EU: Disinformation from Serbia spreads throughout the region; The Kosovo government was brought down by Grenell via disinformation shared on Twitter

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In early December, the Policy Department for External Relations published a study on fake news and disinformation in the Western Balkans at the request of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. According to the study, international actors play a relatively minor role in the Serbian disinformation landscape. More frequently, Serbian transnational disinformation campaigns were outward looking or reciprocal, with interacting and reinforcing messages crossing borders. On the other hand, the study singles out Kosovo as a target of foreign political interests, including disinformation campaigns. The study suggests that one such Twitter disinformation campaign contributed to the overthrow of the Albin Kurti-led government.

The 100-page long report covers the period from 2018 to 2020 and reveals three key disinformation challenges: external challenges to EU credibility; disinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of disinformation on elections and referenda.

When it comes to the Western Balkans area, while disinformation is frequently discussed in the context of external threats – namely Russia, China, and Turkey – this study shows that foreign actors are not the most prominent culprits. The EU thus recommended that the issue of disinformation in the Balkans must be overcome by strengthening democracy and governance in this region.

According to the study’s key findings, in countries – such as Serbia and Montenegro – where politics has been dominated by a single group, disinformation tends to follow the ‘party line’, serving the interests of the powerful and undermining the opposition.

On the other hand, in more competitive political environments – such as Albania, Kosovo and (to an extent) North Macedonia – disinformation tends to be used opportunistically by all sides, pursuing short term aims rather than long-term strategies.

Governments throughout the Western Balkans have sought “to falsify their record” on handling the COVID-19 pandemic – the study reveals.

“In addition, China and, to a lesser extent Russia, have used the pandemic as an opportunity to build leverage in public opinion, at the expense of the EU.”

When addressing this issue, the study also singled out Serbia.

“In Serbia, disinformation dominates competition between political forces during and between elections. The country has witnessed significant efforts by the government to falsify the record on COVID-19, as well as large-scale international campaigns to undermine support for the EU and NATO,” reads the paper done at the request of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

According to the study, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the disinformation landscape is dominated by Serbian media, often with support from Russian disinformation networks, and the focus is on xenophobia.”

In Kosovo, politics are unusually susceptible to news – and thus disinformation – from abroad. Similar to BiH, Serbian disinformation plays a major role in Kosovo, sometimes with support from Russian disinformation networks. More recently, interests linked to the Trump administration have also become involved in this game – the study added.

“There is little evidence of any impact in terms of the country’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, however.”

The Serb media are “powerfully present in Montenegro” – where most disinformation, however, remains domestic.

Serbia: Media landscape is dominated by the SNS and Vucic

Despite playing host to one of the “region’s central distribution channels for transnational disinformation – Russia’s Sputnik Serbia,” international actors play a relatively minor role in the Serbian disinformation landscape – the study stressed. Quite the opposite, as the study found that Serbia is organizing transnational disinformation campaigns which have the greatest impact in BiH and Montenegro.

“The Serbian media landscape is dominated by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and President Vucic. Over the past several years, observers have noted a deterioration in the quality of media coverage, characterised by favourable reporting on and a lack of criticism of President Vucic and his circle. A primary role in state-sponsored disinformation campaigns is played by TV stations (prominently, TV Pink) and tabloids, including Kurir, Informer, and Srpski Telegraf, which have significant reach and are used to echo the ruling party’s smear campaigns against the opposition. Social media analysis conducted for this study, meanwhile, found that a suite of nationalist publications (Nacionalist, Tsrvene Beretke, Intermagazin.rs, Sandzacke), and a handful of high-profile individuals (including politicians, and a prominent economic commentator) played a particularly important role” – the study revealed, noting that these outlets and individuals are characterised by negative reporting about the EU, NATO and the west in general, while at the same time often “fostering pro-Russian discourse.”

Moreover, the report recalls the allegations of a large number of fake social media profiles have been used for disinformation purposes in Serbia. In April 2020, for instance, Twitter deleted 8,558 Twitter accounts from Serbia, with the explanation that they were state-backed fake accounts connected to SNS.

“The bulk of Serbian disinformation aims to shift opinions vis-à-vis elections, public figures or internal Serbian politics more broadly,” reads the conclusion of the EU Policy Department for External Relations.

The authors of the study pointed out the coordinated efforts by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and Chinese actors to “portray China as the greatest source of support for Serbia in combatting COVID-19, and in so doing to improve the reputation of the Vucic government’s handling of the pandemic.”

“This forms part of a broader effort to frame President and SNS leader Vucic as a uniquely capable leader, balancing Russia and China and independent of all interests.”

The report also underlined the attempts to discredit the opposition figures, including accusations of treason, attacks on the reputation of independent journalists, and delegitimisation of peaceful protesters.

“Campaigns targeted against the opposition, including allegations that the opposition and supposed ‘allies’ are Western spies and that mafia groups were planning a coup against the President. These campaigns are linked, at times, to accusations of the sabotage of Vucic by the Russian ‘deep state’, including by instigating protests.”

Disinformation channels in Kosovo – Klan Kosova, RTV Besa, Gazeta Express and Zeri

In the absence of normalization with Serbia, Kosovo’s contested status is a matter of strategic importance to Moscow and Washington, Brussels, Berlin and other EU capitals. Thus, “foreign players are not merely interested in manipulating Kosovar politics to their own ends: they have clear stakes in the very success or failure of Kosovo as a state,” reads the report’s segment on Kosovo.

As a result, foreign affairs and informal statements by international notables about Kosovo dominate the domestic news agenda in Kosovo. Coverage of seemingly domestic affairs, such as corruption in government, often focuses on the question of how the news will affect Kosovo’s perception in the world.

Kosovan government brought down by two tweets

The study singles out the tweets of the US Special Envoy for the Belgrade-Pristina talks, Richard Grenell as the most notable case of disinformation in Kosovo.

“Frustrated at what he saw as obstruction from Kosovo Prime Minister Albin
Kurti, Ambassador Grenell apparently arranged for Senator David Perdue and the US President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., to make a statement on Twitter suggesting that the US withdraw its troops from Kosovo. Ambassador Grenell then carried that threat – which was not made by a US official – into negotiations with Kurti’s coalition partners, engineering a vote of no confidence that brought down Kurti’s Government,” the study cited as an example of how “a foreign actor was able to manufacture an entirely fictional threat and thereby engineer a change of government.”

This example and others are described in the study as an “opportunistic campaign.” The study also defines three long-running disinformation campaigns led against Kosovo, whose aim is to “delegitimise Kosovo’s statehood, undermine its relations with Europe and destabilise its governance”:

“Allegations that Kosovo is a mafia state, operating under the protection of Kosovo Force (KFOR) and thus with the implicit support of western powers.”

“Invention and/or exaggeration of threats to the safety and property of ethnic Serbs and other minorities living in Kosovo.”

“Insinuations that Kosovo is incapable of sustainable self-governance without support from Serbia.”

Looking beyond these campaigns, the key disinformation channels in Kosovo, according to the social media analysis conducted for this study, fall broadly into two categories – media outlets and politicians.

“These include mainstream media outlets, such as the television station Klan Kosova (owned by Tirana-based media mogul Aleksander Frangaj), state-owned regional broadcaster RTV Besa, the newspapers Gazeta Express and Zeri, and politicians including LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo) leader Isa Mustafa and PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovo) leader Kadri Veseli. The social media messaging coming from Mustafa and Veseli furthered the deception of the Grenell affair, in particular.”

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