Groups and pages on social media have been continuously spreading and amplifying misleading content on four different topics – Russia, NATO, LGBTQIA+, and COVID-19. Although not exclusively, administrators of these groups and pages shared misleading content containing all the aforementioned sentiments: pro-Russian, anti-NATO, anti-LGBT, and questioned the efficiency of COVID-19 measures, unrelatedly to their country of origin or language.
The report was written by Radovan Ognjenović and Daniela Vukčević, Debunk.org analysts in Montenegro.
Social media over the last two decades has irreversibly influenced mainstream media, and, without much surprise, not always for the good. The research on media literacy done by OSCE and Montenegrin Agency for Electronic Media in December 2022 has shown that nearly 45 percent of adults have been turning to Facebook for finding the information that interests them making it a second source of choice (TV is still the primary one). Close ties with the audience, direct contact and feedback, better understanding of the impact the content of media has, are just a part of a picture. The lack of regulation on social media created a perfect ground for the production and very swift spread of misleading content directly to the audience.
At the beginning of 2022, over 80 percent of Montenegrin households had access to the Internet, but the estimates on how many people use social media vary significantly depending on the source. Still, Instagram and Facebook are listed as the most popular ones, while other social networks significantly lag behind. It is estimated that there are from 300,000 up to nearly 550,000 social media users in Montenegro, but even if a half of those could be considered as active users, that is, around 150,000 – 250,000, that would mean that approximately half of Montenegrin adult population is using Facebook.
The (almost absolute) lack of regulation on social media created a perfect environment for producing and very swiftly spreading misleading content directly to the audience. Debunk.org analysts have identified 1,339 groups and pages on Facebook have been sharing misleading content on a regular basis. These groups and pages are ‘operating’ in the region of former Yugoslavia- Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
The content analysis was focused on four different topics and the content was selected using various keywords, i.e., ‘Russia’, ‘LGBT’, ‘Covid’, and ‘NATO’. Almost all groups showcased a pro-Russian (anti-Ukraine) position, anti-LGBT, and anti- NATO attitudes. Those groups/pages, not exclusively, but still often shared anti-vaccination propaganda during the Covid pandemic and slightly more often questioned the anti- Covid measures imposed by the authorities.
Ties between different Facebook accounts and their coordinated behaviour is easier to be established when talking about groups, because unlike pages, administrators of groups are publicly available; however, this does not mean that the available data are necessarily going to lead to an actual persona, because a Facebook page can also be an administrator of a group and disguise the actual person behind it.
Out of 1,339 entities identified that spread misleading content, 710 are pages. The remaining 629 groups were identified to have 2, 442 administrators. In the chart under can be seen how groups are interconnected through having the same administrators.
Content analysis of Russian Propaganda
The war in Ukraine turned out to be a breath of fresh air for Russia’s influence across the predominantly Slavic Balkan states, and highly unregulated social media provided it with opportunities to present itself in new forms and potentially reach a broader audience.
The pro-Russian propaganda in the context of the war in Ukraine does not necessarily have to be orchestrated by the official Kremlin and disseminated by regional offices of Russian media or different branches of Russophile political parties. Stories which feed into the narratives promoted by the current government of the Russian Federation are also drafted by content creators which are not directly connected to Russia, but, due to varying motives, find some sort of personal interest in sharing them among the general population.
A selection of 650 different misleading cases in 2022. has been made. General overview of the material helped us classify them into three distinct groups, judging by their main motive and/or rationale, i.e., the key reason why they tend to post content that includes disinformation, vis-a-vis the ongoing war in Ukraine.
1. Amplifying official Kremlin propaganda
These posts are most often oriented towards readers coming from Serbia and other traditionally Christian Orthodox nations across the Balkans. Authors of posts belonging to this category often disseminate disinformation campaigns about the war in Ukraine and other topics, which have been created in Moscow and promoted via Russian main propaganda channels, such as RT. The content is sometimes simply copied from Russian sources, translated, and published without a lot of additional processing and editing. This includes the ex-Yugoslavian versions of media outlets which also exist in Russia, including the daily Pravda or Sputnik.
On the other hand, some individual pages and groups try to broaden the public support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine – and Russian policies in general – by invoking historical ties with Russia and occasionally introducing Biblical and mythical elements to war-related narratives, combined with some straight-up fabricated stories, such as the Russian president’s alleged quote on the West simply ‘hating’ the Orthodox faith, or the alleged intention of the USA to wipe out all Slavic nations by using biological warfare.
Taking into consideration that the Kosovo issue remains a highly controversial topic in Serbia, certain authors use the opportunity to promote claims that Serbia should support Russia in its current operation in Ukraine, since it will help them regain control over the territory of Kosovo in the foreseeable future, with Russian assistance. Some content creators would also like their readers to believe Russia will help Serbia in gaining larger influence in other parts of the Balkans, as well, through “denazifying” this region once the ”denazification” of Ukraine is over.
In addition, several of the analysed pages and groups put in additional effort to create a certain level of antagonism between the Serbs and the Ukrainians, despite the two nations’ traditionally friendly historical and cultural ties. One of such examples can be found in the dissemination of a fake quote attributed to Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion and the current mayor of Kyiv, where he allegedly voiced support to Kosovo Albanians in their fight against Serbia.
Besides amplifying the Kremlin's disinformation narratives about the war in Ukraine, the language that these pages and groups use also reflects full support of their members for Russian stances on this issue, including calling the war a ‘special military operation’ and, quite often, marking anyone who fights for or shows supports to the Ukrainian side as a ‘Nazi’ or ‘fascist’. Furthermore, Russia is frequently depicted as a state that has moral superiority over the Ukraine or the ‘evil’ and ‘hypocritical’ Western countries, and the authors are not shying away from making claims such as ’Russians have the right to persecute Nazis’, etc.
The role that certain political parties have in amplifying the support of Kremlin’s policies should not be overlooked either. This includes right-wing, conservative, traditionally pro-Russian parties, such as the Serbian Radical Party, the Serbian Movement 'Dveri’ and the Serbian Party ‘Zavetnici’ in Serbia, ‘True Montenegro’ and ‘Free Montenegro’ in Montenegro, as well as the ruling party of the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the ‘Alliance of Independent Social Democrats’. Their social media accounts are yet another channel used to further promote Moscow’s narratives across the Western Balkans and the (mostly) Serb diaspora.
While conservative politicians from Croatia do not tend to publicly evoke any historical, religious, or cultural ties with Russia, some of them do, however, raise suspicions about the future consequences of the European Union sanctions against the Russian Federation.
2. Attracting engagement for the sake of attracting engagement
Judging by the manner in which they approach this topic, a large number of pages and groups appear to not have a clear ideological motive to spread Moscow’s official propaganda; however, they do view the ongoing war in Ukraine as an event that can be continuously used to attract clicks, likes, and other forms of public engagement with posts from said pages and groups. Here, a reader can often run into articles which do not follow one clear coherent narrative, with clickbait-y titles and overly dramatized pictures which accompany them. As illustrated below, some also intentionally mislead the reader into thinking that the content is related to the war in Ukraine, while in reality, the topic covered is something else completely.
Considering that their main motive seems to be attracting public engagement with the content that they produce, it can be noted that these pages and groups tend to post pieces of content which contradict one another. For example, while some posts would appear to be praising Russia’s president, others would mention him in a criticizing manner.
Some of these pages and groups post content that seeks to frighten the reader, using panic-inducing photographs and statements which warn of catastrophic consequences that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict could have on the planet. And, as noted in a 2015 paper by Reis et al.: ‘A headline has more chance to be successful if the sentiment expressed in its text is extreme.’
It has been noted by numerous international organizations which advocate for human rights that, in general, the media landscape in modern day-Serbia is heavily controlled by the current regime. Media outlets keep getting used to silence the opposition and praise the ruling party and its leader, while attacks on independent journalists remain a not-so-rare occurrence. Thus, it comes as no surprise that certain Serbia-based groups and pages also seem to use the current situation in Ukraine to try and provide good publicity to the Serbian president and his close allies.
3. Mixing in conspiracies about the War in Ukraine with conspiracy theories on various other topics
Finally, some groups and pages share disinformation regarding the war in Ukraine as part of their greater “mission” of “opening the people’s eyes” about numerous sorts of “lies” that the “mainstream propaganda machines” are feeding to the people around the World. Besides dealing with the current conflict, they very often post material related to “debunking” the official narratives on other topics of broad interest, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the so-called “chemtrails”, or the introduction of the 5G technology – to name just a few.
While some outlets belonging to this group – just like many of the previously mentioned ones – also seem to be oriented towards the conservative Serbian Orthodox audience, many of them try to gain a broader appeal, also catering to other nationalities from the area of former Yugoslavia, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. Judging by the reviewed groups and pages from Debunk.org database, the Croatian online audience appears to be an especially fertile ground for those kinds of theories which describe the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine as just a single tiny puzzle-piece in a much greater global conspiratorial scheme.
A discussion about the existence of misleading, hateful, and extremist content on Facebook has become an integral part of the public discourse over the last couple of years. The company itself has admitted its own mistakes in creating such environment and has allegedly undertaken steps to remove malign content from its network. However, the fact that joining/liking some groups and pages triggers a pop-up window saying that these communities have been violating Facebook policies, alongside with the content being labelled as misleading by the independent local fact-checkers, seems like two small steps in a marathon race. The labelled misleading content is still available online, provoking reactions and often being mocked as a part of 'liberal, pro-West' propaganda.
The European Union has undertaken steps to regulate the Big Tech. The agreement on the directives was reached in the middle of 2022 and should enter into force in 2024. These changes should enable the EU member states and their governments to demand removal of illegal content promoting terrorism, sexual abuse of children, or hate-speech. Despite causing a valid concern about the freedom of speech, which remains a core principle in all democratic societies, the proposed regulations have a lot of potential to curb the ever-growing issue of disinformation.
This project was financed by the German Federal Government.