It’s become clear throughout 2022 that malinformation and disinformation are not a declining phenomena. Information disorder is spreading and changing its shape by adopting new digital tools, applications and platforms.

Disinformation and malinformation about Covid-19 prevailed in 2020 and 2021. This year, the spread of malinformation continues, but now in the sphere of global security.

In contrast to Covid-19 disinformation, whose sources and purposes were widespread and largely unknown, disinformation about security had a common source — state propaganda. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, a coordinated campaign to create and distribute disinformation through state propaganda became increasingly evident.

Disinformation about the Russian invasion was prominent in the digital space worldwide, including in the Albanian language media landscape.

In addition to the events in Ukraine, the media landscape in Kosovo was permeated with disinformation about other topics, such as the tensions in the north of Kosovo, the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and inflation.

The impact of developments in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine changed the course of global geopolitics as well as the interests of global audiences. Almost every other global development has been related to this war, from the fear of beginning a third world war to the increasing prices of local production. We saw this reflected during our daily work on the fact-checking platform, hibrid.info, which I lead.

The International Fact-Checking Network has created a global database of fact-checking information about the malinformation related to Ukraine. As a member of hibrid.info, I used the collected data to draft the first report at that time about the disinformation and malinformation that was being created and distributed in the media, especially in the Albanian language.

While dealing with this content, researchers identified a tendency of the creators and distributors to compare the events in Ukraine with those in the Balkans, especially in Kosovo.

According to the findings, except for the initial first few days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian disinformation were consolidated and had a relatively equal spread during the first month. The pro-Russian propaganda mainly consisted of insulting labels against the Ukrainian government, calling them “Nazis” and accusing them of violence against members of the Russian community in Ukraine. The Ukrainian state institutions also spread propaganda on social media, publishing unverified reports about the successes of the Ukrainian army on the war front.

Russian propaganda nurtured another narrative during this time. There were efforts by Russia’s political and institutional leaders, including President Vladimir Putin himself, to put the initial invasion of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine into the same context as the NATO intervention of Kosovo in 1999. This comparison does not make sense since the NATO intervention in Kosovo happened to stop ethnic cleansing.

Internal security

Malinformation and disinformation in the area of internal security started with the parallels drawn between the events in Ukraine and those in the Balkans and Kosovo. This continued in the second half of the year with topics about the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. There were incidents in Serb-majority parts of Kosovo and this culminated in recent events related to the Kosovo government’s decision to enforce reciprocity measures with Serbia regarding freedom of movement.

Institutional and political representatives in Serbia used these sensitive events to spread disinformation through the construction of politicized narratives.

On August 1, 2022, Kosovo was set to begin enforcing the rule forbidding Serbian-issued license plates for cars based in Kosovo. In the lead-up to the implementation of these measures, there were tensions in the north. On July 31, a day before the decision was supposed to go into force, groups of Serbs blockaded the roads leading to the local border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia. During this period there was a significant spread of malinformation.

This situation escalated as a result of disinformation, which mainly spread from media outlets and certain groups on Russian and Serbian social networks. Despite warnings made by Kosovo’s institutions to be cautious about receiving information from dubious sources, these channels spread disinformation with content posted and distributed on social media.

The disinformation narrative that seemed to be coordinated between Serbian state institutions and media outlets close to the Serbian government was followed by several other fabricated news stories. News articles published during the months of August and September falsely claimed that institutions in Prishtina coordinated the expulsion of local Serbs from their settlements in Kosovo. The basis of these claims were press releases from the Office for Kosovo and Metohija, the Belgrade-based Serbian government body that deals with Kosovo.

Disinformation will not disappear

Whether 2022 will represent the peak or just the early days of disinformation is unknown, but what is clear is that events will continue to occur, locally and globally, which will continue to inspire the creation of inaccurate content.

The issue of visa liberalization is often at the center of public discourse, but also speculation. Political developments and high level EU meetings during the months of June and October caused many Kosovar media outlets to report on the possibilities of visa liberalization. Suspicious portals, creators and other distributors, published articles and posts that falsely claimed positive developments in this direction. Others used old statements from European officials and institutional representatives in Kosovo on the topic of visa liberalization, attempting to present them as new developments.

The increasing prices of basic products was also an issue that was employed by spreaders of malinformation, who falsely claimed an increase in the prices of products such as bread, oil and milk. They republished previous decisions made by Kosovo’s institutions to provide aid for different social groups and then presented this as breaking news.

News about energy shortages and rising electricity prices, largely determined by the course of events in Ukraine, will continue to inspire malinformers.

This shows us that disinformation and malinformation are here to stay. This phenomenon is expanding to include almost every area of life that is of vital interest to people. While fact-checkers battle this phenomenon on a daily basis, one thing is known — information disorder won’t go away, we have to learn to live with it.

Author: Shkëlzen Osmani                                   

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

This image was created in part with GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model.

This article was originally produced for and published by Kosovo 2.0. It has been re-published here with permission.

This article is the first in a series of articles from fact-checking platforms in the Balkans. Through this series, fact-checkers from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia elaborate on common trends in disinformation and malinformation.