This interview was produced by Meta. mk as part of the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
Irena Visinska is a geopolitical analyst whose area of expertise is studies on hybrid threats to contemporary society and geopolitical trends in the Western Balkan region. In this interview she describes the key findings of latest study “Geopolitical perspective of disinformation flows in Western Balkans,” published by the Metamorphosis Foundation, providing recommendations on how the Western Balkan countries can manage the issue of disinformation related to foreign malign influences.
Meta.mk: As author of the study “Geopolitical perspective of disinformation flows in Western Balkans” can you point out the key findings that you managed to conclude throughout the research?
Irena Visinska (IV): The geopolitical study, yet again, confirmed that in the 21st century the world does not become resistant to disinformation, but also that contemporary technology is abused for even faster and wider dissemination of disinformation, fake news and propaganda that slows down, and even disables democratic processes. This can especially be seen in the Western Balkan region where the population tends to believe in conspiracy theories regardless of whether the topic is the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian aggression in Ukraine or something completely different.
Although at first glance publishing disinformation seems accidental and sporadic, the occurrence is not at all random, but part of military doctrines of autocratic regimes whose interests are different than those laid out as strategic goals of the countries in the region. Such foreign influence is part of so-called hybrid warfare. It is extremely harmful because such regimes have no interest in the stabilization and prosperity of our region by overcoming the problems and becoming part of the European Union and NATO. On the contrary, the purpose of such malign effects is to deepen divisions and differences, manipulate public opinion, and even create conditions for new wars on the Balkans.
The occurrence of various kinds of disinformation is quite complex, while the consequences are long-term. Subsequently, the EU, the USA and NATO treat them quite seriously. Therefore, this study aims to point out this threat to the relatively young democracies on the Balkans and to stress the need to undertake urgent measures.
Meta.mk: Your geopolitical study has recommendations addressed to the Western Balkan countries on how to deal with disinformation. What are your recommendations?
IV: The first recommendation is to initiate a wide public debate about this threat for the purpose of raising awareness about its existence and the ramifications thereof. The next recommendation is ongoing reform of the educational process because education in the Western Balkan countries does not keep pace with fast technological developments which result in low media literacy and lack of critical thinking. And, of course, the quantity and type of disinformation becomes so big that they impose the need for quicker and more comprehensive debunking activities on the part of certified fact-checking services, such as Truthmeter.mk in case of North Macedonia.
Therefore, the study is an appeal to the entire society (government institutions, academic community, civil society, media, and media-workers) to undertake coordinated and systemic measures to deal with disinformation. Legal regulation demanding transparency in the ownership and funding of online portals is urgently required, to also provide sanctions for distributing false content. In the internet era, word of mouth or shared content with false and malign messages have a much greater influence and should imply much greater accountability.
The study shows that every country has its own particularities that demand concrete and specific measures. To successfully deal with disinformation, regional cooperation is required, as well as exchange of experience between Balkan countries and becoming part of the successful EU and NATO initiatives.
Meta.mk: What kind of similarities did you notice in the disinformation narratives analyzed in the Western Balkan countries?
IV: Western Balkan countries have not resolved their status in terms of Euro-Atlantic integration and find themselves on different points on that path. Such a predicament leaves space for spreading narratives that, supposedly, offer options for European Union and NATO membership.
In the same token, the national problems of the countries in the region are depicted as civil disobedience thereby frequently spreading propaganda glorifying autocratic systems as successful due to the “firm hand” of the ruler unlike the “chaos” stemming from the democracy given to the people that, apparently, do not deserve it.
Another common feature of disinformation narratives in the region — except for Albania and Kosovo — is the tendency to present Russia as the big friend and to blame the “evil West” for the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.
In the case with the Russian aggression in Ukraine, disinformation is spread to depict Russian aggression as a “special operation” that needed to be undertaken to save the Russian Federation from Fascism.
Quite frequently, the media that serve as generators of fake news glorify the medical assistance or the loans received from Russia, China, Gulf-countries etc. deliberately omitting the fact that the European Union and the USA are the biggest donors of financial and other type of assistance in all of the countries in the region.
The study indicates that, on the one hand, the main source of such disinformation are the Russian state-owned agencies such as Sputnik and RIA Novosti, that offer free-of-charge contents to the small online portals in the region that keep them alive. On the other hand, local online portals follow global trends for using various types of disinformation in the form of texts, pictures, and video-recordings to attract audiences and thereby profit financially. Simultaneously, disinformation narratives are promoted by national political structures that in conditions of information chaos gain importance thereby successfully hiding their craving for power in the form of high morality and patriotism.
Meta.mk: To what extent did the harmful geopolitical influence identified within the framework of this study affect everyday life of the citizens in the region?
IV: Unfortunately, the consequences of disinformation and harmful propaganda are not immediately visible. The process is subtle and cannot be connected straight away with political progress, economic prosperity, problem-solving and eradication of corruption. Because of that, the civil society organizations can contribute most to the sector by alarming about the existence and development of such occurrences that transform into security threats thereby actively contributing to their elimination. The developing Anti-Disinformation Network for the Balkans is a very positive step in the right direction.
Meta.mk: Which malign geopolitical aspects should we care most about as a region when referring to their promotion through disinformation?
IV: The region has many open issues and unresolved problems, but that is not something unusual and specific in relations to the world. The tendency of disinformation narratives is to show the circumstances as exclusively difficult, even unsolvable, to depict the countries in the region as victims of some kind of dark Western forces that are trying to strip us from our identity or to destroy us. As long as we are running from responsibility by accepting narratives where someone else is to blame — not us — we will not make a step forward. As a region, we can lag behind or even deal with wars and start all over.
What we must do is take full responsibility: sincerely and openly communicate for the purpose of problem-solving, creating political, economic, civic projects that will promote reconciliation and cohabitation and fast steps forward towards membership within the European Union. That is the only way we can sustain survival and a dignified life for the future generations.