Disinformation continues to spread out on a daily basis throughout the Balkan region. The motives behind this vary but are mostly driven and are dominated by the financial and political motives. The actors that stand behind the spread of disinformation may strive for a financial gain. At the same time, in the course of activities, their goals often match the ones of other groups of individuals who intend to spread disinformation for specific, political purposes. We are currently witnessing a lot of disinformation that is being amplified by being distributed via paid Facebook posts, in order to reach the broadest audience as possible. Some examples of disinformation circulating on social media clearly show that citizens of the Balkan countries are increasingly falling prey to information inaccuracy and distortion.

Kosovo's Internet access per capita is highest in the region

According to Eurostat, amongst all Western Balkan countries the Internet access is most prevalent in Kosovo*. Ninety three per cent of its households have internet access, higher than the European Union average. Second in this ranking is North Macedonia with 82%, and third Serbia with 80%, respectively. These statistics make disinformation even more likely to make an impact because the first condition for it to flourish is being met - internet access is widespread enough in these countries. If we take into consideration a simple fact that most of the disinformation target audiences are unprepared to distinguish between verified and fake news, it creates a perfect storm and the probability of a more widespread disinformation impact increases.

Defamation and propaganda, and in some cases even hate speech are the main factors being exploited and exacerbated during this testing time of COVID-19 pandemic and growing economic hardships. Therefore, it is crucial to draw the attention of the wider public to the danger of an increased disinformation news flow during this period.

Facebook, main source of disinformation?

Various individuals are using Facebook to spread disinformation because they realized that it is the most convenient, fastest, and cheapest way to have a source of easy income. In addition to the fabricated news, during the last election campaign in Kosovo*, another form of disinformation resurfaced. A piece of news from the past is being "recycled" and its time and context being presented as current e.g. news lead from two or three years ago is posted by some individuals and its content using paid promotion, in order to broaden the outreach. Its aim is to deceive the reader by presenting past information as if it were current. In addition to verifying the author of the news and the source of information, readers should always be wary of such frauds succeeding just by altering the context of time. Therefore, readers should tread carefully on everything they read online, particularly on social networks.

Deepfake and Shallowfake, new ways of manipulation

Advanced ways of spreading disinformation lead to distinguishing between so-called deepfake or shallowfake manipulation. Deepfake is when a video with fake content is published and when a person appears saying something he, or she has never actually said. Shallowfake is another form of disinformation where the video is used. Unlike deepfake, in this form, there is no fake content because it is actually real information but thoroughly manipulated to defame someone. For instance, shallowfakes operate by changing the speed of images, as was the case with US Senator Nancy Pelosi when the video, in which she spoke was slowed down, portrayed her as drunk and mispronouncing words. Another case was a CNN reporter Jim Acosta, when the video where he asked questions at a press conference of the U.S. President Trump, was accelerated creating the impression that he was aggressive towards a White House employee. No specialized skills are required to perform these manipulations successfully. Pelosi's video was downloaded by nearly 2 million people and distributed about 40,000 times just 24 hours after it was posted on Facebook.

If similar manipulations occur in the Western Balkan region, it will be even more difficult for the public in our countries to distinguish between these more sophisticated forms of fake news: deepfake or shallowfake. Of course, educating the public on media literacy is key and would likely reduce the impact of these forms of deception. Nowadays, we continue to observe an increase in the number of sites that spread disinformation and in various ways seek to manipulate the public in the Balkan region, making it a suitable ground for disseminating disinformation with high probability of deceiving the targeted audiences. The lack of ability of the wider society to always hold a critical judgment towards the media content, puts it ill-prepared against the orchestrated and sophisticated forms of disinformation. Consequently, the above-mentioned forms of dissemination of disinformation show clear intent of their deliberate and systematic attempt at fraud.

*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999

Author: Dren Gerguri - Lecturer, University of Prishtina "Hasan Prishtina"/Kosovo

Background illustration: Photo by McLittle Stock from Shutterstock / Shutterstock license