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Disinformation helps weaponize homophobia in the Balkans · Global Voices

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Homophobic speeches attempt to undermine confidence in the European Union

Skopje Pride 2023. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Skopje Pride 2023, held on June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Populist political forces across Europe have used homophobia and stigmatization of LGBTQ+ people as a weapon of political influence over the past two decades. Many of these campaigns imitated, or were even aided by, the far-right circles in the United States. After 2013, Moscow emerged as a major generator of homophobic stories who exploited the existing endemic intolerance in the Balkan region.

A recent analysis entitled “The Kremlin speaks out: homophobia as geopolitics» by the Bulgarian fact-checking platform Factcheck.bg, managed by the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria (AEJ)revealed that mainstream homophobic rhetoric pushed by Kremlin propaganda aims to undermine trust in the European Union (EU) by stoking fears among socially conservative people:

“The West imposes homosexuality and pedophilia on us”;
“Membership of the European Union (EU) means acceptance of same-sex marriage”;
“European values ​​contradict traditional morality.”

Bulgarian author, editor and journalist Vanessa Nikolova points out that Moscow uses homophobia as a geopolitical weaponas an extension of its state politics protection of “traditional values”. In December 2022, the Russian Federation adopted amendments to the Federal Information Law prohibition “LGBTQ+ propaganda” and blocking web resources.

Nikolova points out that today’s Russian social media users often use the phrase “gay-Nazism” when discussing the political situation in Ukraine and Western countries. She also noted the development of entirely new propaganda vocabularycorresponding to the definition of Newspeak taken from George Orwell’s novel “1984”.

Words like “Gayrope”, “Eurogay”, “liberast”, “tolerast” (the last two referring to the Bulgarian word for “faggot” combined with liberal and tolerance), etc. are recognizable in the anti-democratic and anti-European rhetoric in Bulgaria. This propaganda vocabulary began to enter the Bulgarian media since 2013, but reached the top of its popularity in 2018 in the debates on the adoption of the Istanbul Convention.

Then the word “gender” was created and imposed – a negative name for people with non-traditional sexual orientation, as well as for those who sympathize with them, and in a broader sense – for human rights defenders, the civil society and supporters of the liberal movement. values ​​in general.

Nikolova warned that these speeches are based on the suggestion that the EU is morally unacceptable and destroying traditional values.

By exporting “homophobic nationalism,” Russia is implementing a much broader plan: undermining the foundations of European liberal democracies based on the principles of respect for human rights and tolerance. For this reason, European values ​​are present as focusing only on the rights of sexual minorities, and the EU is accused of carrying out “gender propaganda”.

She highlighted that in the Balkans, disinformation narratives against “gayrope”, degradation and “Satanism” have gained ground in socially conservative and nationalist circles.

The ripple effect of Russian official rhetoricwhich presents the war in Ukraine as an extension of this policy by other means, has an impact among Kremlin proxies in the Balkans, promoting myths of an “innocent” Russia and the “bad” West, generating fear-based outrage and prejudices.

Banner with American flag and rainbow at Skopje Pride 2023 stating “There is no pride in prejudice”, a play on words the title from the novel by Jane Austin. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Articles from Center for Countering Disinformation in the Western Balkans project document according to which such stories affect both communities of Slavic peoples (Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians), considered culturally linked to Russia via Orthodox Christianity, but also communities that might historically be considered hostile to Russian imperialism, such as ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Albania, as well as ethnic Bosniaks in Bosnia -Herzegovina.

The spread of misinformation about LGBTQ+ people goes hand in hand with the promotion of criminal behavior, including online and offline violence.

When such propaganda targets socially conservative groups, such as Muslim-majority communities, the primary goal is not to make them like Vladimir Putin more or generate open support for the Russian regime. The aim is to exploit homophobia to incite fear and outrage against the West and democracy, thereby creating more discord and disrupting the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

For example, disinformation portraying the EU as weak and disunited includes lies about anti-LGBTQ+ measures allegedly adopted by the Italian parliament, widespread in Kosovo in March 2022 and in North Macedonia in June 2023.

Over the past two years, misinformation about Pride Month activities has been rampant in the country’s political and media spheres. Bosnia Herzegovinaincluding religious propaganda in Kosovo.

THE Belgrade Pride March 2022 was particularly targetedsuch as Serbian far-right political parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church condemned the event and called for a ban via protests that included the glorification of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a model of “defender of traditional values”.

Defamatory allegations regarding the use of rainbow flag that implicate international institutions, such as false claims that the UN is replacing country flags with the UN flag. Albania, North Macedonia And Montenegroand AI-generated photo montages and deepfakes about the pope spread across Montenegro And North Macedoniaare aimed at local nationalists.

Some local social media influencers are clearly parrots Russian stories about Nazi connectionswhich is historically ridiculous given that Hitler’s regime attempted to exterminate homosexuals.

Attempts to use an LGBTQ+ connection to emasculate the armies of EU countries and their allies, in contrast to the supposedly robust Russian armed forces, have been seen in Albania And Montenegro.

Skopje Pride 2023 march, June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Stirring up parents’ fears is another tactic affecting public opinion in the Western Balkans. In North Macedonia, in March, a Coalition for Child Protection led a dissemination campaign panic over pro-LGBTQ+ indoctrination in schools. The coalition, made up of 31 small political parties and NGOs, is co-founded by a fringe pro-Kremlin political party. Rodina Makedonijawith the support of an American fundamentalist Christian lobbying organization Family watch.

Defamatory claims about local schools continue to appear in Macedonian right-wing media, which sees transphobia as a key new area. Similar manipulations regarding the use of schools for the indoctrination of children are present in neighboring Albania.

Other cross-border misinformation trends include promoting stigma by associating sexual orientation with infectious diseases, such as monkeypoxwhat was seen in Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina and used by tabloids And social media trolls in Montenegro, alongside the “classic” association of LGBTQ+ people with pedophilia in Bosnian and Macedonian social media spaces, including lies about World Economic Forum And EU reactions to discrimination in Hungary.

Pride marches and related events which took place in the Balkans in May and June 2023 highlighted the devastating effects of homophobia and transphobia, demanding a systemic response to the problems of impunity for hate speech and crimes that undermine democracy and to the rule of law. Such criminal behavior further erodes the fragile social cohesion of societies in transition, contributing to increasing the extreme polarization already present, as well as normalizing a climate of fear, in which any minority or anyone with different opinions can be used as a goat. emissary.

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