November 24, 2022


If a passion for consuming disinformation was classified as an addiction by the World Health Organization (WHO), how would we identify the addicts? We could maybe do so by asking a standard set of questions, like when diagnosing whether someone is a heavy smoker or an alcoholic.

Let’s say that one Marko Marković from Belgrade comes to us for examination; he scrolls all day through the jungles of Facebook and is exposed to various fantastic, mystical, sensational, explosive and exclusive content. He’s gotten so used to it that everyday news reports no longer excite him, especially if they’re longer than ten lines.

First and foremost, it should be determined whether there is habituation. Do you feel, Mr. Marković, a craving for disinformation? He says he does.

Alright. Do you notice that you need an increasing amount of disinformation in order to reach the same level of satisfaction? He does, and it is of particular concern to him.

Have you ever tried to limit the time you spend consuming such content? He has, but abstinence was a severe crisis.

This fictitious Mr. Marković — along with hundreds of thousands of real people in Serbia who are similar to him — has a diagnosis we could sum up with a paragraph taken from the work of Mirjana Vasović, professor of political science at the University of Belgrade. In her treatise on manipulation techniques in propaganda, she writes:

“Most people oversimplify things when considering complex issues. Most people seek to confirm rather than refute their own preconceptions, even if faced with new information on a matter or individual. People have a need to belong and to, at the same time, exclude others from the group. They have a need to blame others for their own frustrations, inventing enemies and pointing their fingers at scapegoats. […] Specific acts of propaganda rely precisely on some of these psychological patterns, which are close to common sense.”

The Serbian media scene has provided its audience this year with all the materials needed to satisfy the above needs. Here’s a breakdown.

Need for simplification

There are a large number of platforms in Serbia that mobilize the most zealous citizens by serving manipulative and overly simplified presentations of various topics of public interest. The Facebook group “Stop the settlement of migrants” collected in the past few years over 300,000 followers by spreading xenophobic content before shifting their focus to 5G technology and then, during the pandemic, to vaccines and finally the war in Ukraine.

One regional study, based on a total of 1,500 pieces of disinformation about the war in Ukraine gathered from across Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro, showed that out of top 20 most frequent sources of manipulation, 16 are based in Serbia. The pro-Russian propaganda of Serbian tabloids and public broadcasters aim to reduce everything into a simplistic black and white binary: Ukrainians are provocateurs and Nazis, while Russians are victims, patriots and protectors of Serbia.

They use a number of manipulative strategies to prove this illusory argument. Swastikas are added, often in a very sloppy manner, to images of Ukrainian flags, buildings or tanks. Even Ukrainian President Zelenskyy was portrayed with a smile on his face while holding a jersey emblazoned with swastikas. It quickly became clear that this “proof” was in fact photoshopped — in the original photo, the jersey has a number 95 on it, not a swastika.

Disinformation on child organ trafficking in Ukraine, war crimes against Ukrainians being “staged” and secret biological research labs in Ukraine spread along similar lines.

Need for confirmation

After these types of media outlets lock you into a certain ideological or pseudoscientific model by means of various propaganda techniques, they try to keep you there, always bringing in fresh “evidence” you’re on the right track so you don’t go elsewhere. This mechanism is at play across the board.

When it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, the beginning of 2022 was clouded by manipulative narratives reassuring anti-vaxxers that they were right to refuse to get vaccinated. There were a number of reports in that manner about the poor efficacy of vaccines or about contraindications, like “sudden cardiac death syndrome” — which allegedly affects vaccinated people a few months after they get their shot.

Need for belonging

The wise Serbian foreign policy of balancing between the “four pillars” (the European Union, the United States, Russia and China) could better be described as the “sitting on the fence” policy and it brings little comfort at a moment when it seems Serbia doesn’t belong anywhere, particularly given that other countries are strengthening their alliances. To help this discomfort go down easier, Serbian media outlets put forward theories about the “new order” on the horizon, in which Serbia’s status will be more favorable and historical injustices will be corrected.

In July 2022, the tabloid Srpski Telegraf reported that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “calls for a European army and wants Serbia in it.” When asked about it by FakeNews Tragač, the government of Hungary denied that any such thing was ever planned.

This is the third piece of disinformation peddled by Srpski Telegraf along the same lines. They first invented Orbán’s project “E6” in 2020 — an alleged new union of Serbia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czechia i Slovakia — before fabricating “E8” union plans two years later, which also included Croatia and Slovenia. In all three cases, the Hungarian government repudiated Srpski Telegraf’s claims, but this didn’t keep the tabloid from pumping up their fantasies. It remains to be seen what Orbán — I mean Srpski Telegraf, sorry — has in store for 2023.

Need for enemies

After several years in which Belgrade Pride occurred in relatively peaceful conditions, the atmosphere before this year’s EuroPride, held in Belgrade, became extremely tense and was accompanied by daily cases of hate speech against LGBTQ+ people and even death threats. This anti-pride campaign was spearheaded not only by right-wing parties or movements, but also some media outlets.

Disinformation about the LGBTQ+ movement’s involvement with pedophilia, the destruction of the “traditional Serbian family” and the promotion of “homosexual ideology” through textbooks and schools were coupled with other widely spread disinformation, such as about monkeypox, the supposedly eight-figure pricetag of Pride and its “anti-Serbian” character as well as the decadence of EU countries which have legalized same-sex marriage.

This was an example of a propaganda campaign that brought about direct and visible consequences in real life very quickly; violence against LGBT people grew, while a group of activists from Germany and Albania were attacked after the pride march in Belgrade.

Need for scarce resources

Shortages and an extremely high inflation rate apparently don’t seem as scary if others have it worse than us. Last spring, Serbian tabloids were all reporting about “empty shelves at stores across Europe” as if they were all part of an integrated newsroom; they didn’t hesitate to accompany these reports with images dating back to the first wave of the pandemic wave.

“Just like in Serbia in 1993. A grocery store in Germany — yesterday” read Informer’s caption under a photo taken in March 2020 in the American state Nebraska. Dozens of such pieces (1, 2, 3) were brought out alongside alleged testimonies of Serbian families sending food and other supplies to their hungry relatives abroad. By the end of summer, people in Serbia got first-hand experience of what empty grocery store shelves look like, particularly the ones where they used to find one of the most basic goods — milk.

Excess of self-confidence

Obviously, the made-up Mr. Marković from earlier is at a disadvantage. However, he made a first step towards finding a solution by admitting to having an issue. Many people in Serbia who are like him don’t see any issue with themselves. What’s more, they’re very self-confident about their media literacy and critical thinking skills.

According to a study carried out by IPSOS, 78% of Serbia-based participants agree with the following statement: “I’m confident that I can tell real news from fake news.” Only 15% of participants disagreed, which is the lowest percentage among all 27 participating countries. When we take a look at other parameters — ideas about Covid-19 and MMR vaccination rates or the attitude towards the economy, human rights, violence against women and the plight of people in Ukraine as well as as the plight of Serbian people with different sexual orientations — the conclusion is clear: our lives may be difficult and bleak, yet the one piece of comfort we have is that we’re the smartest ones in the world.

Author: Stefan Janjić

Feature image: 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 second 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.