This article by Borjan Gagovski was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
Serbian “bots” = human trolls
The term “bot” in contemporary Serbian parlance doesn't refer to short for “robot” or some automated/AI application, but to human beings: internet trolls working for political parties who manually operate anonymous or fake social media profiles, engaging in promotion of the party and its leaders or targeting opponents with smear campaigns and online harassment.
In Serbia, the country considered epicenter of disinformation in the Western Balkans region, a great debate is ongoing nowadays. It started when the names and the profiles of over 14,500 people believed to be members of the troll farm controlled by ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), called “bots” were publicly revealed.
Starting from July 9, Dragan Vidaković, who goes by the nickname Mrki, meaning “brown,” has been using his Twitter and Facebook profiles, alongside various hosting platforms, to disseminate an excel spreadsheet with lists of names allegedly associated with various X profiles that had been promoting the ruling party in Serbia, some of whom were also involved in the online harassment of dissenters.
Vucic has been running a troll farm in Serbia and the list of almost 15.000 fake accounts linked to real people was leaked last week. They have been targeting Serbian citizens, the opposition… I’ve been warning about these accounts for years. However, don’t forget these accounts… https://t.co/vHiaYDlTo7
— Ivana Stradner 🇺🇸🇺🇦 (@ivanastradner) July 10, 2023
Meta.mk News Agency contacted Vidaković who provided a statement with more details. This information cannot be verified by an independent source, but subsequent reactions indeed indicated that large number of listed persons are actually political party “bots.” These new revelations also corroborated previous stories about the SNS “bot” network from 2019 and 2020, after Twitter announced it took down 8,558 accounts engaging in “inauthentic coordinated activity” to “promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.”
15,000 euros for a list of 14,000 ‘bots’
In statement for Meta.mk, Vidaković stated that he paid EUR 15,000 (approximately USD 16,540) for the list, with money collected from the Serbian diaspora. Allegedly, the list was purchased from one of the heads of a SNS IT teams.
The organization of the SNS “bot” network seems to mirror party hierarchy, with so-called IT teams associated with regional or municipal party branches. They orchestrate operations by relaying instructions from party headquarters to the “bots” via instant messaging apps like Viber, and monitor their performance via special apps like The Castle.
The published list divides the “bots” into three categories: “super special,” “fans,” and “haters.” Vidaković explains that the “super specials” are the most active bots who attack the opponents of the party and publish false information about them, while the “fans” disseminate “support for the regime.” Vidaković explained:
The “haters” are those who attack every piece of news by the free media. Frequently, they can be recognized by comments such as “I am not a supporter of Vučić, but these…” or “They are all the same” and similar comments. Haters are in charge of killing the morale of the politically neutral.”
Vidaković has not expressed much mercy for the persons whose personal data he published, although he suspects that many of them were forced to serve as SNS bots to keep their jobs in various state or public institutions.
He said that the people identified as bots from smaller towns in Serbia are now put to shame within their community, as their neighbors or relatives could identify who had been viciously harassing them behind the mask of anonymity. He also added he hopes that criminal charges will be brought against them.
However, contrary to his claims, participating in such a “bot network” or troll farm is not a criminal act in itself, unless it involves threats to public security. The criminal element in such an operation is the abuse of funds from the state budget for bribing citizens to perform activities that are not legally defined as part of their job description as civil servants.
The president of the Association of Prosecutors of Serbia, Radovan Lazić, in the Newsnight TV Show on independent Serbian TV N1, confirmed that elements of serious corruption were apparent in this case. Lazić added:
There are suspicions that the people on the list of bots, in actual fact, are employed in public enterprises and state institutions, without specified job positions and defined duties. They earn their salaries for writing posts that indicates the possibility of serious corruption, and that should be of interest to the prosecutors. I am not an optimist that it will happen, but the Prosecution should initiate an initial investigation for this case, although it is too early to talk about that.
After the list was published, instead of responding to public inquiry, the Serbian ruling party, led by the president, Aleksandar Vučić, initiated a promotional campaign with messages that supporting them as troll is an act of patriotism.
“I love Serbia and Serbian Progressive Party the most in the world! Yes, I'm a SNS bot!” specify the graphics of the campaign, showing young people eating sandwiches.
In the Balkans, the sandwich emerged as a ridiculed symbol of practice of populist political parties that use captured state resources to feign “spontaneous” expressions of support by “the people.” Since the time of Slobodan Milošević, their rallies include meticulous organization: from attendance lists to bus transport providing food — the infamous sandwiches — and sometimes even per diems for participants.
Since 2019 SNS campaigns have been attempting to own the narrative, claiming their supporters should be proud to receive sandwiches from party officials. The current SNS campaign has taken the same attitude, associating sandwiches with being “bots.”
Who is Dragan Vidaković?
Vidaković presents himself as the president of the right-wing opposition group “Serbian Movement – Guerilla,” formed by him after the blockades of the crossroads in Serbia as a response to the high fuel prices in 2018.
“I have secondary education, I did not complete higher education and I am not hiding that,” Vidaković told Meta.mk.
He added that he has been jailed several times, including an arrest in 2018 for a tweet that allegedly put at risk the security of the president of Serbia. He is currently in political asylum in Switzerland.
Publicly available information about his “Serbian Movement – Guerilla” is scarce and not clear-cut. For instance in 2019 they published a video clip titled “We won't surrender Kosovo,” while in 2022 Vidaković tweeted that the movement stands for “autonomy of Vojvodina, recognition of Kosovo, sanctions against Russia and EU-membership,” followed by winking emojis that could indicate sarcasm.
In May 2019, newspaper Danas reported that the movement organized a protest, demanding resignations of all government officials, forming an expert Government of National Salvation and a two-year ban of all political parties. They threatened civil disobedience and a general strike, which didn't materialize.
In June 2019, the movement announced a protest in front of the US Embassy in Belgrade against “the American policies on Serbia and Kosovo.” Radio Free Europe reported that the event was aborted due to absence of a pyrotechnician who could operate the fireworks, smoke bombs and torches.
Analyst from Serbia say that Vidaković is not a “visible” person, therefore it is quite difficult to check his claims.
“He is a right-wing person who attracts many young people who believe that the change of government in Serbia (even through violence) is the only way to reconstruct the state and society,” explained Nikola Petrović from the Belgrade think tank International and Security Affairs Centre – ISAC Fund in a statement for Meta.mk.
Online, Vidaković promotes quite extreme positions, such as wishing that Vučić would not survive his next medical check-up.
Serbia is not the only country where populist political parties run troll networks. Similar activities for alleged mass support on social networks take place across the Western Balkans, including North Macedonia.