freedom or, in short, quality journalism. This is true not only for the domestic realm of any given country, but also for the big Western foreign news broadcasters such as Voice of America, BBC World, Deutsche Welle or Radio Free Europe. Quality journalism generally helps make readers, viewers, politicians and also journalists less susceptible to disinformation. And while often neglected or overlooked in their own countries, quality Western foreign news outlets broadcasting quality information to all parts of the world, thus countering and juxtaposing disinformation and propaganda with quality information, may be one of the most important instruments in the global information war.
Another key element in making societies and media more resilient against information manipulation is media literacy. Modern, digital media in all its playful forms accelerate, modified, facilitated, amplified and globalized disinformation. And each new media comes with new challenges and specificities concerning the quality and credibility of its content. Without establishing at least a minimum of media education and media literacy one can hardly imagine how societies may catch up or even keep pace with the developments in the digital disinformation domain. Without media literacy resilience against disinformation may not be possible. One example of specific media literacy initiatives designed to “vaccinate” or sensitise readers and viewers against mis- and disinformation are video games designed to explain and demonstrate how and why disinformation works. Studies have shown that games such as “Bad Media” and “Harmony Square” had a positive effect on educating their players about how disinformation works and making them less susceptible to false information. “Vaccinating” readers with serious news as a means to reaching the same effects – an approached that is actually quite old – showed, on the contrary, only mixed results.42
Almost the same is true for general education of the population. While it may seem like a platitude, recent studies have again suggested that education and pre-existing knowledge make people less susceptible to disinformation.43And since disinformation may touch on any field of knowledge and topic, a broad and firm general education can help to make populations more resilient against disinformation.
Trust building measures. Public mistrust against politicians, authorities and the media is a major factor that makes disinformation successful. Such mistrust a major problem in most societies in Southeast Europe and has deep historical roots in the mistrust against the Ottoman Empire, corrupt officials and Communist authorities and media. This most probably has also played a crucial role for significant parts of the population during the Covid-19 pandemic: On the one hand, public information repeating WHO information about the virus was often deemed “state propaganda”, while conspiracy theories, on the other hand, found fertile ground and were often broadcasted even by serious news outlets. Building trust is hence a major task, for politicians, media and journalists in the region. This may take the form of a professionalisation of political communication as well as the establishment of (and adherence to) high standards of journalism. Yet, as all authors in this volume point out, such measures are either rare, unsuccessful or simply too isolated as compared to massive political propaganda and bad journalism in Southeast Europe.
Development and dissemination of own narratives. With the Russian war against Ukraine and the return of Cold War-style confrontation and political propaganda, focusing on Russian narratives and disinformation will most probably not be enough. To convince and “inoculate” domestic and foreign audiences against malicious information warfare, propaganda and disinformation, positive narratives about (inclusive) identities, values, beliefs and policy goals are strongly needed. Such narratives might make populations more resilient against harmful disinformation trying to sow discontent, exploiting weaknesses and cleavages. Without such a (Western, European and national) narrative, efforts to counter e.g. Russian or Chinese propaganda will only be partly successful. The dire need for such positive narratives about Europe and its role in the world is particularly strongly felt in the countries of Southeast Europe, where EU aspirations had been high for more than a decade and where strong feelings of disappointment have spread in recent years (e.g. in North Macedonia).
However, all of these approaches and countermeasures come with specific problems and challenges: For example, while there is almost no alternative to debunking at least some disinformation, both debunking and fact-checking are “reactionary” responses to disinformation, i.e. they are always belated and bound to reach a smaller audience than the original disinformation. In other cases, debunking and fact-checking (or even simple reporting) may significantly increase the spread and amplify disinformation. And very often it is almost impossible to judge beforehand which of these risks of either not engaging at all or a possible amplification of disinformation is the lesser evil.44 Another problem of debunking and fact-checking is that both are rational tools, appealing to reason, common sense, knowledge and fact-based judgement. However, disinformation and propaganda very often play on and with the irrational —a with emotions, feelings, moods, trends, fears and desires. Hence, strictly rational approaches to counter disinformation may have problems reaching the same audience and meeting its expectations.45
Another problem, e.g., for a strict security policy and counterintelligence approaches to disinformation, is the “attribution problem” of disinformation. As mentioned above, digital disinformation, like cyberattacks, is often very hard or even impossible to attribute with 100% certainty to an author, origin or source. The secrecy of clandestine disinformation thus impedes efforts to investigate and prosecute it.
Censoring disinformation, either by automated deletion and flagging of content, by banning certain news outlets altogether and by passing “anti-fake news laws” or “anti-disinformation laws” also faces serious problems: defining what is to be censored as disinformation may open the door for unscrupulous lawmakers to utilize the fight against disinformation for their own purposes. Defining what disinformation is, may led the path to “Truth Ministries” claiming an ultimate power to decide what is true or not, thus infringing with basic democratic principles. This was, for example, the main reason the EU for years did not decide to censor even the worst Russian propaganda outlets and why Turkey’s anti-disinformation law of 2022, making the spread of false or misleading information about public health, internal or external security a punishable crime, was so contested.46 Making disinformation illegal by law may create opportunities for unscrupulous politicians and officials to exert their own version of political censorship. Even with automated IT responses, such as automated deletion, these problems cannot be solved entirely: artificial intelligence software too needs to have a human-induced basic notion of what disinformation is and is thus not free from human flaws or influence. In other words: artificial intelligence does not necessarily have an easier time recognizing disinformation. Incidents of automated deletion of satirical content mistaken for disinformation by algorithms demonstrate ostensibly that while software may be better at recognizing deep fake images, it may as well have a harder time to draw a line between human humour and disinformation.
How Successful is Disinformation and what Does that Mean for Countermeasures and Resilience?
Even after decades of analysing disinformation, there is still no definitive answer on how to measure its “success” (or better: damage) and effectiveness. Measuring the success or even the effects of disinformation has always been difficult as there is no clear-cut toolset or methodology on how to determine what “success” means and how to measure it. The Soviet secret service KGB, for example, would rate its disinformation efforts a success if their planted pieces of disinformation: (a) were picked up by any other than the original source; and (b) by the quantity of citations or reprints.47 As insider accounts revealed, the infamous Russian troll factory “Internet Research Agency (IRA)” also followed this pattern and rate its success according to the number of posts, profiles, tweets, followers or reposts their original disinformation pieces received. Yet, as for example research into the influence of the IRA’s activities on the 2016 US-presidential elections showed, only 8,4% of all IRA online activity during the time of the election campaign was related to the election and the bulk of all IRA output was: (a) devoted to audience-building; and (b) stayed within its own echo chambers.48 Was that successful disinformation? Probably not.
Any assessment of the “success” of disinformation needs to keep in mind that the original purpose of disinformation is not mere quantity, but also the quality of influence it achieves. And here, the balance sheet of disinformation quite patchy. Just like modern digital disinformation, a lot of Cold War KGB disinformation stayed within its own echo chambers and was repeated only by media that were on their side all along. It seems like even the ludicrous increase in quantity of disinformation in the digital age does not necessarily equal an increase in quality, effect or effectiveness. Disinformation in the digital era, as one scholar put it, has become “more active, but less measured”49.
Determining what “successful disinformation” is and how effective disinformation it is, is of the utmost importance with regard to countermeasures and resilience. Disinformation, just like any other form of malign, bad or manipulative information, has always been with us. Yet, it is: (a) the increase of quantity of disinformation in the digital age; and (b) the increase in quality, that is actual influence and real-life consequences of disinformation campaigns in recent years, that are troublesome. Countering the quantity of disinformation is something that may easily be achieved by the aforementioned “negative countermeasures”, such as automated deletion, deep-fake recognition and censorship. It needs to be clearly stated, however, that these measures may work to reduce the quantity of disinformation, but will neither make disinformation as a whole go away, neither solve the quality issue, i.e. the actual amount of influence achieved. Yet, the quality of disinformation and its impact on attitudes and beliefs, electoral behaviour, etc. is a lot harder to both measure and counter. Here, the aforementioned “positive countermeasures”, such as quality journalism, media literacy and general education, may provide a solution.
We need to be clear that disinformation will neither vanish, nor will there be a flawless or singular “catch-all”-approach to deal with it. So far, media, political and academic discourse have focused on such approaches more or less in isolation and individually or have placed high hopes on technological solutions alone. Yet, the complexity of disinformation, its mechanisms, forms, content, its necessary predispositions as well as the complicated metrics of its “success” suggest that an integrative approach, that is a combination of all countermeasures promises the best results for a resilient society.
Therefore, the editors of this volume decided to include all of the above-mentioned approaches to fight disinformation and ask the question how (and if at all) they are being implemented in the countries of Southeast Europe. Yet, the results are somewhat disheartening. Most case studies clearly point to a lack of media literacy, general education and malicious intent of domestic
political actors as main factors for the far-reaching effects of disinformation in Southeast Europe. Fact-checking initiatives are the most common tool against disinformation, yet in all countries these initiatives are rather small, understaffed, underfinanced and nowhere near reaching a broad audience.
Far-reaching problems in the media sector, strong foreign influence, poor journalism and above all the lack of political will and initiative to effective fight (and not exploit) disinformation are, on the other hand, important factors for the increase of disinformation during the Covid-19-pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Yet, there are also signs of hope on the horizon. For example, the“Registry of Professional Online Media” published by the Council of Media Ethics of North Macedonia to provide the public with a list of professional media outlets (as compared to mere portals and self-created sites). In Kosovo, to give another example, media literacy has recently been made an elective subject in high-school education. Despite several problems with the organisation and execution of media education, Kosovo is thus one of the first countries in Europe trying to put efforts of improving media literacy of pupils into action.
The case of Albania
By Rrapo Zguri
Disinformation is a global challenge that has created problems in both established and new democracies. It has also been used as an instrument of geopolitical influence. Election campaigns in different countries have often been damaged by disinformation, creating a veil of doubt in the liberal-democratic system itself. The manipulation of information has also undermined social and political solidarity in response to global challenges, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
In few places is this threat more acute than in the Western Balkans –as a February 2021 European Parliament Report notes: “As a theatre of geopolitical dispute and sharply polarized politics, characterized by weak governance and fragile civil societies, the Western Balkans are a uniquely attractive target for both foreign and domestic actors seeking to alter, undermine or delegitimize the outcomes of democratic processes. Disinformation affects many areas of social and political life in the Western Balkans, but still, it is not the case that disinformation is the cause of democratic breakdown. Rather, it is the lack of commitment to democratic governance by domestic political actors that opens the door to the productive use of disinformation as a tool of political competition.”50
Within this broad context, disinformation and manipulation of information in the Albanian public sphere have enjoyed considerable success. The delay in the maturation process of democracy and the gaps in democratic culture, associated with the abuse of new communication technologies, as well as the efforts of third parties to penetrate the country, have been among the main factors that have influenced the presence and spread of disinformation in Albania.
The aim of this article is to offer an overview and summary of definitions, contents and narratives as well as countermeasures against disinformation in Albania. The collection of empirical data for the needs of this study is based on online keyword research as well as on the monitoring of some specific case studies. The search is limited to the last 5 years.
Terminology and Definitions of Disinformation in Albania
Manipulation of information is not a new development for Albania. During the nearly 50-year period of totalitarianism, the population was exposed to an unprecedented wave of disinformation and propaganda aimed at casting the communist regime in a positive light and presenting it as superior to liberal-democratic systems. But disinformation has been present even during the years of the post-communist transition, its reach increasing in lockstep with the proliferation of new information and communication technologies.
The term “disinformation” itself is a relatively new addition to the Albanian language. It gained currency after the fall of Communism, when Albanian scholarly studies in the field of mass communication and information began and when pluralist mass media first emerged. In Albanian, the term is more part of the academic and scientific lexicon, but it is increasingly finding a place in the political lexicon and in the media as well as in interpersonal communication. Traditionally, to express the concept of disinformation
in the Albanian language, the term “keqinformimi” has been used, which literally translates to “mal-information” in English. Although they have already entered the Albanian language, the corresponding words for “disinformation” (Albanian: dezinformim) and “misinformation” (Albanian: ç’informim) are missing in the Dictionary of the Albanian Language.51 Depending on the context, the term “keqinformimi” in Albanian expresses and represents both the meanings of the word “mal-information” and those of the words “dis-information” and “mis-information”, thus serving as a polysemantic term.
In recent years, and especially after the translation into Albanian of Information disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making a Council of Europe publication authored by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan,52 Albania has begun to differentiate: “dezinformim” is used to mean “disinformation”, “ç’informim” is used for “misinformation” and “keqinformim” for “malinformation”. The nuances of meaning expressed by these terms parallel those of their English counterparts, as follows:
- Dezinformimi (English: Disinformation) - Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
- Ç’informimi (English: Misinformation) - Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm.
- Keqinformimi (English: Malinformation) - Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, there is still no definition of disinformation proposed by Albanian authors, institutions and public discourse. For the purposes of this study, the basic definition is the one that defines disinformation as “false, inaccurate, decontextualized and misleading information COVERTLY designed, presented and DELIBERATLY promoted and spread to manipulate and exert political, financial or other influence”.53
In some studies conducted by Albanian authors, the term “disinformation” is also used in association with, or instead of, the word “propaganda”, meaning “misleading information”, which is also a feature and part of propaganda information.
In normative or legal documents in the Albanian language, for example, the code of ethics of the media, the criminal code or the civil code, disinformation has not yet been established as a separate term, notion and practice. Thus, the Code of Ethics of Albanian Media has three paragraphs dealing with disinformation-related issues, as follows:
Media should not mislead the public, and they should clearly indicate where manipulated texts, documents, images and sounds have been used.
Media should not distort or misuse statements made in a specific context. Media should not publish any image, audio, or visual arrangements that distort the ideas or facts of the source, with the exception of caricatures, cartoons or comic plots.54
Note that the Code of Ethics addresses the problems related to disinformation but does not mention or distinguish it as a term or as a category of information manipulation. In the Criminal Code issues related to disinformation are touched upon in Article 120, entitled “Libel”, as follows:
“Intentional dissemination of statements, and any other pieces of information, with the knowledge that they are false, affect a person’s honour and dignity, shall constitute criminal misdemeanor […”]55
Apparently, the intersection of meanings between the various terms related to the information disorder create a situation in which, on the one hand, similar but distinct terms are used interchangeably and, on the other hand, older terms are preferred to newer terms not only in the academic literature but also in normative and legal texts.
The Target Group(s) - Audience and Perspective of Disinformation in Albania
Being spread mainly through the media, disinformation has called into question the public’s trust in them. An opinion poll conducted in Albania on February 2021 by IPSOS Strategic Marketing with a sample of 1010 adult respondents and followed by a focus group of six journalists and editors from various media outlets, revealed that spreading disinformation is the primary reason for distrust in media.56
Source: IPSOS, 2021
When asked why they distrust media outlets, the public seemed to have a concrete answer: almost half of them (48%) cited “the spread of disinformation” as their main reason.57
The level of public trust in the media is determined to a large extent by the level of fulfilment of its public mission. Especially when the media fails to be, even partially, representative and a servant of the public interest, a crisis of trust begins to form. A fundamental question that could be asked in this context is: How much has the media in Albania served democracy and the democratization of the country?
A survey undertaken by the Albanian Media Institute (AMI)58 in 2019 reveals that the vast majority of the Albanian public (70%) agrees that the media environment is of great importance for a country’s democracy. But even though they recognized the media in general as having a very important role in relation to democracy, only about half of the respondents (48.6%) said that in fact the Albanian media have been serving democracy and the public interest to some degree. Also, only about half of the public (46.4%) said that the media have to some degree being helping the fight against corruption, thus exposing a significant deficiency in this aspect of the media’s public mission. This reflects the deficits of the Albanian media in relation to democracy and is evidence of a limited role in its development and protection.
Besides damaging the media’s role and reputation, disinformation has also influenced the journalistic profession and the production of news. One of the main impacts of disinformation is on journalists’ sourcing techniques. In surveys and interviews with journalists most of the journalists queried declared that the current news environment made them increasingly careful about their sources in general. They describe the motivation to double-check sources as both a reaction to disinformation and as a way to protect themselves from accusations or from being labelled as “fake news.”59
Another downstream effect is increasing distrust of sources and the accompanying increased time spent validating sources. Many journalists report that their job now takes more time due to increased information and increased awareness of the circulation of false information. Sources also seem to be more distrustful of members of the media.
A major effect outlined by journalists concerning the production of news is the increased transparency regarding the journalistic process. Many mention an ongoing push in the industry to more clearly label opinion and news articles to avoid readers conflating them and form heightened perceptions of journalistic bias that can foster increased distrust.60
In addition to its effect on journalism and journalistic practices, disinformation has been posing great challenges for audiences and media users too. “Audiences may be misled as to the authenticity of the purported facts of the matter (e.g., ‘vaccines cause autism’) or the source of the material (e.g., ‘reputable scientists say vaccines cause autism’), and factual material may be taken out of context in order to provoke a particular response,” according to a European Parliament report.
“Even the nature of the distribution channel itself may be a lie (such as the recently uncovered ‘Peace Data’ website). In all cases, however, the goal is the same – ‘to manipulate a target population by affecting its beliefs, attitudes, or preferences in order to obtain behaviour compliant with political goals.’”61
The outlook becomes even clearer if we take into account the low level of media literacy among the Albanian public. It is well known that the lower the level of knowledge that the public has about media and news, the higher the risk of disinformation and manipulation through the media.62 The “Media Literacy 2021” index ranks Albania 33rd among European countries, outdoing only Bosnia Herzegovina and North Macedonia. This proves once again that Albanian citizens continue to be among the most vulnerable citizens in Europe when it comes to fake news and disinformation. Even the fact that the percentage of people in Albania who believed in conspiracy theories about Covid-19 was the highest in the Balkan region63 shows the problems that exist in the general public regarding the understanding of the messages conveyed by the media. The situation calls for improvements in media literacy among the general public, starting from students to the elderly. The continuing delays initiatives for the implementation and dissemination of media literacy in the country have experienced are deepening the risk of informational manipulation of the public.
The spread of disinformation has led to increased control efforts as well as to attacks on the media by the government and by politicians. The last few years have seen a definite uptick in Albanian political leadership denigrating the media in their speeches. The “cauldron” metaphor the Albanian prime minister uses in his arguments against some media outlets and certain actors is notable in this context.64 This sort of language on the one hand seems to exert increased pressure on critical voices in the media; on the other hand
it has tightened political control over the media.65 It has also resulted in a decrease of trust in the media. The “fake news” phenomenon meanwhile has encouraged politicians, business executives, and others in the public eye to label unfavourable investigations as “fake” and has emboldened their attacks on the credibility of critical reporters. This has led to an environment in which harassment of journalists is increasingly accepted.66
Narratives, Case Studies and Examples of Disinformation in Albania
Disinformation in Albania takes a range of shapes and forms, but, as our research reveals, the most prominent types of it are: (1) Domestic political disinformation; (2) Crisis disinformation (such as the context of Covid-19); (3) Disinformation coming from third-state actors; and clickbait disinformation.
(A) Domestic Political Disinformation
The most widely used type of disinformation in Albania is the one that is produced and disseminated for political purposes by domestic actors. Numerous politicians across the spectrum have used disinformation to damage the image of their political rivals, to gain visibility or to put their own activities in a positive light. In March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic had just started to spread in the country, the Albanian government took very strict measures to limit the movements of citizens by imposing a kind of curfew in residential areas. These extraordinary measures were heavily criticized by the media and sparked public outrage. In order to justify these measures, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama published a video on Facebook that showed, he claimed, the Spanish police violently dispersing a citizen’s protest against similar restrictive measures. Research by the Albanian fact-checking platform Factoje revealed that the violent footage was taken during the dispersal by the police of a citizens’ protest in Algeria.67
Screen-shot of the Albanian Prime Minister’s post
On the other side and at about the same time, the leader of the opposition, Sali Berisha, posted a video of doctors in a hospital, claiming that this was how the government, and the Albanian health system, were being prepared to cope with the pandemic. It turned out the footage had been filmed in Iran and had nothing to do with Covid-19.68
Being part of a polarised environment, political actors in Albania have used their satellite media to publish manipulated information, often coming from manipulated sources. Standard.al, a major online news outlet linked to the opposition Democratic Party, published a report that alleged Rama’s government had allowed the import of 1300 tons of toxic waste that had disappeared from Italy in early 2017.69 The source of this false information was an anonymous online portal based in Italy that disappeared as soon as questions started being asked.
In other cases, pictures from different contexts or different times are used to mislead the public and to create wrong perceptions about actual events. Research also identified several cases of photos that had been staged, that had been doctored, or that distorted facts through manipulative shooting angles. Last year, for example, a pro-government media outlet tried to downplay participation in a protest organized by the opposition through drone footage taken from a misleadingly high angle. Pro-opposition media tried to exaggerate participation in the same protest through shooting from a low angle. Shooting angle, viewpoint and perspective, we can see, can be used as tools of manipulation, as tools to add or subtract “truthiness”.
However, even though it is the most widespread type, domestic political disinformation in Albania has never taken the form of a coordinated and sustained campaign. Examples are generally opportunistic in nature, and the goals are shallow.70
(B) Crisis Disinformation and Covid-19
The various crises the country has been facing have also served to inspire disinformation. A typical example is that of the Covid-19 pandemic. The most widespread type of disinformation related to the pandemic in Albania has been the one involving conspiracy theories. According to a BIEPAG survey, Albania was the country with the highest number of supporters of conspiracy theories in the Western Balkans during the Corona crisis. Every individual false narrative, no matter how incoherent, had a greater number of supporters in Albania than elsewhere. The number Albanians who believed at least one conspiracy theory reached 59.4% of the population.71
The most important narratives of disinformation related to pandemic in Albania were the following:
- COVID-19 was created in and emerged from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan.72
- The Corona virus was created by the White Brotherhood or by the “Deep State” to reduce the world’s population.73
- The Corona virus was created by Bill Gates, who wants to use vaccines to install microchips in people, which will allow him to exercise global control.74
- The aim of installing of 5G mobile networks was to speed up the spread of the virus.75
- COVID-19 is either a hoax or a harmless ailment similar to the common flu, exaggerated by governments or by special groups for nefarious secret purposes.
In addition to conspiracy theories, disinformation during the pandemic in Albania also appeared in the form of made-up news, for example reports about miracle drugs that can cure Covid-1976 or about the healing effect of various herbal remedies.77
It appears that the main actors that have contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories are different media outlets as well as some controversial individuals who used the opportunity to promote these theories. In contrast to many countries where the main channels of spreading these types of disinformation were social networks and online media, in Albania, unfortunately, the mainstream media were also involved in this process. As a BIRN report emphasis, the country’s leading television channels rolled out the red carpet for conspiracy theories against vaccines.78 Typical here is the case of Top Channel, which for more than two years has offered screen time to Alfred Cako, a well-known conspiracy theorist. Cako appears on a talk show every Sunday and freely promotes his disinformation theories.79
According to a report issued by the State Intelligence Service of Albania (SHISH), meanwhile, the Corona crisis was also used by third players to exert their influence in the country. Without naming any specific country or actor, the service noted that “non-Western global actors have exploited the situation caused by COVID-19 for their geostrategic goals, strengthening their position as international actors, disrupting EU/NATO and international cohesion, and supporting each other’s narratives in the information environment according to their goals. Also, they used a wide spectrum of hybrid tools to undertake information operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, such as: undertaking media campaigns, circulating fake news, promoting and spreading conspiracy theories through the media and social networks, engaging the services of intelligence and state and non-state cyber actors.”80
(C) Disinformation from Third-State Actors
“In the early 2000s, everything indicated that the countries of the Western Balkans were destined to integrate into the common European project as soon as possible,” according to the Albanian analyst Liridon Lika. “But the enlargement process has slowed down due to delays in the implementation of reforms as well as political and economic problems between Western Balkan countries, coupled by an ‘enlargement fatigue’ within the EU. In the context of this slowdown in EU accessions, new emerging powers tried to fill that void, such as Russia, China and Turkey, and extend their influence in the region.”81
The main lines of disinformation discourse coming from third parties are those that aim to damage the image and reputation of the EU, the USA and NATO in the countries of the Western Balkans and in Albania. An online comment on the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, for example, alleges a weakening and declining role of the EU in the region and the world. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh “…the biggest loser is in fact the European Union… The EU has again managed, in a spectacular way, to fail to play the role of a relevant actor and peacemaker on its eastern suburbs,” according to a comment with the headline “Why the biggest loser in Nagorno-Karabakh is the European Union.”82
Another story goes even further, saying that “over the last five years, the OSCE or even the EU and the US have not managed to successfully negotiate on any conflict, revealing significant weaknesses on their part. The US and the EU have also failed to negotiate a solution in a region very close to their area of influence, like Kosovo, while Ukraine is still in a limbo. Two more states have been added to the list of countries in crisis, Libya and now Belarus, a country in a twilight situation that defies any definitions, where stability is determined by actors like Russia.”83 The minimization of relations and official communication between Albania and Russia has resulted in the latter having a negligible influence in Albania. The few articles in Albanian media that still seek to promote some kind of pro-Russian agenda are either driven by nostalgia for the Soviet Union or appear in media influenced or financed by foreign actors.
One Albanian news site claimed, for example, that “Russia has been coherent in its stance on Kosovo, adhering to UN Resolution 1244. Likewise, it has been coherent since the beginning of the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, stating that Russia itself would support any agreement reached between them, and that it would behave as if ‘more Serbian than the Serbs themselves.’ Unlike the Albanians who have sometimes shown that they are more ‘American than the Americans themselves,’ or as we commonly used to say ‘more catholic than the Pope himself’.”84 This sort of reporting, in addition to consistently serving Russian interests, spreads disinformation when it comes to Russia’s stance towards Kosovo, and sneaks denigrating rhetoric about Albanians in between the lines for good measure.85
Anti-EU rhetoric an article published in online media turns to history to support their claims, arguing that “those who tore us to pieces in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the same countries that now constitute
the core of the EU, plus England.”86 This quote was pulled from a piece of commentary that praised the “historic contributions” of Russia to Albanian statehood, which in fact is clear disinformation.
Although it rarely shows up on keyword searches of Albanian media content, anti-American rhetoric is not entirely absent, popping up occasionally in the form of conspiracy theories.87 One example involves an online video in which radical elements discuss the scenarios they believe the Americans have prepared for Tirana and Pristina, by removing nationalist politicians and veterans such as Sali Berisha, Albin Kurti and Hashim Thaçi from the political scene and replacing them with their “evangelical lackeys, Sorosists, and other people serving American imperialism”.88 It is no coincidence that their rhetoric clearly carries disinformation and features conspiracy theories, an agenda of disruption and pro-Russian sentiment. To them, “the attack against the Russian embassy and diplomats in Tirana comes as a reprisal to the Russian offer on the delivery of Sputnik V vaccines to Albania.” They talk about “corruption in the US”, an alleged “American attack on the Albanian justice system”, and plans to “hand over the Albanian public debt to the Rothschild family.”
A few Albanian media outlets have also published stories in their world news sections that serve the interests of another third party striving for influence in Albania: Turkey. An Albanian news site reported extensively on the speech of the Turkish ambassador during an event organized by a Turkish-owned university in Tirana, and quoted the ambassador as saying that “Turkey is one of the few countries that has managed to reach a fair balance between personal freedom, economy, social life and public life. We are still able to keep the virus under control guided by the visionary leadership of our President Erdoğan. During this pandemic even the closest allies turned against each other for medical supplies. However, Turkey excelled through diplomacy and sent medical equipment to over 150 countries around the world including the US, several European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Spain. This proves that Turkey is a reliable partner in the fight against global challenges.”89
In another case, a lesser-known news site published an article glorifying the role of China under the headline “The 17 + 1 mechanism as a purveyor of hope and optimism to triumph over evil through art”. China, the article claims, has become “one of the most important promoters of development of the wider region of Europe in various sectors such as infrastructure, transport, trade, logistics, as well as health, culture, education and other areas of public interest.”90
The chairman of the Chinese Communist Party of China and president of China, the article informs its readers, has announced that the fifth plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has drafted comprehensive plans for China’s development in the form of the fourteenth Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) and that China is close to achieving its goals of eradicating poverty and building a developed society with respect to all aspects of life.91The narrative of this article, one observes, is typical of communist propaganda, which is still fresh in the memory of Albanians.92
Summarizing the above findings, we may conclude that foreign-source disinformation is only a relatively small part of the Albanian disinformation landscape. The strong pro-EU and pro-NATO consensus among the Albanian public limits the bandwidth for external actors wishing to undercut the West. This may also explain the fact confirmed by our research that disinformation narratives on the war in Ukraine have not found a strong foothold in Albanian media.
(D) Clickbait Disinformation
A considerable part of the disinformation in Albania is represented by media-generated attempts to boost traffic on their websites – and thus revenue – through sensationalist reporting, often with little or no regard for the veracity of the stories thus promoted. In the economic battle for more readers or users, Albanian media, including those media outlets that used to be considered reliable and prestigious, could not escape the tendency to use sensational headlines to artificially increase the number of clicks. The most frequent victims of clickbait disinformation in Albania are show business professionals, celebrities and other public figures. Almost every day, online and mainstream media publish gossip about new celebrity relationships or celebrity breakups, including rumors that are completely baseless.
Another regular feature of clickbait disinformation involves wild speculation on aspect of public health and fake news about miracle cures, including for cancer or arthritis. Alleged remedies for diseases that affect significant parts of the population guarantee plentiful clicks for the publishers of this type of information.
In some cases, of the media’s avarice for as many clicks as possible has led to disinformation being published that has seriously upset the general public. One of these cases is a piece of fake news that was published in the online portal JOQ right after the earthquake of 26 November 2019. An item published on this portal claimed that a large number of victims had reached the Tirana morgue but that this fact was being kept secret by the authorities. A few days later, said authorities filed charges against the site’s administrators for publishing fake news and spreading panic.93
Even more problematic was the publication of a fake news item on social media that announced that the first major tremor of the earthquake would be followed by another fatal tremor at midnight. The item led to riots and caused most of the population of the Albanian capital to spend the night outside their homes,94 even though the authorities intervened soon after the piece was published, explaining that people were being victimised by disinformation.
Such practices are not simply examples of content that ignore journalistic standards but also illustrate the great level of irresponsibility on the part of the owners of these portals. They are also a consequence of the fact that irresponsible individuals have infiltrated the online environment in Albania and are ready to do almost anything for clicks, that is, for greater profit. Of course, the reaction of the Albanian society and Albanian institutions to these cases should have been stronger and more determined. The usual platitudes about “media freedom” are hardly an adequate justification for the distress the abuses caused.
Media, Sources and Multipliers of Disinformation in Albania
Disinformation is not a phenomenon of the digital age As Ann Cathrin Riedel has pointed out, disinformation has long been used to damage political opponents, destabilize societies and legitimize regimes. However, digital technologies facilitate the rapid spread of disinformation, since anyone can easily distribute disinformation – even without intending to. Declining trust in the media and governments contribute to these developments.95
A significant role in the spread of disinformation in Albania has been played by specific factors such as the presence of biased editorial policies in the media, the weakening of professional standards and the high level of politicization and polarization of the media, the increasing pressure exerted by PR companies working to find room for their content in the media, the impact of economic and other interests of media owners, the neglect of rules and self-regulatory practices, the influence of personal beliefs and interests among media professionals and the high level of self-censorship among journalistic professionals.
This study on disinformation in Albania has identified political parties and politicians, PR offices of organizations or institutions, some controversial individuals, several media outlets and some third-state actors, such as Russia, China and Turkey, as the main actors behind this phenomenon.
Concerning the sources, authors and origins of disinformation in Albania, disinformation is presented both as a domestic creation and as an invasive foreign product. Meanwhile the main channels of dissemination are traditional media, new media, social networks and a range of other venues of public communication.
Political Context of Disinformation in Albania
After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, Albania has faced the countless challenges of transitioning from a totalitarian system to a free, pluralistic and democratic society. The country’s political and social transition has been slow and arduous, resulting in a democratic system that is fragile and vulnerable for the time being. It is persistently threatened by political polarization, abuse of power and authoritarian behaviour on the part of the political elite. At the same time the country has had to face the challenges and problems brought by the digital transition, which has created endless confusion in the mass communication and information ecosystem.
Meanwhile, regardless of the domestic situation, Albania appears to be a geopolitically consolidated country. European and Atlantic integration constitutes the central axis of its foreign policy. The country has been a member of NATO since 2009. Albanians are the biggest supporters of EU integration in the Balkans, with approximately 87% of the population expressing their support for joining the European Union. But delays in European integration and Euroscepticism have created fertile ground for political interference by third-state actors such as Russia, China and Turkey, all of which are increasing their presence in the field of mass communication and propaganda.
The official policy of the country in relation to Russia is largely predicated upon the alignment of Albania the foreign policy of NATO and the EU, as well as by the fact that Russia has been openly opposing the recognition of the state of Kosovo. These are also the main reasons that Russia’s influence in Albania is almost non-existent and that even basic communication channels are missing between the two countries.96
In a similar vein, Albania’s current relations with China are also influenced by US relations with the Asian superpower, which worsened during the Trump administration. It was during this period that Albania joined the list of Clean Network countries that limit or prohibit Chinese firms from entering their digital market with ambitious plans for 5G network rollout. However, the bilateral relations between Albania and China have been expanding, albeit slowly. China’s influence in Albania has been mainly of an economic nature and has progressed through bilateral relations but also through
the 17+1 initiative, otherwise called the “China-CEEC Summit” – a kind of extension of China’s Belt and Road initiative.97 Although bilateral relations are gradually intensifying, this intensification appears fragmented and seemingly incoherent, as well as at a rather low level of institutionalization. Albania’s membership in NATO seems to be blocking the way for deeper security and technology ties with China.98
There is no doubt that Turkey is the third-most influential foreign actor in Albania. The historical, religious and cultural proximity resulting from the nearly 500 years of Ottoman occupation of the country seems to have served as a ground for the cultivation of continuity in the relations between the two countries and the two peoples. Turkey’s investments in Albania, whether private or state, are numerous, selective and calculated with strategic political goals in mind.99 In the framework of the soft power approach, Turkey has invested in Albania through foundations such as TIKA and Diyanet. These investments have been accompanied by conditions, such as the repeated request of the Turkish side for the extradition or expulsion of the Gulenists from the country and the closure of their businesses and institutions, a demand with respect to which the Albanian government has been more hesitant than cooperative. Analysts of international relations also note that Turkey’s new foreign policy is based exclusively on Erdoğan’s ideas, opinions and initiatives, relying heavily on his personal relationships with Balkan prime ministers, among whom the association with Edi Rama stands out. Critical voices warn that Turkish policies could damage Albanian secularism as well as the stable culture of peaceful coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups in Albania.100
The European Parliament Report on Disinformation in the Western Balkans states that “disinformation is a significant problem throughout the Western Balkans and an increasingly important part of the way in which both domestic and foreign actors pursue political ends. The deliberate production and dissemination of ‘fake news’ – full or partial falsehoods masquerading as journalism – has become a dominant method of contesting elections, shifting government policy agendas, and settling scores between business rivals. Moreover, disinformation
is sufficiently pervasive in the region that it hampers the consolidation of democratic media systems, and thus of democratic governance more broadly, as well as heightening the challenges of post-conflict resolution and transitional justice. Throughout the region, information disorder reflects social and political disorder…” These European Parliament conclusions also apply to the context of disinformation in Albania.
Countermeasures against Disinformation in Albania
Efforts to challenge and combat disinformation in Albania have been led mainly by civil society organizations and to some extent by journalists’ organizations and media researchers. The government and state institutions have done very little in this regard. Civil society’s efforts are focused on training journalists, journalism students and the general public, initiating studies to determine the extent of the spread of disinformation and to create a panorama of the main vectors of proliferation of disinformation, the distribution channels used and the actors that influence it, concluding with relevant recommendations for state institutions. Here we can highlight the role of the Albanian Media Institute, which, in addition to organizing numerous training courses and research studies, has also contributed to an update of the media ethics code as well as to the spread and inclusion of media literacy in school curricula. Starting in 2011, the Institute has drafted and published a teacher’s and a student’s textbook on media literacy101, as well as lobbied state institutions for its inclusion in school curricula. Unfortunately, media literacy has not yet been included as a separate compulsory subject in school curricula but merely as a chapter or as an optional subject.
Meanwhile, journalists’ organizations such as the Union of Albanian Journalists and the Media Council have helped sensitize media professionals about the consequences of disinformation and manipulation of information. The fact that about half of the criminal charges for disinformation involve media outlets or journalists is evidence of the necessity of this sensitization and awareness raising. The Albanian Media Council created the Alliance for Ethical Media in early 2020, intending to establish a self-regulation mechanism taking complaints from the public. There are nineteen media outlets participating in this initiative. Results will, obviously, take time.102
Albania’s first dedicated fact checking organization, Faktoje, was created in 2018. Faktoje’s mission is to “check the authenticity of promises, statements and actions of public officials (and entities that benefit from public funds) and then tell the public the truth.”103 However, there are still no real attempts to tackle the disinformation created or conveyed by journalists and the media in Albania.
Staff members of the Department of Journalism and Communication of the University of Tirana who have carried out research projects and training courses in this field have also contributed to the study of disinformation.
So far, state institutions and politicians express their concern primarily when disinformation adversely affects themselves. In 2019, MPs of the current ruling majority proposed, under the pretext of having to fight disinformation, a series of controversial amendments to the country’s Electronic Communications and Audio-Visual Media Act. The amendments aimed to regulate the content of online media outlets through a Complaints Commission – an ethics body operating inside the Audio-visual Media Authority. Local and international media organisations condemned the draft law as a tool of government censorship, and the country’s president vetoed the bills, sending them back to parliament for review. The amendments were opposed by the European Commission and by the Council of Europe, among others. In January 2020, the Albanian parliament shelved the vote on the amendments to the Audio-Visual Media Act. This decision came after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked the European Commission for Democracy through Law, known as the Venice Commission, to review the legislation. In its opinion, subsequently published in June 2020, the Venice Commission argued that the amendments to the Law 97/2013, “On Audio-Visual Media” should not be approved in the form passed by parliament in December 2019 and later vetoed by the president, on the grounds that they would create chilling effects on media freedom.104
Disinformation in Albania is both a domestic product and a result of foreign interference. The main channels of dissemination are traditional media, online media and online social networks as well as conventional word of mouth. The delay in the maturation process of democracy and the gaps in the democratic culture, the abuse of new communication technologies and efforts by foreign third parties to influence the country have been among the main factors promoting the presence and spread of disinformation in Albania. Being spread mainly through the media, disinformation, among other things, has adversely affected the public’s trust in said media. The spread of disinformation has led to increased efforts to control the media as well as to attacks on the media by the government and by politicians. Besides damaging the media’s role and reputation, disinformation has also influenced the journalistic profession and the production of news.
The most prominent types of disinformation spread in Albania are domestic political disinformation, crisis disinformation of the type surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, disinformation by foreign state actors and clickbait disinformation. The most common type of disinformation in Albania is the one produced and disseminated for political purposes. Even though it is widespread, however, political disinformation in Albania has never yet taken the form of an organized and sustained campaign. Cases encountered so far have generally opportunistic in nature and short-term in terms of goals. The various crises the country has faced have also served to revive disinformation. A typical example is the Covid-19 crisis. In addition to conspiracy theories, disinformation during the pandemic in Albania also appeared in the form of made-up news. As for foreign-source disinformation, it is a relatively small part of the Albanian disinformation landscape. The main lines of disinformation coming from third parties are those that aim to damage the image and reputation of the EU, the USA and NATO in Albania. The strong pro-EU and pro-NATO consensus among the Albanian public limits the bandwidth for external actors wishing to undercut the West.
Disinformation, Propaganda and Fake News in Bosnia and Herzegovina
By Lejla Turcilo
Disinformation in time of COVID-19 in Bosnia-Herzegovina may have had tragic consequences. An avalanche of fake news was jeopardizing public health. In April 2020, for example, the UNICEF office in Bosnia and Herzegovina felt the need
to warn the country’s media outlets to stop spreading disinformation about the pandemic, since people believing what they were told endangered their health and their lives105. COVID-19 thus served to show how information disseminated by the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina affected the lives of its citizens. Information and disinformation, in the complex and complicated media system, which reflects the country’s complex and complicated state and ethnic structure, are disseminated by local media outlets106 and other players, including influential individuals
on social networks as well as media from neighboring countries (Serbia and Croatia)107 and foreign media outlets that operate in Bosnia and Herzegovina but promote the political and geopolitical agenda of their home countries.108
This complex disinformation environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina is furthermore influenced by, and reflected in, the media environment in the country: The World Press Freedom index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) for 2022 ranks BiH 67th among countries surveyed, nine positions down from 2021, noting that „the economic environment is difficult for journalists due to the small size of the market and lack of sustainable funding. The media of Bosnia suffer from divisions along ethnic lines within the country combined with competition from media from the neighboring countries which belong to the same language area.“109 This provides fertile ground for the spread of disinformation, since many media outlets follow the agenda of political parties in power in the part of the country in which they operate, have a specific ethnically rooted audience with low level of media literacy.
Reflecting on these conditions, this paper provides a brief overview of some key issues related to disinformation dissemination in Bosnia and Herzegovina, trying to explain how the combination of political influences from inside the country and from abroad, together with a divided and mostly media-illiterate audience, makes disinformation a problem that is both significant and not too thoroughly opposed.
Terminology and Definitions
When it comes to terminology widely used in the public discourse to describe various forms of dissemination of false content through media, the used commonly in the past is lažne vijesti, translated into English as fake news. “Fake news” is essentially defined as “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers”110 The term is, however, also used to refer to other classes of problematic information, including:
- unintentional reporting mistakes;
- rumors that did not start with any particular news item; conspiracy theories;
- satire that is unlikely to be misconstrued as factual; false statements by politicians; and
- reports that are slanted or misleading but not outright false111.
Interestingly, unlike in other countries, politicians and political parties rarely use the term to try to discredit media outlets, but media outlets and/or media organizations routinely use the term “fake news” to describe bad practices by politicians or other media outlets. The Media Centre for example, one of the leading media and education NGOs, has a section on fake news on its web site, media.ba. The section includes educational material on disinformation as well as analysis of media content that has been proven false.112 The web portal maintained by Radio Sarajevo, for another example, uses the tag “fake news” for reports about the fight against disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and around the world.113 In these stories, the term disinformation is used quite often as a synonym for fake news, something that is common practice even among media specialists and academics. Generally speaking, most of the media defines “fake news” as “information deliberately fabricated and published with the intention to deceive and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts”, a definition also in line with the one used by the Ethical Journalism Network.114
Academic usage, on the other hand, prefers the term disinformation. When discussing the broader ecosystem of information not prepared professionally and responsibly, academic usage uses a two-dimensional classification based on (potential) harm on the one hand, intent on the other. A distinction is thus made between:
- Disinformation. Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
- Misinformation. Information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm.
- Malinformation. Information that is based on reality but used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.115
In his PhD thesis, the very first one in Bosnia and Herzegovina that deals with the issue of fake news,116 Mladen Obrenović, a journalist and media researcher, argues that these three terms encompass the definition of “fake news” but warns that it is “important to distinguish messages that are true from those that are false, and messages that are created, produced or distributed by ‘agents’ who intend to do harm from those that are not”.117
There is not much legislation in the country that recognizes the term disinformation. The word is used in the Press and Online Media Code published by the Press Council in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however. The Code states:
“Editors and journalists in print and online media must be aware of the harmfulness of publishing and transmitting disinformation, as this is a gross violation of the basic rules of the journalistic profession. Transmitting disinformation from another media or source does not absolve the editors of the media that transmit it from responsibility. Also, editors and journalists in print and online media must be aware that the publication and transmission of disinformation affects the loss of credibility of the media that produces or transmits such content.”118
The Code of Audio-visual Media Services and Radio Media Services of the Communication Regulatory Agency, which regulates radio and TV in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mentions disinformation in article 7, describing it as “content that is known or can be determined to be false or misleading”119.
In summary, “disinformation” is the term most commonly used in academic and professional discourse in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while in the word more frequently used by the general public is “fake news”. Some analysts also use the term “information disorder” as well as the term “post-truth society”, when discussing the way in audiences react to disinformation emotionally rather than by engaging their rational or analytical faculties. These differences in terminology can confuse general audiences and make it hard for them to understand the concept of disinformation in simple and more accessible terms.
Audiences and Perspectives of Disinformation in Bosnia
Most disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is mean to serve the political agenda of one the various political players in the country. Since the entire political landscape, the media, and the audience in Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided along ethnic lines, most of the stories that deal with sensitive issues involve contexts, approaches, and interpretations of events or persons that differ between ethnic groups. That, of course, does not mean that all media reporting and all political communication are based on disinformation, but the political framing of actual facts is quite often deliberately misleading. There are specific issues, however, in the context of which disinformation is widely used. Media affiliated with certain political parties and people in power use disinformation or misleading information to manipulate the public in accordance to their agenda. Due to the low level of media literacy, in many cases this approach has proven to be successful in influencing their audience. This in term means that disinformation is produced and reproduced by politicians, journalists and the general public alike. The most important dividing line concerning the audience of disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not so much the target group’s profession or social class but the target group’s ethnicity.
Furthermore and based on secondary research, a number of media and communication outlets in which disinformation, propaganda and hate speech are produced and disseminated in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be identified. They pertain to one of the three types of media and communication: A.) traditional media; B.) new digital media; and C.) user-generated interaction in online media and on social networks. These include: 1) traditional media that are affiliated with the centers of political power and disseminate political and ethno-national propaganda;120 anonymous portals and commercial online media that spread disinformation for political or financial purposes;121 3) political propaganda websites that mushroom prior to election campaigns; 4) websites and social media groups that spread radical and aggressive ethno-national and religious content122; 5) portals whose narratives target minority groups, such as migrants123; 6) hate speech, derogatory language and insults in comment sections in online media and on social media platforms.124
Narratives, Case Studies and Examples
In general, political manipulation, hate speech and disinformation campaigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina are interconnected and aimed at spreading fear and uncertainty among citizens. Their goal is to make recipients more likely to follow and obey existing political players and their political narratives. There are three topics of particular prominence in which actors are engaged in both the spreading of disinformation spread and in the contextualization of information in accordance to their political narratives of choice:
Historical Disinformation (especially War Crimes and Srebrenica Genocide) Research shows that “many media are divided along ethno-national lines, which is visible in their emphasis on the issues and the agenda of the respective ethno-national group and one-sided interpretations of war events, while content intended for or dealing with minorities and vulnerable groups is largely underrepresented (RAK, 2019b)“ 125 and that „in recent years, there has been a rise in the number of online platforms that disseminate false or misleading media content, much of which is of political nature and spread for financial gain and/or political purposes.“126
The most important topic of disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and probably in all other former Yugoslavian countries as well) during the past thirty years was the war of the 1990s. History and the past are thus not only subject to diverging – legitimately diverging – interpretation, but to massive political manipulation. One example for a media outlet that uses disinformation when reporting on the past is Despotovina,127 a radical Serbian news portal from Bratunac that propagates a Serbian ethno-national narrative and glorifies members of the Army of the Republika Srpska. Their bias is visible, for example, in their reporting on Ratko Mladić, who was convicted for war crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). One researcher commented on Despotovina that “this outlet [...] has been identified as a problematic media outlet stirring ethno-national tensions among the local population in Srebrenica and Bratunac, an area with a heavy war heritage and difficult reconciliation process.“128 Although it might come as a surprise that one of the media institutions that uses disinformation and fuels harsh inter-ethnic relations is part of the public broadcasting system, all media monitoring efforts so far have come to the conclusion that the Radio Television of Republika Srpska (RTRS), which is under the strong influence of the dominant political party of the Republika Srpska, is one of the leading broadcast media outlets manipulating the past. “For example, in 2019, RTRS published the conclusions of a report of the Centre for War Research, War Crimes and the Search for Missing Civilians of the Republic of Srpska about the 25 May 1995 Tuzla massacre, according to which the deaths of 71 people were caused by local simultaneous terroristic explosions by the Bosniaks rather than artillery projectiles fired by the Army of Republic of Srpska, an officer of which was convicted by the Court of BiH in 2014 for the act. The CRA concluded that the broadcaster had failed to present different views on the subject and even violated victims’ dignity by stating that 27 victims could be identified as suicide bombers and revealed the names of two.“129 The fact-checking portal Raskrinkavanje labelled RTRS as a high-risk medium when it comes to publishing questionable content and identified RTRS, together with the Republika Srpska’s public news agency, SRNA, as the single most prolific sources of political disinformation in Bosnia and Hergegovina.130 The Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report for 2021, published by the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, states that “among the media that appear as deniers of the genocide in Srebrenica (actors), but also as platforms that most often convey such attitudes, the Montenegrin right-wing portal IN4S and the Srpski telegraf portal from Serbia. It is a medium whose work is financially supported with public funds, through a whole series of local self-government projects in Serbia, despite the fact that it constantly violates the relevant media codes. Also, five media from Republic of Srpska are in this group“.131
In general, disinformation is spread as part of a political agenda of manipulation of the past and of genocide denial – either by political parties and politicians, mainly in the Republika Srpska, or through media from Serbia which are widely read and influential in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well.
(B) Disinformation about COVID-19
For the past two years, COVID-19 has been the topic subject to the largest amount of disinformation. The fact-checking-portal Raskrinkavanje has conducted research on disinformation in the context of COVID-19 and has created a website with articles debunking COVID-19 disinformation.132 Research showed that, over the course of the two years in question, disinformation content has been published by 773 media outlets and by users of three social media platforms. Most of the rated content – 184 posts in total – was published on Facebook, suggesting that this social media platform was a significant conduit for disinformation related to COVID-19 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The next four media outlets on the list are all Serbia-based: Srbija danas, Alo, Informer and Espreso. The top-rated Bosnia-based media outlet on the list was the daily paper Nezavisne novine, but they are not alone: other big news websites published COVID-19 related disinformation as well (TV Hayat, Alternativna televizija, Slobodna Bosna, Oslobođenje and Dnevni avaz). All of these media outlets are privately owned.
In addition to these portals and fringe websites, however, there has also been tax-funded public media published content rated as disinformation. The public broadcaster of the Republika Srpska, RTRS, had nine disinformation-rated articles. The next three publicly owned media outlets on this list are Serbia-based: the national broadcaster, RTS, a provincial broadcaster, RT Vojvodina, and the national news agency, Tanjug. In addition to these three, two Montenegro-based public broadcasters had some of their content rated as disinformation by Raskrinkavanje: RTV Budva, a local station, RTCG, the national broadcaster. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, other notable public broadcasters that published COVID-19 related disinformation include the Federation entity’s public broadcaster, Federalna televizija, the Republika Srpska news agency, SRNA, and local broadcasters such as Radio Ljubuški, RTV USK and Radio Novi Grad.133
In addition, Zašto ne, a citizen‘s association in Sarajevo, has performed a study named Countering Disinformation Narratives and Mapping Conspiracy Theories: The Case of BiH134 that has shown that about half of the country’s population (47%) is mostly undecided when it comes to believing in conspiracy theories; about 29% strongly believe in them, and about 24% completely reject them. There is a definite age gap – belief in conspiracy theories is least present in the youngest cohort, 18 to 24, and most pervasive in people over 55 years of age.
Conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic have taken strong roots in society. Some of these narratives, for example the claim that the coronavirus was “deliberately released into the population” or that hospitals inflated the number of COVID-19 deaths, are believed by almost three quarters (over 73%) of the participants.135
Disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, especially those that originated on social networks and on the internet in general, has also come to be widely accepted among the unvaccinated population. It can be concluded that these narratives have had an impact on people‘s decision to refuse immunization against the disease. Nearly three quarters of unvaccinated people believe that vaccines were not properly tested before public immunization began, and as many as 60% believe unfounded claims that they could endanger pregnancies.136
The research examined a number of other correlations and found that a person’s vaccination status can be linked to their age, education and degree of propensity to believe in conspiracy theories. One of the findings is that unvaccinated people more often rely on online sources of information about vaccines and the pandemic, most often using Facebook for that purpose.137
(C) Disinformation about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has shown how different international media outlets, together with the different political standpoints in different parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, have affected reporting. Russian media has been influential in the country long before the war in Ukraine, mainly through the work of the Sputnjik news agency, which has an office in Serbia and whose news releases are copy-pasted by Serbian media and by media outlets in of the Republika Srpska without any critical analysis. Media in the Republika Srpska and media in the Federation thus promoted wildly different narratives when reporting on Ukraine. “The media from both entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, although reporting on the same events, consistently stressed different aspects of the conflict in Ukraine.”138 The media in of the Republika Srpska is aligned with the agenda of Russia and Serbia, something that is the case with respect to other topics and issues as well, while the narrative in the Federation mainly talks about the humanitarian aspect of the war and often compares the Ukrainian situation with the one in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. This led to a state of affairs in which disinformation dissemination about the war in Ukraine is much more present in the Republic of Srpska.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, media in the Republika Srpska, including RTRS – part of the public broadcasting system and located in Banja Luka – clearly sided with Russia. For example, the Oliver Stone film The Putin Interviews was broadcast on RTRS on 24 February 2022. It depicts the life of Vladimir Putin beginning with his childhood and presents him, as stated in the analysis, as “a hard-working, moderate politician who wants the best for his country and the world”. The day of this broadcast, of course, was also the first day of the invasion. After the official start of the Russian invasion, SRNA – the news agency of the Republika Srpska, financed by its government – predominantly relied on Russian news agencies such as TASS, Sputnik and RIA Novosti in its reporting on the war, often as their only source.139 The term “Russian military operation in Ukraine” is used in Republika Srpska media, including in Nezavisne novine, published in Banja Luka and the most influential in the Entity. The views of Russian officials are also reproduced regularly, without any contrasting opinions being given room. Russian diplomats and officials also use social media to spread their viewpoints regarding the war in Ukraine to citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “From the beginning of the Russian invasion,” according to one media outlet, “the Russian embassy in BiH has almost daily published announcements and translations of articles on the war in Ukraine, originally published in Russian on its social media accounts. These deny allegations about crimes blamed on Russian soldiers, explain why Russia sent soldiers to Ukraine, and compare events in the eastern Ukraine with the infamous 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica.”140
One of the characteristics of the disinformation regarding the war in Ukraine that is being spread in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the use of misleading visuals. Since in most of research citizens said that they trust TV the most, on the grounds that TV allows them to see pictures and videos of events with their own eyes, media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina often accompany disinformation on Russia’s military actions in Ukraine with false pictures or videos.
On March 1, Sputnjik pushed the false claim that Ukrainian nationalists had captured about twenty vehicles of the Organization for European Security and Cooperation in Ukraine (OSCE). Disinformation of this kind also comes from social networks. One example is a video of a convoy of military vehicles whose headline on Facebook reads “The EU and England are joining the war”. Raskrinkavanje.ba has proven that these claims are not true, and it has been concluded that such disinformation aims to create discord among Western allies and to discredit Ukrainians.
During the first month of the Russian invasion, inaccurate information about Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, was aired. One of the false claims was that Zelensky allegedly fled to London, a claim Raskrinkavanje.ba has classed as fake news.141
According to a report by SEE Check, a network of organizations for countering disinformation in Southeast Europe, a photo of Zelensky holding a jersey with Nazi symbols also made an appearance. Raskrinkavanje.ba and Raskrinkavanje. me have found the image to have been photoshopped.142
In February 2022, a video of an alleged “new model of an indestructible Russian armored plane” appeared on social networks. In reality, as discovered by Raskrinkavanje.ba and Raskrinkavanje.me, the video shows scenes from Arma 3, a video game.143
In general, disinformation regarding the Ukraine war is most promiscuously spread in the Republika Srpska, due to the fact that their media use Sputnjik and other Russian media as their main source of news.
Media, Sources, Multipliers and Political Context of Disinformation
Since Bosnia and Herzegovina is not home to a monolithic target group for disinformation but rather to three ethnically divided media audiences, each living in its own echo chambers, it is important to understand that disinformation is widely spread among certain ethnic groups – especially disinformation relating to history, past events such as war crimes or the Srebrenica genocide, and the war in Ukraine – and that all of this disinformation is actively managed by political elites. As seen in the case of war in Ukraine, disinformation can gain influence and distort public perception of events through two parallel processes: propaganda by political elites on the one hand, poor journalism on the other. Political disinformation is mainly produced by political parties and their affiliates – usually online “trolls” – or by news media – mainly web portals without any imprint or identification – affiliated with political parties. One of the most prominent examples involves the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and their troll Jasmin Mulahusić, who has been arrested and whose house has been searched because of his inflamatory hate speech and spread of online disinformation.144
Digital disinformation by such trolls” and outlets is then disseminated through the net of so-called “portal farms”.145 These are networks of web pages and Facebook groups that are created by one person or group of persons and that systematically link to each other in order to game search algorithms, artificially increasing the visibility and reach of the content they publish. Although they look like media that are reporting news, they do not have any newsrooms, editors or journalists; they are usually run by one person or by a group of people who remain anonymous and use all means to hide their identity. One of the motives for creating this sort of networks is simply profit; the other is political influence. These pages are cluttered with ads, usually from Google’s AdSense platform.
Most of them are associated with several Facebook groups or Facebook pages that are not usually visibly linked to the portal – they do not declare themselves to be the portal’s official Facebook pages – and at first glance act like non-commercial sites that publish “entertainment” content. Facebook users are attracted this way who start “following” these pages without knowing their real purpose. People in the target demographics of these “media” outlet are almost always completely unaware both of their internal mechanism, of the fact that their purpose is to push misleading content or “lowest common denominator” content – clickbait headlines, sensationalist “reporting”, etc. – and of the use of networks of Facebook pages for the promotion of these contents. One example is Novi.ba, a web portal that is part of a portal farm and whose official Facebook page, also called Novi.ba, has 969,219 followers. According Socialbakers, with a web site dealing with social network analytics, the Novi.ba Facebook page is the fifth most popular page in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to data obtained using the Crowdtangle tool, the content of the Novi.ba portal is regularly shared on 82 different Facebook pages, many of which were created years before the launch of the Novi.ba portal but at some point were taken over – bought or “rented” – by this portal. The total number of people who follow one of these pages is almost 7.5 million.146
As this example demonstrates, the model of producing and spreading political disinformation is quite simple: group portals and Facebook pages that spread fake and/or sensationalistic content are connected in this way and link to each other to form a portal farm. The farms that are most successful in using these manipulative tactics manage to reach a huge number of people on social networks while remaining completely anonymous and below the radar of either the mainstream media or the general public. Such farms are the main multipliers of the disinformation ecosystem.147
After disinformation has been distributed this way, in many cases it is also copy-pasted to news media outlets as well, without any fact-checking prior to its dissemination. This is how poor journalism is contributing to dissemination of disinformation.
With low level of media literacy among the general population, disinformation spread is contributing to political manipulation and to maintaining the societal status quo. Quite often, especially before elections, a combination
of disinformation and hate speech feeds the fear of others in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which contributes to ethno-national mobilization and often also to low voter turnout. Four main tactics of disinformation during electoral campaigns have been identified by Zastone: rejection (trying to diminish support of your political opponent); distortion (when trying to influence undecided voters); distraction (e.g. diverting public attention from negative features of own candidate) and dear (discouragement from voting).148 This form of political manipulation using disinformation is often mentioned by international organizations such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe in their reports on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Another form of political manipulation and disinformation involved the authorities in the Republika Srpska using the need to combat disinformation as a pretext to limit media freedom. In March 2020, the government of the Republika introduced fines and other punitive measures for spreading “fake news” in the media and on social networks, causing panic. The measures were due to last for the duration of the state of emergency declared over the pandemic. Authorities in Bosnia’s northern district of Brcko have also enacted a prohibition related to reporting “fake news,” while the interior minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has called for similar measures, according to media reports. The OSCE expressed concern that this kind of measures were a form of censorship149 and the journalists’ association BH Novinari also protested, which led to the proposals being withdrawn.150
Countermeasures against Disinformation
The most prominent initiatives regarding countermeasures at the moment are due to international actors who, together with NGOs and the academic community, try to raise awareness on disinformation campaigns and improve the level of media literacy among citizens, especially young citizens. Initiatives by fact-checking portals are also important, since these publish reports on disinformation in the media on a regular base.
Regarding the regulatory framework, not much has been done so far in terms of legal norms addressing the problem. One of the key laws that could help prevent web portals in particular from spreading disinformation and propaganda is the Law on Transparency of Media Ownership, a draft bill that would make relationships between media owners, media content and agendas and political parties more visible but that has not yet been adopted. Also,
in spite of the fact that media monitoring during election campaigns shows significant (mis)use of disinformation in the run-up to elections, the Election Law does not mention disinformation at all.151
The Code of Audio-visual Media Services and Radio Media Services states that it is prohibited to broadcast content that can be determined to be false or misleading “on the basis of common sense or routine verification, or for which there is reasonable assumption that it is false or misleading.”152 Broadcasters have the obligation to publish corrections as soon as possible if any audio-visual or radio content subsequently turns out to be false or misleading (paragraph 2). Breach of the Code is a finable offense, with fines ranging from 500 37 500 euros.
Another normative code that has an article on disinformation, as mentioned before, is the Code of Print and Online Media by the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a self-regulatory body for print and online media. Article 8 of the Code considers disinformation sharing as one of the most serious breaches of professional standards in journalism, and reminds media professionals of the loss of credibility they incur when they share such content.153 However, due to the fact that self-regulatory body has no means of sanctioning media outlets that spread disinformation, it is up to the print and online media outlets themselves to respect the Code (or not).
International actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina focus on disinformation within their agenda regarding media freedom and media literacy. UNESCO tackles disinformation in the country through the project Social Media 4 Peace154 and supports numerous activities related to media literacy and the fight against disinformation. In 2020, for example, it published: ‘Journalism, “Fake News” and Disinformation: A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training’155 in multiple local languages. The OSCE ranks the fight against disinformation highly on its agenda within the scope of its work regarding freedom of media and freedom of expression, as well as regarding the prevention of violent extremism. The OSCE’s focus is on education and on organizing conferences156 as well as on public advocacy157 and on supporting media organizations active in the fight against disinformation. The Council of Europe also works on the development of media literacy as tool for combating disinformation, through the project Media and Information Literacy for Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2022158.
One of the newest initiatives, product of a coalition of international actors and Bosnia and Herzegovina citizens, is The Voice for Responsibility on Networks159, run by the Centre for Human Dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland. In August 2022, a citizens’ forum was organized in Bosnia and Herzegovina that adopted a Charter on Responsible Use of Social Networks for Elections in the country.160 The aim of the Charter is to create a safe online space with minimal hate speech, disinformation, harassment, bots, trolls and manipulation. In this context, citizens appeal to political parties not to spread disinformation about themselves or their political opponents, to the media to double-check and verify information before posting it on social media, to social media platforms to reduce the spread of disinformation during election seasons,
to other citizens to verify information and report content they suspect is disinformation and to international institutions to support projects and programs aimed at preventing the spread of disinformation. The 2022 elections were the first elections that were monitored to see whether actors respected the Charter.
Fact-checking has, in a way, moved one of the primary functions of media – verifying information before publishing it – from the media to other actors, mainly NGOs. There are two ways fact-checking is used: to monitor the veracity of political statements by leaders and to monitor the veracity of mass media content. It is worth mentioning that, although it appears to be a new phenomenon that has developed with the rise of online media, fact-checking has existed before in traditional media, albeit with a slightly different approach. For example, the role of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Press Council is precisely to mediate between the media and the public in cases where the latter is not satisfied with media content in terms of factual accuracy, approach, context, which is a form of fact-checking as well.161 However, in its contemporary manifestation, fact-checking is mostly aimed at verifying media content
and media analysis. Two main fact-checking platforms and organizations are Raskrinkavanje162 and Analiziraj163. While Analiziraj is mainly focused on publishing expert analysis of media content and media context, Raskrinkavanje has a specific methodology, which is used to rate the factuality of published stories. The goal of Raskrinkavanje, as stated on their website, is “to contribute to the exposure of fake news, propaganda narratives, commercial and political interests packaged in the form of reporting and, ultimately, to the construction of a more credible media sphere in Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond.”164 They also strive to contribute to building a critical approach to media content and strengthening media literacy. One good example of their efforts is the “Media Literacy Quiz” on their website, in which every citizen can check his/her level of media literacy and test how much they know about strategies used to recognize disinformation.165
When it comes to the public perception of these two platforms, it seems that their audience and viewers do respond well to their work,166 understanding that fact-checking is aimed at holding both political leaders and the media accountable and that the work of fact-checkers helps the public better understand not only the factual accuracy of published information, but also the context, the framing, and the reasons why information is presented in certain ways. Although the fact that people tend to accept fact-checkers well and quite often report to them – and to the Press Council – articles that contain disinformation167 might seem as a sign of a high level of media literacy among the general public, this is actually not the case and media literacy education is not high on the agenda of educational authorities. The Position Paper on
National Media and Information Literacy Strategies and Policies in BiH states that:
“Despite the increasing development of new technologies and the growing role played by media in society, there is no adequate government action nor public discussion in Bosnia and Herzegovina on issues related to media and information literacy. Children and youth in BiH have very limited, if any, opportunities to gain skills and competencies needed for successful living in a digital age. Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are not equipped to demand free access to information through independent and diverse media, and chaotic digital media landscape opens up opportunities for spreading various forms of distorted news and distorted information. Libraries across the country are mostly unused and although they have a potential to play a significant role in the process of lifelong learning, they are not recognized as institutional support for achieving the goals of the information society.”168
In spite of the fact that media literacy is not developed systematically and strategically, especially not in the formal education system, it has been promoted and advocated for by academic community and civil society in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the past ten years. The first book about the strategic approach to media literacy has been written by Lea Tajić in 2013.169 Many scientific articles, books and strategic papers have been published since then.170 Regulatory and self-regulatory bodies in the country have performed research on media literacy, as well as worked on educational programs and trainings. The Communication Regulatory Agency has established a network of stakeholders in its efforts so as to coordinate their activities. They also developed a Facebook page and a website section related to media and information literacy. The Agency works closely with the Council of Europe on development of media literacy strategies, including strategies for preventing the spread of disinformation.171
The University of Sarajevo is also working on developing a strategic approach to media literacy in formal education. The Institute of Social Research of the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Sarajevo is a strategic partner of UNESCO in a project called Building Trust in Media in the South East Europe and Turkey.172 Besides developing a strategic approach to media and information literacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, providing training for teacher and librarians in the field of media and information literacy, publishing books and establishing open educational resources (OER) for media and information literacy, the Institute has developed a hybrid model of multi-component integration of media and information literacy in formal education in the country and has done a lot of lobbying for media and information literacy to become integral part of formal education at all levels.
The Agency for Pre-School, Elementary School and High School Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, through the eTwinning program and Erasmus+, has developed a Media Literacy and Disinformation Initiative.173 Areas covered by eTwinning include digital literacy, digital and intellectual rights and responsibilities, digital security and data protection, digital legislation and codes of conduct, digital accessibility and digital communication. Throughout 2021, the Agency has promoted media literacy and the fight against disinformation through many activities, from professional development opportunities to networking events and conferences, from communication campaigns and publications to featured articles on their web portal.
Other actors, mainly from civil society, that work hard on developing informal media literacy training programs, doing research and promoting media literacy as a tool for combating disinformation are the BiH Journalists Association174, Media Centar Sarajevo175 and Zašto ne, the organization that also co-owns the Raskinkavanje fact-checking platform)176.
In the context of raising awareness of the general population for disinformation, it is also worth mentioning some of the documentary films produced in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of them is A Day in Life of a Bot by Bojan Tomić, a film that is part of the Media Centar Sarajevo portfolio177 and that explains how the online spread of disinformation is functioning in the country and how some prominent people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are becoming targets of smear campaigns. Another documentary is The Junk Folder by Alen Šimić, also part of the Media Centar Sarajevo arsenal of resources,178 which explains the phenomenon of disinformation on the internet. These films are some of the rare products offered to general public in the form of documentaries that try to explain the negative influence of disinformation on the public in the country.
In general, we may say that when it comes to spread of disinformation, countermeasures and initiatives are mainly being developed by educational institutions, international actors and civil society, whereas government institutions, with the exception of regulatory and self-regulatory bodies and the Agency for Pre-School, Elementary School and High School Education, do not place the fight against disinformation high on their agenda.
Disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is an issue that so far has not been dealt with systematically. Starting from the use and understanding of terminology, which is different for different stakeholders (“fake news,” disinformation, misinformation etc.), it is clear that not much attention has been paid to solving the problem of disinformation dissemination. The main
Media Center has created a training rpogram for families, teachers, journalists and the public „Building Resistance to Disinformation“, together with organization Transitions from Prague, aimed at raising the level of media literacy of citizens in order to help them better resist the influences of disinformation (https://www.media.ba/bs/project/izgradnja-otpornosti-na-dezinformacije-program-obuke-za-porodice-nastavnike-novinare-i-sir-0). problem of disinformation is connected to the ethnic and political divisions in the country, where disinformation narratives are used to support and maintain the status quo and to keep the main political ethno-national parties in power
– which is also why disinformation campaigns are most often happening prior to elections. Apart from domestic political parties, two key main actors of disinformation spread are tabloid media from neighboring Serbia (due to spillover of their content and the shared language) and Russia (through their own agencies, as well as through media from Serbia that are closely related to them). Since the general public still has a low level of media literacy, disinformation is quite often accepted by the public as the truth.
Main actors that are involved in the process of raising awareness among general public about the dangers of disinformation and propaganda in a society as fragile as that of Bosnia and Herzegovina are NGOs and academic community. Their two main strategies are fact-checking and attempts to raise the level of media literacy. Although combating disinformation is formally part of the task of a relevant regulatory and self-regulatory bodies, there have been cases where the responsibility to impose anti-disinformation rules was misused as an excuse to limit media freedom.
In general, we can conclude that the spread of disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is regularly used as a propaganda and political manipulation tool by some of the country’s political parties as well as by some foreign states, and that it remains an unsolved issue that has a strong negative impact on a largely media-illiterate general public.
Disinformation, Propaganda and Fake News in Bulgaria
By Ruslan Stefanov, Boryana Velcheva and Goran Georgiev179
Bulgaria remains one of the members of NATO and the EU that are most vulnerable to malign Russian influence.180 Bulgarian society has long been susceptible to pro-Kremlin and anti-democratic disinfxormation. Thirty years after the fall of the communist regime, many Bulgarians are still disappointed by the outcome of the transition to a market economy, and many tend to blame this on the country’s pro-European and pro-Atlantic orientation or the democratic system itself. Bulgaria is also often viewed as one of the weakest links in the Euro-Atlantic chain of defence by international observers and policy analysts, with its predisposition to foreign authoritarian disinformation being a key vulnerability. China is notably less visible in public discourse but given its growing economic interests in the region, it could become a major vulnerability in the future following or building on Russia’s playbook.
In 2020, only 35 % of Bulgarians expressed support for a liberal democratic form of governance, while 45 % preferred a strong-hand leadership model.181 A vast majority of Bulgarians express feelings of social injustice due to the widespread belief that oligarchs have a strong hold over the government and use their financial resources to get preferential treatment from society and public institutions. Most Bulgarians also express distrust toward mainstream media and labelled it unfree and captured by oligarchic interests.182 The high levels of social polarisation and economic dissatisfaction, coupled with a general distrust of institutions, media, and even fellow citizens, play well to the anti-systemic, conspiratorial narratives of the Kremlin.
Bulgaria’s vulnerability to the Kremlin’s information influence is compounded by well-established Russophile attitudes in society. Pro-Russian views are fortified by a shared cultural, religious and linguistic heritage with Russia, which is often exalted to near-mythical status in pro-Kremlin messaging. Similar to other countries in the region, Russia has been able to exploit problems in content provision, media freedom, and ownership transparency to amplify its information influence. The combination of these factors has resulted in a strong cognitive media capture. By extension Putin and Moscow have enjoyed some of the highest popularity ratings in Bulgaria, compared to all other countries in Europe, at least up until Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
In 2020 and 2021, 70 % of Bulgarians had positive perceptions of Vladimir Putin — the highest approval rating among EU Member States, comparable only to those in Slovakia.183 However, following Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, approval for Putin plummeted more than twofold, down to 29 %.184 Moreover, 33 % of Bulgarians now state that they consider Russia to be a significant threat to Bulgaria, a considerable increase from the 3 % in 2020 and 7 % in 2019.185 Additionally, in the last few years Bulgaria has been able to reduce the Kremlin’s extensive economic influence in the country by:
abandoning the construction of the Belene nuclear power plant;186 downgrading the SouthStream project, initially envisioned to be under equal Russo-Bulgarian co-ownership, to TurkStream, owned exclusively by Bulgaria;187 supporting EU sanctions and refusing to bow to Moscow’s demands to pay for Russian gas in roubles.188
Despite the recent economic and public opinion shift away from Kremlin, the high levels of state capture and corruption in Bulgaria, combined with Russia’s centuries-old direct and indirect presence in the region, allow the Kremlin to still command support from government actors.189 Moreover, the Kremlin maintains its significant influence over Bulgaria’s internal affairs, energy sector and the media landscape. Attempts to curb Russia’s economic influence have led the Kremlin to resort to a far more aggressive approach — utilising the Kremlin playbook by spreading disinformation, influencing political parties, and intimidating business people in Russia — competitive industries such as arms trading. All these divide the Bulgarian society as social and traditional media are blanketed with relentless disinformation campaigns and propaganda.
The role of Russia’s official institutions in such propaganda campaigns, and in particular its embassy in Sofia, has been conspicuous.
Terminology and Definitions
Bulgaria’s legal framework lacks a definition for disinformation, thus naturally limiting the country’s institutional approach to countering disinformation. There have been a handful of attempts to introduce laws containing definitions over the last few years. However, most efforts have been highly politicised and incongruent with the emerging conceptual and practical standards in
the EU and the rest of the Euro-Atlantic community. For example, in 2020 the nationalist party VMRO used the COVID-19 pandemic to try to introduce laws with such a broad spectrum of definitions for disinformation and fake news that it would have provided the government administration with unprecedented censorship powers, including prison sentences.190
In the last two years, counter-disinformation efforts have intensified in Bulgaria’s non-governmental sector, which has been the staunchest opposing force to foreign authoritarian influence. Non-governmental (NGO) and civil society organisations (CSO) have employed the established conceptual and financial framework at EU level through the European Commission’s (EC) Action Plan against Disinformation, the Code of Practice on Disinformation (COP), and the work of the various StratCom Task Forces of the European External Action Services (particularly the East StratCom Task Force). Both the Action Plan Against Disinformation and the COP define disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm”.191 Nevertheless, EU-supported initiatives, of which Bulgarian organisations are increasingly a part of, are still in the process of clearing up differences in interpretation.
Considerable uncertainty and inconsistencies regarding the taxonomy of disinformation in Bulgaria remains, especially as related to the manipulation of other types of information. Terms such as “fake news”, “propaganda” and even “misinformation” are often used interchangeably to refer to disinformation, especially by the media and the general public. In addition, there is widespread misunderstanding in public discourse, when attempting to differentiate between coordinated inauthentic and genuine behaviour. Outside expert circles, disinformation is almost exclusively discussed in the context
of coordinated disinformation campaigns by organized “trolling groups”. This has resulted in a tendency for media and the general public to severely underestimate the level of cognitive media capture in Bulgaria, i.e. the extent to which large public groups, including journalists and policy-makers, have fallen victim to the Kremlin’s incessant disinformation of the last decade.
In the political discourse in Bulgaria, just like elsewhere in Europe and beyond, disinformation and “fake news” are being used interchangeably. The latter term has been exclusively used to dismiss political opponents and their ideas and not to design any countervailing policies whatsoever. Many parties and politicians see the opportunity to take advantage of existing public attitudes - not creating them, but simply reinforcing them and utilizing them to their advantage.192 Due to the short-term horizon of domestic politics in Bulgaria since 2020, politicians often intentionally use the term “fake news” to streamline populist agenda and promote political messages without bearing any responsibility for dissemination or the absence of any fact checking.
Audience and Perspective
Journalism in Bulgaria faces numerous challenges connected to the spread of pro-Kremlin disinformation by Kremlin-controlled and Kremlin-aligned entities in the country. From a societal perspective, a general failure to check the spread of pro-Kremlin disinformation over the last decade, coupled with a historical predisposition to favouring Russia, means that Bulgarian media continue to be pressured to cater to pro-Russian attitudes. Widespread distrust of mainstream media, dissatisfaction with democracy, and an above-average tendency to consume news from social media adds further pressure to publish sensationalist material that reflects feelings of disempowerment and disillusionment. There
is also the legacy of communist-era journalism, in which editors and reporters who are used to relying on information from Russian news agencies and outlets, which they may find easier to translate and localise.193
Journalism in Bulgaria is especially vulnerable from a financial perspective, particularly after media ownership by large Western multinationals was supplanted by local actors following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Bulgarian media is highly dependent on advertising revenue, a significant part of which comes from Russian companies or local companies with business ties to Russia.194 Many outlets are also financially dependent on the government, which in the recent past has often supported large-scale Russian economic projects, particularly in the energy sector. In addition, before the war in Ukraine essentially most, if not outright all, Bulgarian political leaders had been very careful to balance the country’s Euro-Atlantic membership with clear appeasement to
the regime in Moscow. Various popular outlets have fallen in the hands of local oligarchs with political clout and business connections to Russia, severely affecting their editorial policies.195 These financial vulnerabilities are compounded by the fact that content provision from Western news agencies is often beyond the means of Bulgarian outlets, whereas Russian sources offer their content at a fraction of the price, even free of charge in some cases.196
A 2021-analysis by media experts showed that 26 % of articles published in Bulgaria’s state news agency (BTA) were either beneficial to the authorities in Moscow and the Russian Embassy in Sofia or based on information by the Russian state news agency TASS.197 This raised serious concerns that BTA behaves almost like a “Balkan affiliate of TASS” (the most quoted source) and a “Trojan horse” for the Kremlin’s media propaganda within the EU.
The general public is exposed to disinformation on a daily basis, both through conventional and social media, which often has an underrated effect on policy-making on the highest levels of government. Bulgarian politics is characterised by populism, polarisation and weak leadership, meaning politicians are highly reactive to perceived shifts in public opinion and popular media publications. As such, even self-proclaimed pro-Western politicians are often pressured into making unreasonable concessions that compromise Euro-Atlantic principles and are favourable to Russia, or else risk losing public support. A good illustration of the latter are the events that occurred on 28 June 2022, when the Bulgarian government, declared 70 Russian diplomats persona non grata due to espionage. This is the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats from Europe since the UK expulsed 105 Soviet diplomats during the Cold War in 1971. The public opinion was strongly against the expulsion and many politicians and media made statements in support of the diplomats. BSP chairperson Cornelia Ninova, in particular, published a position on her Facebook profile in which she defined the decision as an “unprecedented act in Bulgarian diplomacy”, although her party was part of the ruling majority, whose government took the decision. President Rumen Radev made a very similar statement. Both expressed doubt about the government’s motives and the evidence behind them. Furthermore, in March the same year, Bulgaria expelled 10 Russian diplomats, and the Kremlin inspired voices responded in the same vein.198
Bulgarian public perceptions towards China are more ambivalent. China is largely seen and portrayed in the Bulgarian media through the prisms of its substantial economy, manufacturing capabilities, trading networks, and technological advancements and its population and territorial size. China has steadily increased its informational presence in Bulgaria but still remains on the periphery of public opinion.199 So far it has mostly relied on directly owned media outlets (such as “China Today”) or paid content in popular local media (such as the Radio China International column in the daily “24 Chasa”).
Narratives, Case Studies and Examples
Bulgaria has been the target of ceaseless influence operations and other disinformation-related activities by Russia for more than a decade. Pro-Kremlin disinformation is ubiquitous throughout Bulgaria’s information landscape. Due to the country’s communist past, Russian influence is ingrained in the cultural mainstream. As such, Russian disinformation is more comprehensible and reaches the Bulgarian audience easier compared to Western European audiences.
Recurrent disinformation narratives in Bulgaria typically focus on the most divisive topics in social, political, cultural and economic life, particularly as they relate to the country’s geopolitical orientation. Topic-centred disinformation campaigns happen against a fixed background of constant anti-Euro-Atlantic and anti-democratic disinformation, which carries the hallmarks of the Soviet-era propaganda that preceded it. Pro-Kremlin disinformation played a considerable role in undermining, disrupting, and politicizing Bulgaria’s national response to critical matters, such as:
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine;
- the COVID-19 pandemic;
- the global energy crisis;
- the implementation of the Green Deal;
- and Bulgaria’s diplomatic row with North Macedonia.
Some of the most frequent targets of disinformation in Bulgaria are the US and NATO, which are essentially equated in pro-Kremlin messaging as being a single domineering entity that seeks global hegemony through aggressive and duplicitous means. 200 The EU is also a frequent target and is almost exclusively portrayed as a puppet of the US that dictates harmful policies to its weaker members. Disinformation targeting the Euro-Atlantic community is most often accompanied by anti-democratic messaging, which resonates deeply with Bulgarians’ dissatisfaction with how democracy works in their country.201 While anti-democratic disinformation in Bulgaria does not invent any new formula, it is anti-institutional, anti-civic, Eurosceptic, and pro-Russian.
Arguably, some of the most impactful recurrent disinformation narratives in the last few years related to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination, which pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-controlled entities spread profusely throughout 2020 and 2021. This contributed to the reasons why Bulgaria was and remains the EU member with the lowest vaccination rate and with some of the worst COVID-19 related statistics throughout the pandemic.202 A study from the EU-Disinfo Lab regarding anti-vaccine-disinformation in Bulgaria from March 2021 uncovered that many narratives that had already been debunked by fact-checkers in other countries were still quite popular in Bulgaria. Furthermore, a wide range of “home-grown” disinformation narratives were successfully disseminated. 97 % of all anti-vaxx posts included in the study did not have any fact-check labels and were still accumulating interactions although they clearly violated Facebook’s policies against vaccine misinformation. COVID-related disinformation was also a key driving force behind the rise of the hyper-populist pro-Kremlin Revival (Vazrazhdane) party. The party was able to make its way to parliament in the general elections of November 2021, largely relying on disinformation and other means of propaganda in its political campaign. In the same vein, it is slated to win even more votes in the October 2022 elections.
An unprecedented three general elections and one presidential election were held in 2021 following a year of mass anti-graft protests, which created an uncertain political atmosphere in the country, ideal for the proliferation of pro-Kremlin disinformation. This was an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives to facilitate even more polarization in Bulgarian society and amplify the effects of wide-spread conspiracies. Some of the most popular and impactful disinformation narratives during this eight month election period were:203
- COVID-19 is a hoax or at least exaggerated, meaning that measures to restrict infections are not necessary, while vaccines are dangerous and could be more harmful than the disease itself.
- Vaccines were developed in a short period and are thus untested and unsafe.
- Russian energy projects need to be supported because they improve Bulgaria’s energy security, relations with Russia and ensure economic development. The EU cannot afford to stop the Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream projects and the U.S. is selfishly meddling in domestic decisions of EU member states.
- The European Green Deal is ruining the Bulgarian economy by leading to massive unemployment in coal regions. It is based on EU and liberal delusions that ignore the lack of reliability and excessive costs of green energy.
- The EU is hypocritical in its democracy and transparency demands, as it enables the survival of successive corrupt Bulgarian governments.
- The EU promotes liberal over traditional national conservative values and as such threatens traditional Bulgarian culture.
The beginning of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine saw a flurry of activity by local pro-Kremlin pundits who proliferated the full array of the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives that justified the war in Bulgarian mainstream space.204 Among these narratives was the widespread notion that the war is a proxy war between NATO, as controlled by the US, and Russia, with the latter defending itself against NATO’s supposedly aggressive and expansionist policies. The Ukrainian armed forces were widely presented as disorganized bands of neo-Nazis that use civilians as shields and conduct war crimes against Ukrainian citizens in order to blame them on Russia. Various articles attempted to rationalise President Zelensky’s Jewish ancestry with his supposedly fascist politics.
Other viral disinformation narratives include:
- The US has been developing and testing biological weapons in Ukraine205; The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine is in fact a “special military operation” aimed at the de-Nazification of Ukraine, provoked by the Eastern enlargement of NATO and the aggressive West206;
- Western sanctions are ineffective and/or simply Russophobic, aimed at the unprovoked destruction of a great country207.
Pro-Kremlin entities also conducted a highly effective disinformation campaign targeting Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Europe, portraying them as obnoxious and insolent free-loaders exploiting the goodwill of their hosts. Explicit pro-Kremlin disinformation went so far as to call refugees “parasites” and “leeches” who were supposedly carrying various diseases caused by secret Western-funded biological experiments in Ukraine. These narratives were a major reason why popular support for refugees in Bulgaria plummeted after the first month of the invasion.208
In terms of the dissemination of Chinese content, a few major examples stand out. “China Today” has become a recent addition to the Bulgarian newspaper market209, focusing entirely on Chinese domestic and foreign policy developments. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper is a prominent member of the BSP and owns and publishes several pro-Russian newspapers in Bulgaria.210 The chair of China Today’s editorial board, meanwhile, is none other than the last director of the Bulgarian communist party security services’ political police (prior to 1989). One of the largest Bulgarian dailies, “24 Chasa”, further maintains a column, financed by Radio China International, specifically dedicated to China.
Local media networks are becoming more receptive to Chinese (dis)information narratives, a pattern particularly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Outlets, like China Today, have sought to draw attention to the overlaps in Russian and Chinese positions in international affairs – this fits a broader coordination campaign between the global (dis)information strategies of Russia and China.211
Media, Sources and Multipliers of Disinformation
Disinformation is continuously spread by informal networks of influence, including various politicians, academics, influencers, journalists, and tycoons, whose interests often overlap or become entangled with those of the Kremlin. Pro-Kremlin disinformation is consistently present in both conventional and social media, with content on social media being more explicit and extremist in relative terms. To a large extent, this situation is the result of the significant transformations that Bulgaria’s media sector underwent after 2010 when local oligarchs with political clout and business connection to Russia supplanted large Western media companies, resulting in plummeting journalistic standards and media freedom.212
The political parties that have been in power for the last 30 years practised media capture for their own needs, which significantly disrupted Bulgaria’s media sector and led to its “oligarchizing”. Politicians ended up advertently and inadvertently amplifying the Kremlin’s disinformation in an effort to support their own interests vis-a-vis Putin’s geo-political intentions for the country. Seeing the government’s support for the Kremlin’s projects and policies, mainstream media moguls followed suit, acting in synchrony with their political associates and informal partners, and reinforcing their own rentier projects with Russia.
While “traditional” mainstream parties, such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party BSP and the Movement for Reforms and Freedoms MRF are reported to have well-established and publicly known media connection, the party that exemplifies this dynamic more recently is GERB, which was in power between 2009 and 2021. Outlets publicly associated with supporting the pro-Western GERB-government, e.g. the dailies Trud213 and Telegraph, the news agency PIK and the online news outlet Blitz214, promoted for example the Russian gas pipelines “SouthStream” and “TurkStream”.215
Media in Bulgaria have tended to shift allegiance depending on which party is in power and controls public procurement and advertisement revenues. Subsequently, they have tended to parrot, rather than question government narratives, including those relating to Russia.
Similarly, disinformation has been aided by media concentration. Media laws in Bulgaria have been drafted in such a way as to discourage (smaller) newcomers. A case in point is the 2019 amendment to the Law on the Mandatory Deposit of Printed and Other Publications216, requested by Delyan Peevsky, a member of Parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party and alleged media tycoon, who, according to Reporters Without Borders at the time controlled more than 80 % of Bulgaria’s newspaper distribution business.217 The most important take from the revised law was that the size of the fines for non-disclosure of ownership unfairly affected novel and small media businesses. The big media company owners manage to obscure who is in charge of the media’s corporate ownership by submitting data via sophisticated, difficult-to-verify ownership frameworks which operate through a chain of offshore-registered subsidiaries218. The financial data submitted to official registries reveals substantial gaps in the volume
of ownership information available, particularly concerning the amounts and sources of financing. Interestingly, the media that allegedly were part of Delyan Peevsky’s media conglomerate, are now reported to be among the main spreaders of Russian disinformation narratives.219
The concentration of media ownership within a small circle of oligarchic actors with strong political influence, turned media into a tool for attacking opposing political figures, business rivals, activists and journalists. The Kremlin has successfully managed to leverage this type of media capture in Bulgaria by forging ties with local oligarchs and moguls. This facilitates Russia’s goal to utilize local media companies to spread its disinformation narratives and influence the decision-making process, without the danger of being exposed as media owners or the need to invest resources for a direct presence in the media sector.
While there are very few media companies in Bulgaria owned by Russian entities, there are many domestic owners who are known to have firm pro-Russian economic and political ties, but some of them also beliefs for a variety of reasons not always related to direct economic benefits. Some major newspapers (e.g. Standard), several smaller TV networks (BSTV and Channel 3), and official party newspapers (such as Duma, the newspaper of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP) have demonstrated strong pro-Russian stances. The Kremlin’s disinformation and other types of propaganda is also disseminated by various local online news outlets, where its influence can be traced back mainly to the editorial content.
Strikingly, the number of articles containing pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives in Bulgarian online media averaged 40 a day in early 2022 before the invasion of Ukraine and 396 a day immediately after the war started. This indicates that Russian propaganda in Bulgaria skyrocketed 10 times after the invasion on 24 February. Even more alarming is the fact that the study in question does not even cover social media platforms.220
Holding some 70% of the social media market, Facebook remains the preeminent social media and the most prolific source of disinformation in Bulgaria. Hundreds of pages and groups in Bulgarian Facebook space proliferate pro-Kremlin disinformation on a daily basis with a combined potential reach in the millions of people. In fact, some of the most interacted with pages in Bulgarian Facebook space are ones that systematically spread pro-Kremlin disinformation. These include the page of the well-known Pogled.info, a Kremlin-aligned online news outlet that translates hundreds of articles and books from GlobalResearch.ca and the Katehon think-tank, both of which are Kremlin-controlled entities that amplify Russia’s information influence abroad. Martin Karbovski, a highly popular showman whose posts are often some of the most interacted with on Bulgarian Facebook space, is another prominent amplifier of the Kremlin’s disinformation. Other examples include the pages of the online outlets Bez Logo (Without Logo), Informiran.net, Epicenter.bg, as well as tens of (seemingly) user-driven groups dedicated to promoting closer relations with Russia.
The pro-Kremlin “Revival”-party (Vazrazhdane), which has been gaining ground with each new election, is single-handedly responsible for attracting the vast majority of public attention to radical, pro-Kremlin political stances in Bulgarian Facebook space out of all parties active on Facebook. The Facebook pages of Revival and its leader continuously publish posts with outright pro-Kremlin disinformation. These are often some of the most interacted with posts on key political issues in Bulgarian Facebook space, rivalling the popularity of established pro-Kremlin outlets such as Pogled.info. The party was able to gain a considerable following with its COVID-19-conspiracies and anti-vaccine-disinformation and it has continued using Facebook to maintain and garner more support by producing pro-Kremlin disinformation.
Figure 1: Bulgarian Political Parties Facebook Pages - Total Interactions per Month (1 Jan – 30 Aug 2022)
Source: CSD based on data from CrowdTangle.
When compared to the Facebook pages of five larger mainstream parties and their leaders, those of Revival and its leader have been able to consistently account for well-over 50 % of the total interactions between January 2021 and June 2022. Notably, there were three general elections and one presidential election between April and November 2021. Revival was only able to enter Parliament on the third try in November 2021 with 4.9 %.221 The latest polls indicate the party will nearly double its support to 7.5 % to 8% in the snap general election slated for October 2022.222
The issue of social media platforms, especially Facebook groups and pages, being incubators of pro-Russian narratives, appears almost impossible to resolve.223 The Kremlin and Kremlin-aligned entities utilise troll factories224 and online media outlets in order to distribute propaganda even further throughout social media. Similar to other countries in Eastern European, it is not possible to simply close off Russia-controlled media companies and resolve the disinformation problem through direct deterrence measures.225
An in-depth contextual evaluation of the active pro-Kremlin networks in the Bulgarian public Facebook domain through cluster-classification illustrates the disinformation channels active on the platform.226 Official Russian soft power public pages form a small cluster on the periphery of Bulgarian Facebook space, close to channels focusing on the EU, international organisations and Western foreign policy. Pages or groups which are explicitly pro-Kremlin do not actively interact with mainstream pages, and their activities are more focused on interviews with high-level Russian politicians and on Russian foreign policy topics. The main connection between pro-Kremlin disinformation channels and mainstream ones is found in channels associated with Russophile interpretation of Bulgarian history and pseudo-patriotic ideas. These are located in the direct vicinity to channels associated with civil society, indicating that disinformation could be penetrating into more general discussions.
The pro-Kremlin agenda has been widely present in the Bulgarian political discourse, and the Kremlin has sought to influence parties across the entire political spectrum in the country. Domestic political support for Russia is enabled by Russian and Bulgarian state capture networks which hold sway over key institutions.227 At the same time, most Bulgarian parties cater to the pro-Russian sentiment in society by generally promoting better ties, or at least a balanced relationship with Russia. Russian influence is most visible among radical political parties. Though these groups typically play a fringe role in domestic politics, they serve to augment existing social ideological and value-oriented tensions in Bulgarian society.228 However, they have gained popularity and have been able to attract followers by championing extremely populistic sentiments against the EU and NATO, in relation to the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine.
Disinformation in Bulgarian politics is inextricably linked to the Kremlin’s influence, as well as that of local oligarchic groups with political clout and interests that overlap with those of the Kremlin.229 The Kremlin’s main vehicle of influence is corruption, specifically state capture at the hands of local Kremlin-aligned oligarchic groups and informal networks, while also directly influencing political parties which then exploit their institutional power to increase their information influence and that of the Kremlin. According to the US Department of State, Russia has provided at least $300 million to political parties, officials and politicians in countries in Central and Eastern Europa and Central Asia with the goal of exerting political influence and impacting elections in these countries.230
The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party, remains the most popular Russia-inclined party and has an official cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. Along with other mainstream parties, such as the influential Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party, BSP has consistently promoted large-scale Russian economic projects in Bulgaria, including through the spread of disinformation on BSP’s official TV station, daily newspaper, and social media channels. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021, BSP also promoted the Sputnik V vaccine, called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia, and portrayed the Istanbul Convention as antithetical to Bulgarian culture by restating various pro-Kremlin narratives against the international agreement.231
Russia has used its energy resources on multiple occasions as a tool of blackmailing other countries into taking a pro-Kremlin stance.232 The diversification of energy supplies is one of the fundamental cornerstones of the EU’s energy policy – it solidifies European energy security, prevents monopolization of the energy market and secures fair competitiveness to the energy market. GERB and MRF continued policies started by the BSP and the former king’s movement NDSV, paving the way for the Kremlin’s capture of some of the most lucrative assets in Bulgaria, making the country among the most economically vulnerable to Russian influence in the EU.233
A group of smaller radical, nationalist parties is consistently showing the strongest propensity towards willingly attracting Russian influence in Bulgaria while in power. It included Ataka, which was part of the United Patriots (UP) coalition and by extension part of the GERB-led coalition government from
2017 to 2021, and the Volya (‘Will’) movement. These parties have championed outright pro-Kremlin and anti-Western stances. Ataka’s links to the Kremlin are well-documented and include an emphasis on close cooperation with the ruling United Russia party.234 It has also been repeatedly alleged that the party has received financing from the Kremlin.235 Ataka, notably, has been an important political player and influenced the appointment of key positions in the former government, including the Minister of Economy.236 More broadly, the UP coalition used its position of power to promulgate nationalist and anti-liberal messages regularly taken up and disseminated by pro-Kremlin media outlets.237 The leader of the biggest group within this coalition, VMRO, and former Minister of Defense, Krassimir Karakachanov, has repeatedly denied that Russia is a threat, refusing to condemn the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policies.
He has also consistently criticized NATO and the EU for allegedly escalating tensions with Russia.238
GERB’s over decade-long rule came to an end in April 2021 following almost a year of mass anti-graft protests throughout Bulgaria. This led to an unprecedented three general elections in the space of just seven months between April and November 2021. Since then, Bulgaria is characterised by domestic political uncertainty and reeling from the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19-pandemic, the global energy crisis and its own domestic political crisis. The country’s political situation grew only more precarious with the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, particularly due to the Kremlin’s outsized influence on Bulgaria’s internal affairs, energy sector and media landscape. Known pro-Kremlin influence agents and politicians were immediately spurred into action in an unprecedented manner after the end of February 2022, including by amplifying the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives on mainstream TV and radio stations. In the first week of the invasion Bulgaria’s then Minister of Defence Stefan Yanev (and two consecutive times’ Prime Minister of the care-taker governments in 2021) kept insisting the invasion was a “special military operation”, directly parroting Russia’s official narrative. After three days of hesitation the Prime Minister Kiril Petkov dismissed the minister on 28 February. The start of the Russian invasion into Ukraine prompted an unusually aggressive and undiplomatic behaviour on the part of the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria. On 3 March 2022, during the traditional celebrations of the Bulgarian freedom from Ottoman rule, which was won in a Russian – Turkish war, the Russian ambassador insisted the war in Ukraine was also a similar war of liberation. Incited by such brazen behaviour the radicals from Vazrazhdane literally attacked the Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Speaker with snow balls during the celebrations of March 3. The party also led an unlawful removal of Ukrainian flags from the building of the Sofia municipality, hoisted there by decision of the City Council in support of the Ukrainian people. Along with Poland, Bulgaria became the first EU member to which Russia cut natural gas supplies at the end of April 2022 after both countries refused to give in to Gazprom’s ultimatum and begin unlawful payments of shipments in roubles. This latest episode of Russian bullying came after years of suspected foul play on the part of Russian security services in Bulgaria, including alleged involvement in multiple incidents of explosions at ammunition depots and the poisoning of a major arms dealer.
The increase in pro-Kremlin disinformation and Moscow’s energy blackmail of Bulgaria substantially increased the pressure on the new government. Despite facing strong opposition from both inside the coalition and from opposition parties, the coalition government led by We Continue the Change (PP) managed to keep the country on a Euro-Atlantic course, aligning its policies with EU sanctions on Moscow. The newly established Ministry of e-Government was the first Bulgarian institution to take an active role in countering the Kremlin’s disinformation. It was also the first institution to engage in consistent strategic communication regarding the state of the Kremlin’s information influence in Bulgaria and the Ministry’s activities to curb it.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s disinformation managed to undermine Bulgaria’s foreign and domestic policy efforts. Just four months after the beginning of the invasion, Bulgaria’s pro-Western coalition government lost a vote of no-confidence in June 2022 after ITN, one of the coalition parties, abandoned the alliance and stripped the government of its majority. Notably, the coalition government failed to deliver on its hallmark promises to tackle endemic corruption by implementing comprehensive reforms to Bulgaria’s long-ailing justice system. It also struggled to restrain the activities of Kremlin-aligned outlets, some of the most popular of which have been benefiting from government support, as well as poor implementation of ownership regulation, for over a decade. Importantly, the coalition government was also unable to shake off Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian crude oil and petroleum products, asking for and being granted a derogation from the EU’s oil import sanctions in June 2022.239
With the fall of the coalition government, Bulgaria’s President appointed a caretaker administration in July 2022, which was Bulgaria’s third caretaker government in a little over a year. Just like his previous two appointments of his second term, this third government seemed to take an avowedly pro-Russian stance, feeding pro-Russian disinformation and narratives in the Bulgarian public. In particular, the provisional government immediately moved to try to appease Gazprom to restore supplies to the country, in the process implicating the Bulgarian government as the faulty party to the contract, which the Russian monopolist did not honour in the first place. Polls show that pro-Kremlin parties are poised to considerably increase their share in the parliament, following the fourth general elections in two years on 3 October 2022, with its geopolitical orientation once again being put to the test.
Political parties in Bulgaria generally do not have expertise and do not at all address in their public speaking and proposed policies the issue of disinformation as a form of hybrid threat. Moreover, most politicians misuse the term “fake news” to label their opponents’ political messages. Such a combination of a lack of capacity and political focus prevents Bulgaria from adequately assessing the security risks of disinformation and from properly addressing them.
Bulgaria’s legal system still lacks regulations aimed specifically at countering disinformation and disinformation-related activities. There is no one government body tasked with or vested with the powers to counter disinformation, or indeed hybrid threats in general. In other words, Bulgaria is still in the preliminary phase of developing an institutional approach to curb the spread of disinformation, as well as safeguard public discourse. The country still lacks the institutional infrastructure to detect, let alone analyse and counter, foreign influence operations and hybrid threats, or to address the critical governance vulnerabilities that enable them.
The Ministry of E-government, established in 2021, was the first government body every to take concrete steps against the spread of disinformation. In cooperation with the cybersecurity unit of the General Directorate Combating Organized Crime (GDCOC), the Ministry blocked 45,000 IP addresses associated with the Kremlin’s hybrid operations against Bulgaria in the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.240 The Ministry also drafted plans to establish an analytical unit under it, which would be tasked with monitoring Bulgaria’s information landscape for disinformation narratives and keeping relevant stakeholders (including government, private companies and media) informed. It also engaged the issue internationally by consulting with the institutions of other countries (such as Estonia, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden) on their experience and best practices. The Ministry submitted detailed suggestions to the European Council on the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), particularly in relation to the role of large social media platforms.241
The Ministry also established regular contact with Meta regarding Facebook’s ineffective content moderation in the region, which has led to the unfettered proliferation of recurrent pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives. Similar to the experience of most other European countries, this did not seem to produce any results, as Meta appeared unwilling to provide substantive answers or discuss new means of content moderation.242
Bulgaria’ Council of Electronic Media (CEM) also moved to impose measures curbing the spread of pro-Kremlin disinformation in the first week of the invasion. On 1 March 2022 CEM made the decision to temporarily suspend the TV broadcasting licenses of RT, Sputnik, and their various derivatives in Bulgaria. This was preceded by self-imposed measures by Bulsatkom, the largest satellite TV provider in Bulgaria, which suspended broadcasting of RT on 25 February, a day after the invasion began.
Fact-checking efforts have also taken off, although at a slower pace than elsewhere in Europe. Launched in 2016, “FACT CHECK” by the online news outlet “Mediapool” was the first fact-checking initiative in Bulgaria.243 Its focus is on claims made by members of the Bulgarian political elite and other influential public figures, especially on wider geopolitical issues, and it is updated on a monthly basis. The platform was launched in June 2021 as an initiative of the “Association of European Journalists” to counter the growing amount of disinformation in Bulgaria.244 The team of professional journalists has been checking claims on a variety of topics of public importance, ranging from concerns about coronavirus vaccines to the war in Ukraine.
In 2021 three other fact-checking initiatives were introduced. These include “BNR-FactCheck” by the Bulgarian National Radio, which is almost entirely focused on the Bulgarian domestic issues and local disinformation narratives.
In contrast, “AFP Proveri” by Agence France Presse publishes comprehensive weekly fact-checks covering both international narratives and narratives peculiar to Bulgarian public discourse. Lastly, “Factcheck.bg” by the “Association of European Journalist (AEJ)” in Bulgaria, also founded in 2021, has established itself as the largest and most active fact-checking initiative in Bulgaria.
“Factcheck.bg” publishes both fact-checks and disinformation-debunks on national and international topics of public importance on a weekly basis.245
The case of Bulgaria indicates that the problem of disinformation must be placed within the wider context of Russia’s malign influence and the complete collection of the Kremlin’s playbook of influence operations and instruments, which includes various soft, sharp, and hard power.246 However, Russia’s state capture power, and by extension its information influence, exploits and thrives on the democratic deficits and governance gaps of the receiving country. It feeds off social divisions and exploits internal political infighting and populist trends. These include judicial incapacity, lack of media freedom, oligarchizing of critical sectors, and ineffective or poorly implemented laws on anti-corruption, money laundering, and disclosure of ultimate beneficial ownership. Russia’s influence also depends on the level of receptiveness and social cohesion behind strategic national goals. Bulgaria is among the countries in Europe, having the perfect mix of high cognitive media capture (very high receptiveness to Russian influence), serious internal social and strategic political divisions, and weak governance and institutions of justice and media independence. Hence, Bulgaria needs to set its counter-disinformation policies in parallel to finally delivering on