The elections in Serbia and an explosion of pro-Russian disinformation show why the manipulation of social media by state actors in the Balkans is now a crucial problem for Europe, writes Antoinette Nikolova.
Antoinette Nikolova is the director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI), an independent watchdog that monitors the media environment in the Balkans. BFMI published this week a report on the manipulation of social media in Serbia and Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In countries like Serbia, where mainstream media companies are largely under government control, social media platforms are a crucial lifeline for independent voices.
But these same platforms are increasingly being exploited by authoritarian regimes to spread false or harmful content, undermining social cohesion and the democratic process.
A new report released by the Balkan Free Media Initiative has revealed that social media platforms are being manipulated to spread disinformation and attack critical voices in order to consolidate political power in Serbia and Republika Srpska.
As Serbs prepare to go to the polls on April 3, it feels like a bitter missed opportunity that social media companies haven’t done more to support credible media and protect their platforms from abuse.
The way pro-government disinformation spreads in Serbia is simple. Government officials make false or misleading statements, which are then reported by state-controlled media before being widely shared on social media.
Let’s take an example. President Aleksandar Vučić claims that Serbia has the highest salaries in the region. (A sure way to encourage political support.) Unfortunately for Serbs, that’s not true. At least four other comparable countries – Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Romania – had higher wages at the time of his statement. This does not prevent the misleading claim from circulating online.
More dangerous examples have seen government-led smear campaigns against independent journalists picked up by conscientious tabloids, leading to journalists receiving death threats on Facebook.
The bots and trolls have been traced back to the ruling SNS party. Twitter removed 8,558 accounts “working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader” in 2020. An investigation by the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network found that pro-government bots were set up by ” employees of public companies, local authorities and even schools”. .
This is straight out of Russia’s disinformation playbook and should concern both social media companies and European policymakers.
But it’s not just Russian tactics that are being replicated on social media in Serbia. Pro-Russian disinformation stories have also exploded since the invasion of Ukraine.
Pro-government tabloid Informant went so far as to claim that Ukraine attacked Russia the day the invasion began. With this kind of dangerous propaganda spreading on the front pages of mainstream newspapers, it’s no wonder that anti-Ukrainian conspiracy theories spread quickly among Serbian Facebook users.
Inform (cooperating closely with the government, the editor being a personal friend of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić): “The Americans are pushing the world into chaos. Ukraine attacked Russia! pic.twitter.com/p89I4SRCzI
—Michael Martens (@Andric1961) February 22, 2022
A video showed a swastika projected onto the stairs of a shopping center in kyiv. The caption read: “If we’re going to line up, I know which side I’m not on. A shopping mall in central Ukraine. This video will probably be deleted.
The video has been shared over 3,700 times and has been viewed over 60,000 times. It was wrong.
Factcheckers discovered that it was dated February 16, 2019, and was a set-up by unidentified hackers who accessed the mall’s computer system to project the image and spread hatred.
As Europe experiences the first major conflict on its soil since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the role that social media platforms play in the information war can no longer be ignored.
Ironically, the Russian invasion also showed that social media companies can do more to prevent harmful content. Access to Russian state media RT and Sputnik has been restricted on Facebook across the EU, while other content has been “downgraded” on Facebook worldwide to make it “harder to find”.
We need to do more. At a minimum, social media companies should expand existing labeling policies for state-controlled or state-affiliated outlets and introduce stronger penalties for outlets that violate content policies and post misinformation to many times. Algorithms that favor media with high journalistic and ethical standards should also be introduced.
BFMI compiled six specific recommendations in an open letter to Meta’s President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg. We encourage anyone committed to improving the information environment in the Balkans to sign up.
In Serbia, pro-government and pro-Russian misinformation has spread much faster than independent fact-checkers can prove. This is causing growing anti-European and anti-NATO sentiment, fueling security concerns for the region.
Aleksandar Vučić – the man almost certain to retain the presidency next week – is arguably Putin’s closest ally in Europe after Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. Under his presidency, Serbia was ranked as the fifth most “autocratizing” country in the world.
His dominance over the Serbian information environment could not be clearer. Ruling coalition politicians received 85% of total airtime on major TV channels, while President Vučić received 40% of total coverage of all politicians in the months leading up to the elections, according to a study. elections.
In this context, social media has an even more essential role to play. But in the Balkans, social media companies have been passive in regulating their platforms, allowing state-backed media and disinformation to thrive at the expense of credible media.
This must change now. Without concerted action by Facebook and others, democracy and stability in the Balkans will continue to suffer with potentially significant consequences for the rest of Europe.