Disinformation is also a security problem, part of hybrid warfare
This interview was conducted by Meta. mk as a member of Center for Countering Disinformation in the Western Balkans. An edited version is republished here as part of a content sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
Irena Visinska is a geopolitical analyst whose area of expertise is studies on hybrid threats to contemporary society and geopolitical trends in the Western Balkans region. In this interview, she describes the main findings of latest study “Geopolitical perspective of disinformation flows in the Western Balkans” published by the Metamorphosis Foundation, provide recommendations on how Western Balkan countries can deal with the problem of disinformation linked to malign foreign influences.
Meta.mk: As the author of the study “Geopolitical Perspective of Disinformation Flows in the Western Balkans”, can you highlight the main conclusions you managed to draw throughout your research?
Irene Visinska (IV): The geopolitical study confirmed once again that in the 21st century the world is not becoming resistant to disinformation, but also that contemporary technology is being misused to spread disinformation even faster and more widely, false news and propaganda that slows down or even deactivates democracy. process. This is particularly visible in the Western Balkans region, where people tend to believe in conspiracy theories, whether it’s about the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian aggression in Ukraine, or something completely different.
Although at first glance the publication of disinformation seems accidental and sporadic, this situation is not at all accidental, but is part of the military doctrines of autocratic regimes whose interests are different from those presented as strategic objectives of the countries of the region . Such foreign influence is part of what is called hybrid warfare. This is extremely damaging, because these regimes have no interest in the stabilization and prosperity of our region being resolved and integrated into the European Union and NATO. On the contrary, the aim of these harmful effects is to deepen divisions and differences, manipulate public opinion and even create the necessary conditions for new wars in the Balkans.
The emergence of various types of disinformation is quite complex, while the consequences are long-term. Subsequently, the EU, the United States and NATO take them very seriously. This study therefore aims to highlight this threat to the relatively young democracies of the Balkans and to highlight the need for urgent action.
Meta.mk: Your geopolitical study contains recommendations for Western Balkan countries on how to combat disinformation. What are your recommendations?
IV: The first recommendation is to initiate a broad public debate on this threat in order to raise awareness of its existence and its ramifications. The next recommendation concerns the ongoing reform of the educational process, as education in the Western Balkan countries does not keep pace with rapid technological developments, resulting in weak media literacy and a lack of critical thinking. And, of course, the amount and type of misinformation is becoming so great that it is driving the need for faster and more comprehensive debunking activities from certified fact-checking services, such as Truthmeter.mk in the case of North Macedonia.
The study is therefore a call for all of society (governmental institutions, academic community, civil society, media and media workers) to take coordinated and systemic measures to combat disinformation. Legal regulation requiring transparency in the ownership and financing of online portals is urgently required, to also provide for sanctions for the dissemination of false content. In the Internet age, word of mouth or sharing of content containing false or malicious messages has a much greater influence and should carry much greater accountability.
The study shows that each country has its own particularities which require concrete and specific measures. To effectively combat disinformation, regional cooperation is necessary, as well as an exchange of experiences between Balkan countries and participation in successful EU and NATO initiatives.
Meta.mk: What kinds of similarities have you noticed in the disinformation stories analyzed in the Western Balkan countries?
IV: The Western Balkan countries have not resolved their status in terms of Euro-Atlantic integration and are at different points on this path. Such a situation leaves room for the propagation of discourses supposed to offer options for membership in the European Union and NATO.
Similarly, the national problems of countries in the region are portrayed as civil disobedience, thus frequently spreading propaganda glorifying autocratic systems as being effective due to the “steady hand” of the leader, in contrast to the “chaos” arising from democracy given to power. people who apparently don’t deserve it.
Another common feature of disinformation discourses in the region – with the exception of Albania and Kosovo – is the tendency to present Russia as the great friend and to blame the “evil West” for the dissolution of the former -Yugoslavia.
In the case of Russian aggression in Ukraine, disinformation is being spread to describe Russian aggression as a “special operation” that was to be undertaken to save the Russian Federation from fascism.
Very often, fake news generating media glorify medical assistance or loans received from Russia, China, Gulf countries, etc., deliberately omitting the fact that the European Union and the United States are the largest financial and other donors. assistance in all countries in the region.
The study indicates that, on the one hand, the main source of this disinformation comes from Russian state agencies such as Sputnik And RIA Novosti, which offer free content to small online portals in the region that support them. On the other hand, local online portals follow global trends by using various types of disinformation in the form of texts, images and video recordings to attract audiences and thereby gain financial profit. At the same time, disinformation narratives are promoted by national political structures which, in conditions of information chaos, gain importance, thereby hiding their thirst for power in the form of high morality and patriotism.
Meta.mk: To what extent has the harmful geopolitical influence identified in this study affected the daily lives of citizens in the region?
IV: Unfortunately, the consequences of disinformation and harmful propaganda are not immediately visible. The process is subtle and cannot be directly linked to political progress, economic prosperity, problem solving and eradication of corruption. For this reason, civil society organizations can make the greatest contribution to the sector by raising alarm about the existence and development of such events that turn into security threats, thus actively contributing to their elimination. Development Anti-Disinformation Network for the Balkans is a very positive step in the right direction.
Meta.mk: What nefarious geopolitical aspects should we be most concerned about as a region when discussing their promotion through disinformation?
IV: The region has many outstanding questions and unresolved problems, but this is nothing unusual or specific in its relations with the world. The tendency of disinformation narratives is to show circumstances as exclusively difficult, or even intractable, and to portray countries in the region as victims of some kind of dark Western forces that are trying to rob us of our identity or destroy us. . As long as we shirk our responsibilities by accepting narratives where someone else is to blame – not us – we will not move forward. As a region, we may lag behind or even face wars and start all over again.
What we must do is take full responsibility: communicate sincerely and openly with the aim of solving problems, creating political, economic and civic projects that will promote reconciliation and cohabitation and rapid progress towards accession to the European Union. This is the only way to guarantee survival and a dignified life for future generations.