Russian propaganda in the Balkans: information, disinformation and fake news

Politics - February 9, 2024

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for almost a year now. Over the past twelve months, the modus operandi and impact of Russian propaganda in the countries directly and indirectly involved in the conflict has been widely analysed. A great deal of attention has been paid to information, the media that provide communication services, and the impact generated on the various communities. The result is a complex, sometimes confusing picture, which nonetheless allows for important reflections on how the new media are able to arouse consensus even in the face of distorted narratives and fake news. In the Balkans, for example, there are different considerations to be made: each country, either because of its history or because of the daily package of information provided, has reacted differently to propaganda. A lot depends on the use made of the media, on how the protagonists tell “the truth”, on the willingness to deepen the information received, and so on. One must also open a parenthesis before proceeding to an in-depth examination of the impact that Russian propaganda has had in the Balkans over the last period. An indefinite amount of news circulates every day: social networks have speeded up the dissemination process, causing users to have to chase the news. Criticism arises when, being confronted with information that is often incomplete or at least not very in-depth, users become destabilized and struggle to get a clear and precise overview. Therefore, it is easy to understand how due to the speed with which one comes into contact with news, and the lack of expertise with which it is spread, the production of fake news has found fertile ground. Instilling doubt, in short, has never been easier. What is surprising is that all this often happens even in ultra- modern contexts, where the rate of schooling is predominantly high and where society moves at a rapid pace towards the metaverse. The paradox of the 2000s: the impotence of human beings, who consider themselves ready, but in the face of the advancing new find themselves out of breath because of how fast life moves forward.

Russian propaganda through the media: how countries in the Balkans reacted

So, the new is advancing. Yet, looking at what is happening today in countries such as Russia and Ukraine, it seems that the passing of time has stopped; or

rather, that the clock has been rewound. Being that in 2023 there are still many conflicts in the world, the loss of human lives is still part of the ongoing power struggle, be it economic or geopolitical. However, there is perhaps an aggravating factor compared to the past: the possibility of reaching many people thanks to the widespread of digital mobile devices and of web containers that allow news to circulate very quickly.

Russia and Ukraine have been at war for a year. Besides the atrocities and the grief that are constantly communicated by the media, there is more: there is the proliferation of news that either deliberately or unintentionally create an alternative Ukrainian conflict.

In Serbia, for example, propaganda began even before the conflict broke out. We know about it thanks to a false report spread by the media – almost entirely controlled by the state – two days before the war began. The newspapers crisply wrote, so that there could be no doubt, that Zelensky’s Ukraine had already attacked Putin’s Russia. A fake report widely accepted as incontrovertible truth, since the institutions as well as a large part of the Serbian population itself consider the Kremlin a welcome alternative to the European Union. A similar phenomenon also occurs in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian secret services have in fact made it known that politicians, public figures and journalists are working (some with considerable financial gain) in a painstaking, specific manner, precisely so that a message gets through: Russia fights for freedom. In Bulgaria, after the outbreak of the conflict, publications on the subject increased from about 39 to 397 per day, and oftentimes the Bulgarian media fully reproduce the official content of the Russian media. But what was the outcome? What was the reaction of the population? According to the results of the European Parliament’s Eurobarometer survey released in spring 2022, Bulgaria is the country with the highest percentage of citizens with a positive attitude towards Russia. We can make a similar argument, but perhaps for different reasons, when talking about Russian propaganda in Hungary. Dependence on Russian energy has meant that Hungary has had to avoid hindering the diffusion of selected, pro-Russian or biased news about the conflict. Hungary endorsed the sanctions imposed on Russia, but according to government spokesman Peter Szijjarto, as reported by Russia Today: “We are not in a position to break European unity on these issues… we have found ourselves”. The journalist had asked Szijjarto why Hungary had not voted “no” to the sanctions; a straight answer would not have been possible. In an opposite direction goes Croatia, which has taken anti-Russian measures in the field of communication since the outbreak of the conflict. This was also in

accordance with the directives issued by the European Commission regarding the blocking and banning of Russian media sources in European countries. Tackling misinformation on the subject meant avoiding distorted or untruthful messages being reported by the various media channels. One last relevant case may concern Romania. Geographically it is not a Balkan country, but it has a long tradition of Russian influence in the socio-political and cultural context, and plays a strategic role in relation to its neighbouring nations. Russian propaganda in Romania started in the 1940s but today, with the outbreak of the conflict and with many digital systems at play, it has been found that most of the population is informed through TV and, according to a survey conducted by INSCOP, 55% of people under the age of 44 are aware that they are exposed to fake news. However, there is also a 42.6% of people who think that they have not been exposed to fake news: a worrying number that seems to be growing. It is true that hardly any Russian is spoken in Romania, but the lack of awareness when it comes to information – which comes from TV, radio and social media – is a significant negative factor. In conclusion, even if the reasons for supporting Russian propaganda in some Balkan countries are different, the result is the same: disinformation. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic it could be seen how the creation of news, videos, images and artfully edited statements could lead to a real war, bringing many to doubt everything to the point of shouting conspiracy and no longer having faith in institutions, in medicine and in the media. Playing on fear, on the lack of knowledge and on the possibility of losing everything – as in the case of Hungary, which has seen inflation soar to 22% – can be a successful strategy. Propaganda is based on generating confusion, and bringing order can be seen as the starting point to stem the phenomenon.