Anatomy of a bot campaign

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FOTO: KoSSev

Who are the „bots“ spreading disinformation about Serbian activists?

KoSSev analyzed several dozens of posts, profiles, and comments on the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, to answer the question of whether there is an organized bot network from Kosovo that targets certain Serbian activists by deliberately spreading disinformation.

By Andjela Milivojević

Suspicions about the existence of organized bot networks from Kosovo on the social network X, formerly Twitter, which strive to deliberately spread propaganda and disinformation were brought to the fore once again in early March.

„Here is Djordje Bojović, Viola von Kramon’s assistant, who minimizes and tries to trivialize the Serbian genocide in the face of Kosovo’s Albanian population.”

On International Women’s Day marked on March 8, a 14-second clip of Djordje Bojović, adviser to the European rapporteur for Kosovo, Viola von Cramon, was shared on the X social network. In the short video, Bojović is shown questioning claims that genocide or other war crimes were committed in Kosovo. The post suggested that Bojović denied and trivialized the existence of genocide in Kosovo.

The post was published around 8 am by the account „Kosovo is Dardania,“ quickly going viral. The controversial thread on X was seen by about 55 thousand users, shared 61 times directly with a dozen citations, about 230 likes, and approximately 50 different comments.

The campaign spread to such an extent that several NGOs, international officials, as well as public figures from Pristina reacted, pointing a finger at alleged „bots“ for the organized attacks from various anonymous accounts.

Former Kosovo president Artifeta Jahjaga also characterized these events as an organized lynching:

„The organized lynching of civil society activists in Kosovo and Kosovo’s friends through social networks is unacceptable.”

Although the term „bot“ is mainly used for the automated sharing of many tasks on the Internet in a short period of time through imitation of human activities, the „bot army“ phrase is often used in the Balkans region to describe something else – organized activists of political parties tasked with disseminating propaganda messages during working hours, targeting dissidents, and promoting the activities of political parties. This kind of activity is often referred to as „trolls“ or „trolling“ on the Internet.

The way these bot or troll farms work can be understood by the example of the SNS Internet Army, which used a software called Castle for years, through which party activists were given tasks on what to write and comment on social networks and media sites.

The Balkan Insight research showed that these are real people who are employed in state institutions and who promote the work of SNS during working hours.

An analysis of the accounts that interacted in any way with this post shows that almost 95% of the profiles are anonymous, with Kosovo or Albanian flags in the profile description or references to Kosovo and Albania. They mostly write in English and Albanian, and many of them regularly share news related to the activities of Albin Kurti’s government. They also interact often with each other, follow each other, and share each other’s content.

The way several dozens of anonymous profiles shared this video raised the question of whether there is an organized bot army that deliberately spreads fake news and misinformation, and what their goal is.

Endeavoring to answer this question, KoSSev collected data on these profiles to understand who the main participants of this negative campaign were.

List of X profiles that participated in the campaign

List of X profiles that participated in any way in the campaign against Djordje Bojović as per the total number of posts.

Most popular profiles that shared the clip by the current number of followers

Where did the campaign against Bojović originate?

The first tweet targeting Bojović emerged on March 7, after an article was published in the Brussels-based Politico about the alleged connections of Novica Antić, the leader of the Military Syndicate, with the Russian service.

The text states that Antić met with several EU diplomats, including Viola von Cramon. This part of the text was then used as the basis for the first anonymous X account to start spreading the claim that Bojović is a Russian spy among EU diplomats:

„It wouldn’t have happened to you if you didn’t have such a Trojan horse under your wing. Your team is probably fighting for their own interests. Inconvenient,“ this account said in a post with a screenshot showing Bojović as part of von Cramon’s team.

The author of the comment is an anonymous account under the name "1444" with the username @njesitiKitrat, opened in November last year, and has so far published over 5 thousand posts. The description of the profile says, "exposing Serbian* propaganda // political satire //".

This post has been seen by about 26 thousand people so far, and the tweet was quickly shared by the account "Kosovo is Dardania", which continued to spread false information about Bojović the next day.

The idea behind the campaign against Bojović appears to aim to discredit Viola's work in Kosovo by discrediting her associates by sharing disinformation about them.

The account @Dardha932 wrote:

“For those who wonder why Viola is often so out of touch when it comes to Kosovo. Did you know that her main parliamentary assistant, a Serb, is the one who organizes her meetings with Russian spies, her trips to Mitrovica where she meets with Serbian criminals?”

In this post, the anonymous account suggests, without evidence, that Viola von Cramon's adviser arranges meetings with "Russian spies" and "Serbian criminals" simply because he is an ethnic Serb.

The next tweet published by this anonymous account seems to be a continuation of the deliberate manipulation by manipulatively using a video of Bojović in order to portray him as a Serbian nationalist who denies the existence of war crimes.

The fact that "Kosovo is Dardania" did not share the original video, which is available to everyone on YouTube, in which Bojović's entire speech can be heard, suggests that the video was deliberately cut in a way that could mislead other users into thinking that Bojović was denying crimes in Kosovo. The profile also did not provide any context about the recording, which is from 2016 when Bojović participated in the study visit project 'This is Kosovo', where he can be heard commenting on the statement of the representative of the Self-Determination movement that "during the war in Kosovo genocide was committed against the Albanian population".

Finally, the last tweet in the same series was directed against Bojović and von Cramon together with a video of their conversation with the Kosovo police during the May 2023 riots in Zvečan.

Who is "Kosovo is Dardania"?

This anonymous account is one of the most active ones in the group of analyzed profiles that shared the clip of Djordje Bojović and spread a negative narrative. The account was opened in March 2018 and has published over 70 thousand tweets to date.

With around 9 thousand followers, the profile is dedicated to Albanian history - according to the profile description, with a focus on "the war in Kosovo and Serbian war crimes in Kosovo". The profile publishes posts mostly in English, with an occasional Albanian post.

The most frequent profile interactions in the last 7 days

The main question is whether this anonymous profile is a so-called bot, a software application that runs automated tasks on the Internet, usually to imitate human activity, such as messaging, but on a large scale, or whether it is a real person or persons who are hiding behind an anonymous profile to share daily posts about Kosovo.

Analysis of profile activity over a one-day period shows that this profile is active throughout the day, including working hours, and that in most cases it publishes political comments regarding the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo or generally promotes Kosovo as a country.

On the day when the video of Bojović was published, this account published or retweeted about 50 different posts. Including announcements by members of Albin Kurti's party and former or current members of the government.

Posts in one day shared by the "Kosovo is Dardania" profile

An overview of all tweets of the "Kosovo is Dardania" profile during one sampled day with an outline of Kosovo government officials whose tweets were shared by this profile during the day.

"Bots": We are not bots, but patriots

After Bojović declared that he was exposed to the campaign by several dozen anonymous Twitter accounts, several of them came forward in response to the accusations that it was an organized campaign. One profile wrote:

“We are not bots. We are free citizens of independent Kosovo, and yes, you are a Russian spy working under the EU. EU should stop paying people who work for the interests of Putin,” writes "GhetoarSh", whose profile description reads "Tweet about politics and life in Kosovo."

The anonymous "BukRa" account, which has the Kosovo and Albanian flags in its profile description, wrote:

“No coordinated attack! Just a reaction to your downplaying, genocide denying comment; ‘some crimes during war’. You are belittling our suffering and war trauma, and it’s not a coincidence. It is dehumanizing the lives of Albanians.”

One of the people who provided a little more information about who the people behind the anonymous profiles might be is Evi Kokalari, an American of Albanian origin, who wrote:

“I have heard most of these guys speak in a few spaces I attended on X, and I assure you, most of them, like me, live in the U.S. and have nothing to do with Albin Kurti or the VV.”

“These guys are Albanians of our diaspora in the U.S. trying to protect our history and have nothing to do with any of the political parties in Kosova.”

In her post, she tried to relativize the attempt to manipulate the video of Bojović, claiming that none of the profiles that criticized Bojović spewed lies. As proof of this, she offered a description from Bojović's profile, which she seems to have misunderstood.

Bojović’s profile says "I introduce Serbia to the European Union at a better rate" which when translated via Google Translate can mean that he is favoring Serbia on the path to the EU. She also insinuated in her post that there is a reason to suspect that Bojović could be "another propaganda insert into the EU".

Who gave legitimacy to disinformation?

Among the people who shared the controversial video of the anonymous profile is Sharr Jakupi, former chief of staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo, with the claim that Bojović denies genocide and war crimes, as well as that certain EU parliamentarians have a "worrying affinity towards Russia/ Serbian chauvinist perspectives".

“Unfortunately, Viola von Cramon isn’t the only Brussels official that engages with deniers of genocides and war crimes. This issue extends from the offices of MPs to high-ranking officials, revealing a troubling affinity towards Russian/Serb chauvinistic perspectives.”

Jakupi did not include or present a single piece of evidence to support these claims.

Another public figure who liked the video is the controversial Serbian politician and former security guard of the slain Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić, Nikola Sandulović.

In addition to them, Kati Schneeberger, the president of "VIENNA goes EUROPE", who follows the anonymous profile "Kosovo is Dardania", also joined the discussion about the disputed campaign. In response to Cramon's comment about the campaign against her and Bojović, she wrote that Cramon supports "counterproductive people", thus apparently saying that Bojović is counterproductive, unlike young people from Kosovo.

"Young Kosovars of all ethnicities who are building bridges in Kosovo are sad that, unfortunately, they do not receive any support from you, but you make their work difficult because you support counterproductive people instead of those who have a genuine interest."

A few days ago, Schneeberger shared a statement by the Institute for the Protection of Democratic Values (IPDV) from Kosovo, which denies the existence of an organized campaign against Bojović or Cramon, with a quote:

"The lack of concrete evidence to support claims of organized campaigns to suppress dissent, along with baseless accusations that implicate the government in such endeavors, is troubling."

She is also the author of the May 2023 online campaign, which calls for the immediate imposition of EU sanctions on Serbia, signed by just under 1,300 people.

The Government of Kosovo denied that it participated in any way in this campaign a few days later:

“Our government has never and would never engage in abuse of power by sponsoring online trolls. We deny the allegations by Viola von Cramon, with whom we regularly communicate via official channels. We urge her and others not to endorse conspiracy theories against a democratic government,” Perparim Kryeziu, the spokesman for the government of Kosovo, wrote on X.



The opinions and views expressed in the text represent the opinions and views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial office or donors.



 



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