For the first time in Albania, a regional conference was held on the disinformation network in the Western Balkans region, organized by Faktoje, the only media center for fact-checking in the country. Six partner organizations presented the findings of the report after a year of cooperation to identify the main source of disinformation, the narratives used, as well as how they are distributed in the Western Balkans, driven by malicious foreign influences.
The conference, which marked the end of the regional week of fact-checking, brought together 6 organizations, including study centers and fact-checking journalism services, namely Metamorphosis from North Macedonia, ISAC fund from Serbia, CDT from Montenegro, S ‘bunker from Kosovo, ZastoNe from Bosnia Herzegovina and Faktoje from Albania, which have been cooperating for a year within the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub project supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.
During the activity, the partner organizations presented the findings from each participating country, on the form and manner of spreading disinformation in the region. Over the course of a year, the 6 organizations worked together and identified the main source of disinformation, the narratives used, as well as how it is spread in the Western Balkans, driven by malicious foreign influences.
Participants in the activity were the Dutch ambassador in Tirana, Reinout Vos, the head of the political section of the European Union delegation in Tirana, Alexis Hupin, representatives of 6 partner organizations in the region as well as representatives of the media, civil society and other media organizations in the country.
In his welcoming speech, the Dutch ambassador, Reinout Vos, emphasized the importance of media freedom and the deterioration in recent years, not only in Albania and Europe, but throughout the world.
“85% of the global population is experiencing a decline in media freedom in their countries. This, of course, also applies to Europe. For Albania, the platform for the safety of journalists of the Council of Europe this year also showed that the freedom of the media in the country continues to deteriorate even though this is one of the essential criteria of European integration. The spread of disinformation, hate speech, online threats are a very difficult part to deal with in the media sphere and for this reason we need strong civil society organizations like Faktoje, to help media freedom which is fundamental to functioning of democracy in any country.” said the Dutch Ambassador, Reinout Vos.
The head of the political section of the delegation of the European Union in Tirana, Alexis Hupin brought several examples of news with unsubstantiated information which are not necessarily driven by external malignant influences, but which show that in fact any information that is distributed must be verified before to be offered to readers as news.
The disinformation dissemination network in the Western Balkans
Increasing knowledge and creating a “big picture” of disinformation and the network through which it is distributed was one of the main goals of the work of the 6 organizations. This is aimed at increasing the resilience of societies in the region against the spread of disinformation.
The collection, processing and combination of data from 6 organizations in the Western Balkans showed that the disinformation network in the region has its main source in Russia, which spreads its narrative in Serbia. The latter then serves as a “distribution box” for other countries in the Western Balkans that speak the Serbian language.
Serbia is the most pro-Russian and pro-Chinese country in the Western Balkans. Politicians and interest groups in Serbia publicly spread Russian propaganda, helping the media spread the Kremlin’s narrative. Serbia’s tabloids are another problem as they are ready at any moment to spread pro-Russian propaganda, which is then republished by the online media of other Slavic-speaking countries in the region. The main narratives most prevalent in Serbia are that Russia is fighting to defend itself from the West’s attempts to control the world or that the West is the enemy of Christianity, family values and the Slavs. Serbian tabloids also have a version for North Macedonia where they spread the same pro-Russian propaganda.
In North Macedonia, the findings show that the media is polarized, with the majority representing the one-sided opinions of the political parties they support. In online media, news articles are not attributed to the journalists who write them, making it very easy to spread disinformation. The most widespread narratives in Macedonia include those discussing Russia’s war against Nazism in Ukraine, attributing blame to the West for starting the war, and advocating against Macedonia’s donation of weapons to Ukraine.
Repeated tensions have caused Kosova to be seen as a country with potential for destabilization due to weak neighborly relations with Serbia. Kosova became the object of statements by senior Russian officials, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who declared that Kosovo was recruiting people to send them to war in Ukraine. Kosova experienced an increase in nationalism in political discussions of leaders which are then disseminated in online media. Some of them are connected to political parties and interest groups. Serbia turns out to be the biggest source of disinformation in Kosova
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina is the country closest to the West that has open government allegiance to Russia. Serbian and Croatian media have a very large influence in the country, together with Turkey, which has a large political stronghold in the country. Disinformation in Bosnia is spread mainly by traditional public media, large private commercial media and anonymous portals. Almost half of the actresses spreading disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina are from Serbia. There are 29 media outlets identified as the main source of disinformation, of which 14 are from Bosnia (mainly Republika Srpska) and 15 from Serbia. Top narratives include the existence of biological laboratories in Ukraine that spread Covid-19 or Ukraine’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
In Montenegro, 70% of the population recognizes disinformation as a problem in the country. The main source of the spread of disinformation there are social networks, marginalized portals and channels controlled by Russia. The main narratives about which disinformation is spread are the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the relations between Serbia and Montenegro.
In Albania, disinformation is mostly produced by internal sources, such as propaganda in the country. At least 600 online media outlets operate in Albania, the vast majority with anonymous owners, who motivated by political interests, distribute mass disinformation. Online portals create disinformation for the purpose of collecting clicks and inciting indignation among readers through exaggerated headlines. The topics about which most misinformation is spread in Albania are the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the tensions created between Kosovo and Serbia, the Open Balkans initiative and cyber attacks from Iran.
The executive director of Faktoje, Klodiana Kapo, at the end of the presentation of the findings emphasized that working together in this project has helped us understand that the region shares some common problems in the fight against disinformation coming from Russia, China or Iran and that fact-checking journalism it is more important than ever at a time when technology and social networks play a very large role in the distribution of information in the world.
The conference of the regional week for fact-checking in the Western Balkans came as a synergy of two projects, namely “Strengthening fact-checking journalism in Albania” and “Center against disinformation in the Western Balkans”, both funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
*This article was produced as part of the regional initiative “Center Against Disinformation of the Western Balkans”