Building resilience to disinformation – a struggle for the whole of Europe
This article is also available in Albanian, Macedonian and BCMS.
SKOPJE – Disinformation campaigns in the Western Balkans mainly disseminate anti-Western rhetoric and the EU is determined to counter them, but it needs the region’s help, participants at the education conference stressed. to today’s EU-Western Balkans media in Skopje. On the other hand, “Building resilience in the face of disinformation”, as the Conference is called, is the problem facing the whole of Europe.
This is a second conference of this magnitude supported by the European Union. The Skopje conference builds on the results of the first EU-Western Balkans conference on media literacy organized in 2020 in Sarajevo and Banja Luka. It will result in recommendations aimed at encouraging effective actions against disinformation and the further development of media literacy.
The event is also registered on the platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
The President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski opened the Conference by stressing that the experience so far shows that disinformation on the Internet is generally not spontaneous.
“The intention is to manipulate the public into a systemic matter and to serve the interests of particular political and commercial power centers,” Pendarovski said.
He warned that disinformation campaigns polarize societies and erode trust in public institutions and can destabilize the country as a whole. Among the solutions are media literacy education, better conditions for professional journalists and better implementation of current regulations and their improvement in line with European standards.
Hugh Union Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Representative Josep Borrell underlined in his remarks that this conference is an annual highlight of the EU’s work with civil society in the fight against disinformation in the Western Balkans.
“Fact-checkers, independent media and citizens of the Western Balkans are working tirelessly to achieve this goal,” Borrell said.
He underlined that the EU funds studies, education and activities such as workshops, in order to contribute to this objective in the region.
“But he can’t do it alone. Dealing with disinformation requires a whole-of-government approach that facilitates a whole-of-society approach. There is no doubt on the EU side: the Western Balkans are a heart of Europe and we share the responsibility to build a more peaceful, prosperous and united Europe. And we also share the responsibility to communicate about it, ”Borrell said.
EU Ambassador to North Macedonia David Geer said the recent study prepared by the Open Society Institute in Sofia showed resistance to fake news in North Macedonia to be low.
“Disinformation stories come in many forms. For example, during the pandemic we have always seen that the EU has left the region behind. In fact, it has provided unprecedented aid in the form of € 3.3 billion in health and socio-economic support and economic and investment plan, ”Geer said.
He reiterated the message that the EU is determined to fight disinformation, but needs the cooperation of the region.
In the first panel discussion, Rosana Aleksoska from the Citizens’ Association “MOST” presented the preliminary results of the study on the dominant disinformation narratives in North Macedonia in 2020.
“Polarizing and high-conflict narratives have been used to exploit deep-rooted feelings and (evil) beliefs to discredit various actors, including Western institutions,” Aleksoska said.
The stories focused on COVID-19, spreading conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, but also pushed anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti-Prespa Accord stories.
“A feature common to all of these narratives is anti-Western sentiment and an attack on some of the countries’ strategic goals,” Aleksoska said.
Research showed that established local portals as well as anonymous portals delivered their content through dozens of Facebook groups with over a million total subscribers. News of China’s aid during the pandemic was particularly amplified.
Marjan Zabrcanec, national coordinator for strategic communications and the implementation of the North Macedonian government’s communications strategy, said he did not believe government efforts should focus on removing sources, as they are not responsible for it.
“Our efforts must be focused on analysis, deep understanding of the problem and providing counter-narratives,” Zabrcanec said.
He stressed the importance of active governance, ready to introduce media education, in addition to active transparency.
“It means responding quickly to the needs of the media, when they ask for fact-checking,” he said.
Zabrcanec said the government was aware that there were challenges, that not all institutions were equally transparent and swift, but that it was important that there was central management when it came to the subject of reactivity.
Klodiana Kapo, director of fact-checking service “Faktoje” from Albania and Evita Purina, editor-in-chief of “Re: Check”, Fact-Checking and Social Media Research Lab of Re: Baltica from Latvia shared their management experiences disinformation, pointing out that the situation is similar in different countries, whether or not they are in the Balkans.
Deirdre Kevin, Expert of the EU-CoE II Horizontal Facility: Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom in North Macedonia recalled that North Macedonia, as a candidate country for EU membership, must ensure the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, which becomes increasingly linked to resilience to disinformation.
Kevin felt that everyone in Europe was grappling with these issues and that the situation had worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Western Balkans are no exception when it comes to disinformation, but as long as people try to fix the problem, we have a chance to win this battle,” concluded panel moderator Jasna Jelišić.