Members of the Anti-Disinformation Network for the Balkans (ADN-Balkans), who are at the same time members of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), held a special session titled “Countering cross-border disinformation: Experiences of Anti-Disinformation Network for the Balkans” on June 30, as part of the virtual conference Global Fact 7, the largest annual worldwide gathering of fact-checkers.

The panelists included representatives of four members of ADN-Balkans, and the recording of the whole discussion is available online as a Youtube video.

The session was moderated by Bardhyl Jashari, the Executive Director of Metamorphosis Foundations from Skopje, North Macedonia. In the introduction he noted:

Working in the Balkan region is always challenging. Not only because of its troublesome history, but also because of the numerous present challenges: from combatting corruption to state capture, illegal wiretapping and surveillance, freedom of expression, migrant crisis and the very current crisis related to COVID-19 pandemic… On top of all these challenges, and intertwined with them are disinformation aimed to destabilize the region and make it backslide from democracy and disrupt peace. Disinformation that can be dangerous not only to political processes but also to our health, as we can see lately with the disinformation related to COVID-19.

In the Balkans like elsewhere, disinformation and manipulations are not limited by borders. Thanks to the internet and its very democratic nature, information and disinformation can circulate between the national political and media spheres in each of the countries, across borders, and get adapted to fit the needs of local propaganda, local politicians, radicalizing groups of people and creating divides. Very often in the Balkans, the same disinformation circulates among the media in several countries in the region and comes back to the country of origin in a more toxic form, inflaming hate speech, discrimination, and unfortunately, sometimes even inflaming conflict. And of course, disinformation is also used by various groups and countries with hostile agenda in the region, to disrupt ongoing processes of consolidation of democratic institutions, exploiting and deepening existing ethnic, cultural, religious, ideological and economic divides. And in North Macedonia, as around the region, this propaganda is weaponized around key political developments such as elections and referendums, to radicalize vulnerable groups inciting them to cause problems aimed at stopping European Union accession, and also, for some countries, NATO accession.

Jashari pointed that some of the sensible hot topics “inspiring” disinformation campaigns in the Balkans​ include the following:

  • Disinformation about threats from the so-called Greater Albania. Serbia is main source of this type of disinformation, and exploit the dialogue with Kosovo to promote and amplify this fear or threat further;
  • Entry of Western Balkan countries into the EU and NATO – causing conflicts and animosity towards member states in order to encourage veto in the members and resistance to entering the candidates (target MK, AL, ME…)​;
  • North Macedonia and Greece – name issue and false interpretations of the Prespa Agreement as a betrayal of national interests in both countries​;
  • North Macedonia and Bulgaria – identity issues, historical figures and false interpretations of the Good Neighborly Relation Agreement as a betrayal of national interests in both countries;
  • The migrant crisis in the Western Balkans is used as a justification of different political goals such as politicization of islamisation and influence of foreign cultures on our societies​;
  • Abuse of the pandemic crisis, anti-vaxxing, pseudo-science and religious propaganda for miracles and spells for destabilization by sowing insecurity and enmity on ethnic, religious, national and all other grounds​.

Klodiana Kapo, the Managing Director of Faktoje, explained how the particulars of the national context in Albania relate to their mission to fact-check “the veracity of promises, statements, of high-ranking public officials and how they spend the public funds and then tells the public the truth.” Thus, a particular aspect of fact-checking in Albania is the focus on fighting corruption and increasing transparency of government institutions, in particular regarding spending of taxpayers money. One such example is the case of the excessive expenses charged by the minister of justice in luxury hotels during trips abroad.

During their work, Faktoje tackles the issue of administrative silence by using the Freedom of Information Act, and pressing FOI lawsuits with institutions that refuse to relinquish data of public interest. At the moment they litigate against 12 government bodies.

Filip Stojanovski, Director for Partnership and Resource Development at Metamorphosis Foundation, followed up with a short presentation based on the experiences of Metamorphosis projects Media Fact-Checking Service and Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – CriThink, which operate in synergy with other efforts of the foundation aimed at fact-checking, media development and promotion of pluralism and professional journalistic standards – the Truthmeter, the news agency and news portal in Albanian language

Stojanovski used three examples of cross-border disinformation to illustrate the need for cooperation based on combining resources, including shared knowledge of local languages and local political context. The first example was about false claim that “30 million euros bribe” was paid to respective prime ministers for signing of Prespa Agreement, originating in media in Slovenia supported from Hungary, based on misinterpretation of news from Greece and repeatedly disseminated in North Macedonia.

The last two examples are more current and related to COVID-19 border closures to sow confusion and mistrust, starting with the debunked disinformation that Albania’s prime minister only welcomed ethnic Albanian visitors from abroad, which was based on erroneous translation. The last example was used to stir ethnic tensions within North Macedonia with false articles that Greece would prohibit visits of tourists specifically from parts of North Macedonia with ethnic Albanian and Roma populations.

Stojanovski stressed that the multi-stakeholder approach developed over the years in the environment of multicultural society in North Macedonia and the fruitful cooperation with other organizations from the region served as a model that led to the development of the ADN-Balkans as an example of networking developed organically to address the actual needs of the region.

Thanos Sitistas, the editor of Ellinika Hoaxes, the leading Greek fact-checking service, started his contribution by saying that they are delighted to be members of ADN Balkans, a collaborative effort by several Balkan countries. After explaining that for the past couple of years, they have established a close relationship with Metamorphosis Foundation in North Macedonia, and have worked together on several occasions in debunking fake news, by exchanging information, he stressed:

When we talk about cross-border disinformation, the Balkans should be a case study. Our region has suffered a lot since the end of the Cold War. Yugoslavia was plunged in a bloody civil war, and the successor states had trouble to keep pace with the rest of the region. Greece and North Macedonia were caught in an almost 30-year dispute regarding the latter’s name. The name issue was resolved in July 2018, with the signing of the Prespa Agreement. But the name dispute had caused, and still is causing a nationalistic fervor in both countries and especially shortly before and after the signing of the Agreement, we noticed a spike in related fake news and cross-border disinformation.

The path of the disinformation uncovered by Ellinika Hoaxes affecting North Macedonia, Lebanon, France, and Greece.

Sitistas also presented an example of cross-border disinformation debunked by Hellenic Hoaxes that goes beyond regional borders, involving media from four countries. It referred to false claims from October 2018 about US diplomats stationed in Greece and North Macedonia allegedly involved in bribing lawmakers to vote in favor of the ratification of the Prespa Agreement. Their research uncovered that the sources included Lebanon-based, Voltaire Net, and France-based Reseau International, which has connections with Sputnik France and Voltaire Net

Milena Popovic, the editor Istinomer, the first fact-checking service in Serbia and the region, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Starting as a smaller operation it grew into a real media outlet focused on fact-checking. She explained:

Balkan region is specific primary due to the recent past that connects all the countries in the region, and also because part of the countries have similar languages. Due to the lack of language barriers information is easily and quickly transferred from one to another country, but this is also true for disinformation. Since the start of coronavirus crisis, Istinomer focused on this area, like most of the other fact-checking media in the world, not just in the Balkans, due to its overwhelming importance and due to the enormous amount of related disinformation that flooded both social networks, online and traditional media.

A very important aspect of the crisis is the role of trust in officials and institutions on one side and citizens on the other side, which had been undermined by irresponsible behavior by officials. That’s why Istinomer focused their work mainly on this theme, primary on the responsibility of public officials and representatives of state institutions in charge of fighting against the coronavirus.

As an example of cross-border of disinformation, Popovic presented the case of interview with Macedonian professor Velo Markovski, whose interview with Hungarian-founded Alfa TV in North Macedonia containing various unfounded claims and speculations was used by various portals to extract clips and quotes. These included a 15-minutes video translated into Serbian also shared by politicians via social media. The teams of Istinomer and Metamorphosis worked together to fact-check these claims, consulting sources from World Health Organization to health experts in Serbia. “It turned out that the professor made a lot of unfounded and scientifically unprovable claims,” she concluded.

Istinomer cooperated with colleagues from Croatia on debunking 5G conspiracy theories promoted by Serbian pro-regime tabloids. This illustrates the specific problem of Serbia where majority of mainstream media produce fake news, as part of a “serious propaganda machine. The situation is such that most of the media, including those with national broadcast frequencies, are more or less involved” in this production in line with the interest of the regime, or keep silent about it. Through false statements, public officials attempt to “create a parallel reality,” trying to persuade Serbian citizens that their country is a leader in the region in many respects.

During the discussion, the Truthmeter editor Vladimir Petreski stressed that technology can help immensely in debunking and demasking the sources and pathways of online disinformation, and fact-checkers need access to such tools, education and local people who can use such tools.

In conclusion moderator Bardhyl Jashari said that “cross border cooperation is extremely important, that recognizing and identifying the sources of disinformation and promotors of those hostile agendas, and speaking about them openly, denouncing them is also very important. We should continue to do fact-checking, but we recognize that fact-checking alone is not enough and that other approaches are necessary in order to deminish the negative effects of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda in our societies.”