By: Maida Salkanović
Elon Musk professing his love for Serbia, airport luggage auctioned for a mere Euro, and the circulation of supposedly miraculous cures were just some of the false claims shared all across Southeast Europe (SEE) in 2023. Fact-checkers were busy – in this review they offer their perspectives on the previous 12 months.
In SEE, the backdrop for fact-checking endeavors was heavily shaped by ongoing global crises. These included the conflicts in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, the recurring cases of Covid-19, and the pervasive impact of the algorithm-driven digital economy. Faced with an array of challenges, such as denial of climate change, persistent disinformation regarding COVID-19 and vaccination skepticism, as well as a surge in fraudulent advertising, the fact-checking teams remained steadfast in their commitment to dispelling myths and presenting the truth.
Trends In Common
Comparing the disinformation volume and variety to 2022, the consensus among fact-checkers is that the amount remained steady, but the sophistication increased in 2023, particularly with the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) in fabricating narratives.
The disinformation surrounding the war in Ukraine persisted, though it was less intense compared to previous periods. However, the escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip beginning on October 7 sparked a significant influx of false information. The impact of this disinformation varied across different countries, which SEE Check explored in an article dated December 15, 2023.
Environmental catastrophes, too, became fodder for climate change conspiracy theories, with seismic events and severe weather incidents across Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Hawaii, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia being particularly misused.
Samo Demšar, deputy editor at the Slovenian outlet Razkrinkavanje, remarked that this summer was particularly rife with disinformation about weather and climate. He highlighted the severe floods in early August as a stark example of this trend.
Additionally, Demšar noted a noticeable increase in LGBT-related disinformation during June and July, aligning with the LGBTIQ Pride Month.
Emir Zulejhić, an editor at Bosnian and Herzegovinian Raskrinkavanje, said that they also faced all global disinformation trends in 2023, including conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, natural disasters, Pride month, as well as Covid-19, but he noted that there is a particular twist to that in the Bosnian context:
“All the global disinformation topics that reach us, almost always end up being wrapped up in a broader narrative that is in its essence anti-western and anti-liberal. Whatever the event is, it is almost always the USA and EU countries, NATO countries and, in general, western politics, society and values are the ones to blame and target.”
In another area of concern, fact-checkers observed a marked escalation in fake advertising throughout the year. Viola Keta, an editor at Albania’s Faktoje, reported to SEE Check on the growth of disinformation in advertisements, especially those involving false celebrity endorsements for various products, unauthorized promotions using celebrity names, and fraudulent reward campaigns featuring counterfeit identities of local and international celebrities.
The evolution of these fraudulent practices over the year was highlighted by Ivica Kristović, an editor at Zagreb-based fact-checker Faktograf.
“Such interviews initially appeared in written form at the beginning of the year. By the end of the year, fraudsters in these scams began using artificial intelligence to generate audio statements of famous individuals to make the frauds seem more authentic,” he told SEE Check.
The SEE disinformation landscape is also shaped by local contexts. In Serbia, for instance, two tragic mass shootings occurred in May, which were followed by a wave of disinformation.
“Immediately after the mass shootings, the media was flooded with supposed statements from the killers, information from their interrogations, details from the crime scenes, etc. In most cases, these were unfounded texts. Very often, regarding events that capture attention, mainstream media in Serbia report unprofessionally, with low standards and disregard for the Journalists’ Code,” said Vesna Radojević, an editor at Serbian Raskrikavanje.
The country also had Parliamentary and local elections, which were also accompanied by various forms of disinformation.
Radojević identified the mainstream media as the primary sources of manipulative news. Political figures topped the list of disinformers, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić at the helm.
“For many years now, I can freely say that the biggest disinformers have been representatives of the highest governing structures, led by President Aleksandar Vučić. He also controls media outlets that are extremely unprofessional and biased towards the authorities,” she told SEE Check.
Radojević also noted the presence of a polarizing narrative in the media, portraying a stark “us versus them” scenario where the ruling party is depicted positively, while the opposition is demonized and accused of plotting against Serbia’s interests.
Stefan Janjić, an editor at the Serbian fact-checking outlet Fake News Tragač, emphasized that most of their fact-checking efforts were aimed at debunking disinformation circulating on social media. While the mainstream media have become somewhat more cautious about spreading explicit disinformation, possibly influenced by Meta’s program that limits the reach of false content, Janjić pointed out that the narrative strategies in the media have not shown substantial innovation. The media continue to rely on recycled manipulations, indicating a persistent issue with the quality and integrity of information dissemination.
“We have noticed a decrease in the number of disinformation cases that can be directly and unambiguously disputed by evidence. I would say that most editorial teams, even the extremely tabloid ones, have become cautious. Instead of outright lying, they now choose more subtle techniques of manipulation and propaganda. Thus, their intent is still clearly visible, they violate the Journalists’ Code daily, but there are fewer explicit lies – at least in our experience,” said Janjić.
In Serbia, disinformation also centered around an incident in Banjska, a region in northern Kosovo, where at least 30 heavily armed men besieged a monastery near the Serbian border. This event was a significant concern for fact-checkers in Albania as well, who cited it as one of the major disinformation events of the previous year. Other prevalent topics in Albania, say the fact-checkers, encompassed a range of issues, including domestic politics, propaganda, the narrative of ‘Great Albania’ often emanating from Serbia, and the complex Albania-Greece bilateral relations.
Montenegro, having undergone local, presidential, and parliamentary elections this year, saw election-related topics and narratives dominate its disinformation landscape, with false polls and nationalist narratives taking center stage.
“What was specific is that we had a trend of publishing fake public opinion polls on social networks, websites, and even on the sites and pages of certain parties participating in the elections. We even had a survey from a non-existent research firm that always appears before elections in Montenegro. This time they claimed to have surveyed more than half of the citizens of Montenegro, and their “research” was published by many media outlets, especially those that were clearly inclined to support certain candidates in the electoral race,“ said Darvin Murić, an editor at the Montenegro-based Raskrinkavanje.
The Montenegro census also gave rise to a significant amount of disinformation, fueled by political and ethnic tensions.
Reflecting on the year, Murić remarked, “2023 was more intense in terms of disinformation, even though we thought during the first months of last year, amid the Russian aggression in Ukraine, that such records could not be surpassed.”
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, during a year without elections, no significant new local events sparked an increase in disinformation. However, Zulejhić noted that the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with regional media, flooded society with a substantial amount of new disinformation from surrounding countries. This included information about elections and mass shootings in Serbia, the elections and census in Montenegro, as well as the shootings in Banjska.
“We don’t need any new major local event to have a flood of disinformation. In BiH, repetitive disinformation that occurs every year at the same time is a big enough problem. There are a lot of anniversaries of different war crimes that took place in BiH in the nineties that are known to trigger the appearance of repetitive disinformation and different narratives based on them, such as the anniversary of genocide in Srebrenica on July 11. Besides anniversaries of war crimes, other events that trigger the surge of disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina are the ones that concern its statehood to some extent, such as the BiH Statehood Day (November 25), Independence Day (March 1), Republika Srpska Day (January 9), the day the Dayton Agreement was established (November 21) and the day of the signing of the Dayton Agreement (December 14),” Zulejhić told SEE Check.
Consequently, in 2023, Raskrinkavanje began to explore the concept of “prebunking.” Drawing from past experiences and data, this approach aims to proactively warn society about potential false claims and narratives, offering factual information even before these claims emerge publicly. The goal is to mitigate the effects of disinformation before it can take hold.
Threats and Lawsuits
Fact-checkers in South East Europe grapple with not just the challenge of identifying and debunking disinformation, but also with the significant issue of harassment. A study conducted in June 2023 by Croatian Faktograf and the Bosnian organization Zašto ne brought to light the frequent attacks that fact-checkers endure from political figures, public personalities, and through harassment on social networks.
Darvin Murić, highlighting the experience of their fact-checking team, mentioned that they often find themselves targeted by right-wing news outlets, which are known for their role in spreading disinformation.
“As fact-checkers, we’re used to that, unfortunately,” he remarked.
The Faktograf study further revealed that harassment is particularly acute for newsrooms and fact-checkers participating in Meta’s Third-Party Fact-Checking (TPFC) program. The involvement in Meta’s program, which aims to combat the spread of false information on Facebook and Instagram, seems to make these fact-checkers more visible targets for harassment, reflecting the contentious nature of their work in a climate increasingly polarized by disinformation. This finding resonates with the experiences of Samo Demšar from Razkrinkavanje, published by the organization “Oštro.”
“Since we became a third-party fact-checker for Meta in 2022, we sometimes receive threats regarding the content we fact-check, as the user can see who flagged their post in the Facebook tool and blames Oštro for trying to hide ‘the truth’,” he explained.
The study’s findings reveal a disturbing trend: women fact-checkers are disproportionately targeted for harassment, a reality echoed by Viola Keta’s observations. Keta, leading a team predominantly composed of women at Faktoje, shared the harrowing experiences they face in their work against disinformation.
Keta reported, “Our team’s work has come at a personal cost. We faced a denigrating campaign, particularly intense in May, during the pre-election period. This campaign was characterized by the distribution of disinformation, insults, and denigration on social networks, along with manipulated photos targeting Faktoje team members. There were also TV programs featuring so-called experts who attacked Faktoje without our representatives being present.”
Beyond direct harassment, fact-checkers also confront legal challenges, particularly in the form of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). These lawsuits are intended to intimidate and silence those speaking out on matters of public interest, creating substantial legal obstacles for fact-checkers.
Raskrikavanje’s Radojević disclosed that they faced 14 SLAPP lawsuits in 2023, underscoring the legal risks involved in exposing falsehoods.
In Croatia, Faktograf is currently grappling with six lawsuits related to verifying statements made by public figures. Similarly, the Bosnian fact-checking organization Raskrinkavanje has been subjected to similar legal actions.
Stefan Janjić noted that his team encountered several threats of lawsuits, which ultimately were not filed.
Underlining the significance and prevalence of this issue, SEE Check addressed the challenges posed by SLAPPs to fact-checkers in South East Europe through an article published in October 2023. This article is indicative of a broader concern within the fact-checking community, shedding light on how SLAPPs are increasingly being used as tools to hinder the work of those dedicated to uncovering and countering disinformation.
Looking ahead to 2024, fact-checkers anticipate a continuous battle against disinformation, especially with the anticipated rise in AI-generated disinformation, which is expected to become more prevalent and sophisticated in the near future.
Stefan Janjić, reflecting on the rapid advancements in AI technology, foresees significant challenges for fact-checkers. He predicts an upsurge in complex, unresolved claims and disinformation that will be increasingly difficult to debunk.
“We are now entering an era of manipulating mass production of highly convincing and sophisticated false content, making it extremely difficult to determine what the truth really is. I hope that the advancement of deepfake detection software will keep pace with the advancement of deepfake technology itself,” he commented.
Photo: Maida Salkanović, DALL·E
In Slovenia and Croatia, both EU members, there is heightened concern about the impact of AI on the integrity of the upcoming European elections, given the potential for sophisticated AI tools to generate convincing yet false content.
“Considering that this year saw the emergence of AI-generated recordings of public figures’ statements, mainly related to pharmaceutical frauds, next year we expect the same tools to be used for election purposes. That is, we might see false statements by politicians appearing on social media and in the media space, specifically related to elections,” said Faktograf’s Kristović.
As we are entering 2024, fact-checking organizations like Faktograf in Croatia and Raskrinkavanje in Bosnia-Herzegovina are gearing up for a likely upsurge in their workload, in anticipation of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Croatia and the municipal elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There is a shared expectation among fact-checkers that 2024 will see an increase in the volume of disinformation. Viola Keta, commenting on this, said, “With the advancement of AI, continuing armed conflicts, the fragile situation in the Western Balkans, and also the coming elections in many countries, in regional countries, Europe, and wider, we expect an intensive flow of disinformation.”
Darvin Murić from Raskrinkavanje pointed out the inherently unpredictable nature of fact-checking work, which is significantly influenced by global events. These events often act as catalysts for waves of disinformation, making the task of fact-checkers both challenging and critical. Murić expressed hope for fewer major global events that could lead to such surges in disinformation.
However, not all perspectives are gloomy. Despite the challenges, Vesna Radojević remains optimistic about the ongoing commitment of her network and peers in upholding media freedom and factual accuracy. “The least I expect is that our network and all colleagues in the region will continue to work diligently and be bastions of media freedom, professional standards, and the glorification of facts, not manipulations,” she stated.