Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans

Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans

The European Parliament policy department for External Relations published a study on 3 December 2020 ‘Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans and Identifying Ways to Effectively Counter Them’

The study of disinformation in the Western Balkans was conducted in keeping with the European Parliament’s (EP) commitment to ‘thinking holistically about foreign, authoritarian interference, and tackling the vulnerabilities in all aspects of democratic governance and institutions’1. Drawing on existing academic, think-tank and other research, as well as original analysis of online social media data – and devoting equal weight and attention to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – the study maps key trends and patterns in disinformation and counter- disinformation throughout the region in the period from 2018 through 2020.

Disinformation is an endemic and ubiquitous part of politics throughout the Western Balkans, without exception. But while disinformation is frequently discussed in the context of external threats to the functioning of governance and democracy, this study shows that foreign actors are not the most prominent culprits. Most of the people and organisations producing and disseminating disinformation are internal. Moreover, this study finds that disinformation is most commonly a symptom – rather than the cause – of a deeper breakdown of social cohesion and democratic governance.

Among the study’s key findings are the following:

• In countries – such as Serbia and Montenegro – where politics has been dominated by a single group, disinformation tends to follow the ‘party line’, serving the interests of the powerful and undermining opposition;

• In more competitive political environments – such as Albania, Kosovo and (to an extent) North Macedonia – disinformation tends to be used opportunistically by all sides, pursuing short- term aims rather than long-term strategies;

• The presence of deep ethnic and/or sectarian divides – such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia – fosters xenophobic disinformation campaigns by both domestic and foreign actors;

• When a government’s sovereignty is new or challenged – such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia, and to a lesser extent in Montenegro – politics are especially vulnerable to geopolitically motivated interference;

• Both domestic and foreign actors use disinformation to undermine the credibility of the European Union in the Western Balkans, amplifying and manipulating existing divisions between ‘EU idealists’ (who are committed to their country’s European identity and future come what may) and ‘EU realists’ (who may not oppose EU integration but do not believe it is likely to happen). While China and Turkey are both active in this field, efforts to discredit the EU are dominated by Russia, which maintains an extensive infrastructure of media manipulation throughout the region;

• The COVID-19 pandemic has provided fertile ground for disinformation. Governments throughout the Western Balkans have sought to falsify their record on handling the pandemic, while others have injected many of the same false claims found elsewhere. In addition, China and, to a lesser extent Russia, have used the pandemic as an opportunity to build leverage in public opinion, at the expense of the EU; and

  • While disinformation affects many – though by no means all – elections and referenda in the Western Balkans, 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.

Looking across the region, the study finds that:

• In Albania, disinformation is a ubiquitous feature of domestic political competition, but efforts are generally opportunistic and campaigns are short-lived. There is relatively little evidence of attempts by foreign powers to distort Albanian politics or international affairs.

• In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the disinformation landscape is dominated by Serbian media, often with support from Russian disinformation networks, and the focus is on xenophobia. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the site of large-scale attempts to discredit the EU.

• In Kosovo, politics are unusually susceptible to news – and thus disinformation – from abroad. Serbian disinformation plays a major role, sometimes with support from Russian disinformation networks. More recently, interests liked to the Trump Administration have also gotten into the game. There is little evidence of any impact in terms of the country’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, however.

• In Montenegro, Russian and Serbian media are powerfully present, in particular with relation to the country’s NATO membership and the 2016 coup attempt. Most disinformation, however, remains domestic, and has been an important tool in internal political competition – used particularly by the long-standing DPS-dominated government to discredit its opponents.

• In North Macedonia, the recent change of government has pushed disinformation largely out of the state and mainstream media and into the margins, where it nevertheless remains a powerful force distorting internal politics. Disinformation was critical in undermining participation in the name-change referendum.

• In Serbia, disinformation dominates competition between political forces during and between elections. The country has witnessed significant efforts by the government to falsify the record on COVID-19, as well as large-scale international campaigns to undermine support for the EU and NATO.

Finally, there is a gap between the causes of disinformation in the Western Balkans and attempts – mostly by domestic civil society, with support from abroad – to counteract it. The Western Balkans host a robust landscape of counter-disinformation initiatives, focusing on fact-checking, public education/capacity building, and media support, but the existence, location and funding of these projects track donor priorities more closely than the needs of societies on the ground. This problem is exacerbated by the severe lack of social-scientific research on the impact of disinformation or counter-disinformation in the region.

The full study is available : https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/653621/EXPO_STU(2020)653621_EN.pdf

Photo Credit : https://pixabay.com/vectors/corruption-deceit-deception-2727571/

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