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The Disinformation in Western Balkan: A Problem for the Public or a Public Problem?

October 31, 2022 by BSC

The panel discussed disinformation in the Western Balkans and how to address it. The panel agreed that this problem must be handled by both the EU and public society. There should be initiatives to pressure powerful social media companies and develop a media literacy campaign that will create resilience against disinformation in the Western Balkans.  

Jasna Jelisic, the Head of the Western Balkans Task Force in the Strategic Communication Division of the European External Action Service, explained that the member states requested EU involvement in the fight against disinformation. Answering the question of the moderator, Marko Milosavljevic, Full Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Jelisic noted that disinformation campaigns tried to undermine the European project and major EU policies in the Western Balkan region. However, the EU has certain tools in place to fight this. Jelisic asserted that “in order to join the EU, you need democracy. For democracy, you need to have rule of law and free media.” Jelisic stressed that this problem cannot be dealt with purely on the EU level alone. Citizens are a crucial part of this process. 

Agreeing that the public needs to be more involved in fighting disinformation, Milan Jovanovic, an analyst at the Digital Forensic Center, added that there is a need for a greater focus on media literacy and education on how to combat disinformation. He noted that the usual tools for fighting disinformation, such as fact checking, do not work well because people will believe the narrative that is closest to their own beliefs. Jovanović concluded that the real problem is not in the existence of disinformation but the spread of it through social media. Jovanovic noted that “social media is not good or bad, it’s what we make of it,” and that governments are the ones who need to regulate it.  

Rasa Nedeljkov, Program Director at CRTA, emphasized that Serbia has lot of non-disguised disinformation spread by Serbian officials and the government. This particularly impacts public opinion, especially when dispersed by the TV stations Pink Television and Happy Television. He did not completely agree that it is a public duty to counter disinformation. He emphasized that the role of public society in countering disinformation is more complex. Nedeljkov stated that because bigger media stations in Serbia are funded by the state and that media creates disinformation by wrongfully using facts, public society is pushed in an anti-Western direction. Every time the media makes public opinion polls, they hope to see more support for democracy. However, Nedeljkov notes that “if there were an election on Sunday, Serbia would not choose to become part of the EU.” 

Anastasiia Romaniuk, from the Civil Network OPORA, emphasizes that there a plethora of grey areas in Ukranian media, where the pro-Russian narrative enters Ukraine through disguised proxies. Ukraine has long been affected by pro-Russian influence. However, after the Russian invasion, it has become harder for pro-Russian fake news to enter Ukraine. She recommends taking pre-emptive measures in the Western Balkans that are adversely impacted by pro-Russian disinformation. Romaniuk noted the Western Balkans have faced challenges in preventing such disinformation: “now we have proven that there are disinformation networks, but it is too late to stop it now.”