Home Business Media experts examine the financing of disinformation in the Balkans – EURACTIV.com

Media experts examine the financing of disinformation in the Balkans – EURACTIV.com

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Media outlets spreading pro-Russian disinformation in the Balkans often use advertisements purchased by reputable Western companies to boost their credibility, media experts concluded during a panel at the European Parliament on Tuesday (September 19).

The conference, focusing on the media situation in EU member Bulgaria and EU candidate Serbia, was hosted by Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovatchev and organized by the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI).

Claire Atkin, CEO and co-founder of the Check My Ads Institute, a technology watchdog specializing in the advertising industry, pointed out that companies that buy media advertising through specialist companies are generally unaware that their advertisements end up on pro-Russian sites. disinformation channels.

“Although the internet has been used for many years as a channel to sell products and services, we are now seeing it being used to sell radicalization ideas,” she said.

She said her institute had identified the three agencies most likely to buy ads on TV channels, a system in which companies “don’t know they’re there.”

“So Procter and Gamble, Coca Cola and Lidl are most likely unaware that they are present on these pro-Russian disinformation channels,” she said, referring to large companies whose ads appeared in media spreading disinformation.

For the general public in the Balkans, Atkin explained, the name and brand of a major Western company adds credibility to news articles containing disinformation.

At the same time, she acknowledged that companies did not want to be associated with “media that would make them uncomfortable.”

Raša Nedeljkov, program director of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), a democracy NGO based in Belgrade, described a system in Serbia in which it is very easy to manipulate the public.

He explained that Serbs mainly consume news from television channels, with five terrestrial television channels covering the territory. According to CRTA monitoring over six years, Serbian media generally published negative news about the EU and positive news about Russia and China.

He said that 95% of the speakers on these five channels belonged to the ruling majority, with President Aleksandar Vučić being by far the most often present.

For example, he said that in 2022 Vučić had 300 live speeches, each lasting an average of 45 minutes.

At the same time, he said 60% of advertisers were from the “political West.”

“Companies from European countries basically support Serbian media that portray the EU in a negative way,” he said, adding that Serbian reporting on the war in Ukraine was indistinguishable from Russian propaganda.

Referring to popular channel Pink TV, known for promoting glitzy entertainment featuring non-stop “turbo-folk” music, he said:

“Pink creates a rosy reality for Serbian citizens. For example, they denied the massacre in Bucha (Ukraine) in a broadcast placed between advertisements for the German company Lidl,” he said.

“We would like to try to make these companies aware of what kind of reality they support for Serbian citizens,” he said, pointing out that under this trend, support for the EU in his country was falling free.

BFMI director Antoinette Nikolova said Bulgaria faced similar problems to Serbia. She said it remained the most vulnerable to Russian propaganda of all EU countries.

Nikolova notably criticized her country’s media regulator – the Council for Electronic Media (CEM) – for failing to do its job.

As an example, she said that the head of the CEM, Sonia Momchilova, had accused Western propaganda of organizing the Bucha massacre.

As in Serbia, Western advertisers dominate more than 70% of the Bulgarian advertising market, Nikolova said.


Atkin also addressed the issue of PSYOPS, psychological operations aimed at transmitting selected information to the audience in order to influence their motivations and objective reasoning.

She said that in 2021, the director of national security in the United States identified four Russian PSYOPS in the form of websites in the United States, with the Russian perpetrators posing as Americans.

Two weeks later, they were sanctioned and anyone who worked with them faced 20 years in prison and heavy fines.

But months later, “Check My Ads” discovered 12 different ad exchanges working with Strom Front, one of the Russian PSYOPS. And after “Check My Ads” reported this in their newsletter, every ad exchange was dropped, in their words, because they knew it was against their terms of service and they knew the risks.

The spread of misinformation on Facebook was also discussed and Meta representative Marisa Jimenez Martin disagreed with the idea that the tech giant is profiting from this publicity.

Atkin countered that in 2016, 4,000 advertisers abandoned Breitbart, run by Steve Bannon, who arguably got Donald Trump elected.

“But this year, Breitbart has been in Facebook’s top ten posts more times than I can count. You don’t just benefit from misinformation. You amplify it,” Atkin said.

(Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor)

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