Fight-Back Starts Against Balkan ‘Fake News’ Machines


It may be a long struggle against the odds, but some independent media and civic activists in the Balkans are determined to counter the tide of fake news and disinformation flooding the region.

by Fatjona Mejdini, Filip Rudic, Maria Cheresheva, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Die Morina – BIRN 

Some 26 years ago, war was raging in what was then Yugoslavia between the Yugoslav army and Croatia.

But besides the fighting between soldiers on the battlefields, another war was raging between journalists on TV.

As the conflict erupted and spread, the media on both sides abandoned all pretence at maintaining professional standards and, in many cases, ruthlessly spread fear and blatant falsehoods.

In Croatia, for example, the media began writing about unknown Serbian snipers lurking around the capital, Zagreb, claiming they were stationed in key locations of the city.

This story was routinely aired in the autumn of 1991, although to date, no one has ever confirmed that a single sniper was present in Zagreb.

Their colleagues in Belgrade, meanwhile, among many other things, reported that the Croatian army was killing Serbian babies and even wearing their body parts as jewellery.

In 2012, the Serbian prosecution has investigated an unknown number of journalists for war mongering and propaganda, while the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia indicted former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic alleging that he used the media for his war goals.

While TV and newspapers spread propaganda and what is now called “fake news” in the 1990s, the real battle now is online.

Last year, the small Macedonian town of Veles, once known only for wine and agriculture, became infamous for a new reason after it was discovered to the global source for the production of “fake news” in the run-up to the US presidential elections.

Likes and shares for the fake news items pouring out of Veles reached millions in numbers.

In the last week of the US campaign, more than a hundred sites were producing fake news from Macedonia.

Kosovo-based media lawyer Flutura Kusari agrees that, while the Balkans were fruitful terrain for fake news production before, the players have changed since the arrival of social media and Internet.

“The publication of fake news existed even earlier, so there is no innovation here,” she told BIRN. “What has created alarm recently, however, about this issue, is the impact of the internet on their distribution at greater speeds,” Kusari added.

Balkan politicians take the lead:

Serbian tabloid’s front page claiming that the West plans to star a war in the Balkans and to split Macedonia.

While in Europe or the US, the mainstream media are at the forefront of the battle against fake news and deliberate disinformation, this is not the case in the Balkans.

There, the mainstream media are often on the other side, together with the politicians.

Mirela Arqimandriti, director of Albania’s Gender Alliance for Development Centre, which is working on establishing fact-checking project in Albania, says trust in both the media and the politicians has drastically declined as a result.

“Public trust in the media is declining. Media coverage is seen as inaccurate and as lacking in-depth analysis and not able to follow up the stories. Media consumers think that some media carry partisan views and are getting too politicized,” Arqimandriti told BIRN.

In Bulgaria, Nelly Ognyanova, a media law professor at Sofia’s St Kliment Ohridski University, argues that long before the term “fake news” became a buzzword, Bulgaria had already a “circle of media that did not fulfil their mission to inform but were dedicated to disinformation, propaganda, servile journalism and slander”.

She explained that, besides general concerns over bad journalism and sensationalism, other factors make the problem more serious in Bulgaria.

“The democratic media sector is being undermined, and targeted disinformation is spread against figures critical of those in power, such as the opposition, independent magistrates and civil society,” Ognyanova said.

She added that such disinformation campaigns propagate the idea of “a closed society and the end of a united Europe – and popularize ideas of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s administration, which are contrary to the values of the EU and the democratic world”.

A survey published last month by the Liber Centre for New Media worryingly showed that examples of “extreme speech” can be found in almost every fourth news item in the mainstream media in Serbia, aiming to increase sensationalism, spread fear and hate.

Of 36,960 articles analysed, 9,436 had some sort of extreme speech, mostly based on disinformation and false presumptions, lacking ethical standards. 

Social media have clearly increased the spread of fake news and disinformation.

The situation is alarming in Kosovo, too, according to the head of the Association of Journalists of Kosovo, Shkelqim Hysenaj, because the country has an enormous number of social media users, and “there is a tendency to share fake news through them.

“We also have different online media that have often produced and sponsored news with incorrect content,” he added.

Hysenaj’s organisation has issued 18 recommendations on how to deal with disinformation – but one is key for professional media.

“We want any information to be confirmed before it is published, including content produced by third parties, readers or social network users,” Shkelqimaj said.

His colleague from Macedonia, Adamcevski, agrees that said the main responsibility for unmasking false news falls primarily on professional media outlets and journalists – but says it also rests on the quick reaction of professional institutions with arguments to counter fake information.

“A timely reaction is necessary. In today’s rapid communications, if you leave fake news unanswered, it will do damage and misinform the public very quickly,” he said.

Independent media and civil society team up:

Bulgaria’s civil society groups and independent media are at the forefront of joint initiatives to monitor the media for fake news, check facts and better educate people.

Several media there, including the online news website Mediapool and NOVA television, have launched fact-checking projects to raise awareness about disinformation in the media.

Media outlets owned by media mogul and MP Delyan Peevski, Telegraf and Monitor, have also dedicated special sections to fake news, declaring their publisher as the only real fighter against false information.

The European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force, which runs the “EU versus Disinformation” campaign, mainly aimed at countering Russian propaganda, has identified several news pieces with a Bulgarian origin as fake in its weekly “Disinfo” cases database.

In Serbia at the moment, however, only one website is dedicated to fact checking – Istinomer, which pioneered this form of journalism in the Balkans and has been developed by a non-governmental organisation CRTA.

Albania’s civil society organisations are about to set up a media fact checking service, called Faktoje, which will aim to put news “under more rigorous scrutiny and that will include looking at claims of fake news,” Michael Alexander, an advisor on the project, told BIRN.

“Part of Faktoje’s role will be to establish the real extent and nature of fake news currently circulating in Albania,” he said.

“What seems clear is that a cut-and-paste mentality means that inaccuracy, whether intentional or not, can spread at an alarming rate.”

According to Faktoje’s backers, the project will provide evidence of the accuracy of statements made by major political players such as public officials, opinion-makers and journalists.

The approach is based on the joint efforts of experts, journalists, citizens and young people to identify, select, analyze and assess facts from reliable sources and produce reports on the truthfulness of statements of politicians, policy makers, opinion leaders, public officials, TV ads and others.

In Kosovo, other independent media organisations are also working on this issue, such as platform, Kosovo 2.0 and Sbunker. But media analysts say it is not enough.

“A range of measures needs to be taken to address the issue of fake news such as: rigorous application of ethical and legal standards by journalists themselves; youth education on how to consume media literacy; regulation and self-regulation of the media; and increasing the efficiency of police, prosecutorial and judicial bodies,” Flutura Kusari said.

Speaking of how the situation in the media could be changed, Petar Gunjic, from the portal Cenzolovka, which monitors media freedom, says educating journalists and editors must be accompanied by freeing the media from the demands of bosses to chase “clickability”.

Likewise, he says the issue of media literacy is important if “the state wanted to have responsible media – which in turn means informed citizens, which means a higher level of democracy.

“For example, to teach people who search the internet for all the answers – from whether to vaccinate their kids to how to treat diseases – how to believe or disbelieve those media. Point out to people that there must be a source of information, that if anyone is accused of anything there must be the other side…” Gunjic urged.

He acknowledges, however, that this is a long-term process with an uncertain outcome.

While changing laws could also be part of the solution, if legislation against “fake news” is to be discussed, according to Bulgarian professor Ognyanova, it should cover only very grave threats, such as campaigns that threaten the democratic electoral process or manipulation that poses real risks to national security.

“The adoption of legislation is an easy achievable measure; what is difficult – and slow – is the daily effort to create high-quality journalism and informed audiences,” Ognyanova concluded.

The article was republished from Balkan Insight with permission.