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Certain civil society organizations in the Balkans, such as the Metamorphosis Foundation, almost a decade ago have started to analyze the effects of disinformation, spins, and propaganda, but these issues weren’t recognized then as serious threats to democracy. The Government doesn’t have an exclusive place in the fight with the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and manipulations, but in this battle, all relevant sides in the society should join forces and act. This was the conclusion from the online discussion about approaches in the fight against disinformation, with an accent given to the disinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion was organized by the Metamorphosis Foundation as part of the “The Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – CriThink” project within this year’s Media Literacy Days.

Metamorphosis’ Executive Director, Bardhyll Jashari stressed that during the promotion of good governance 10 years ago, it was necessary for the organization to look in to the issue of what sort of information is necessary for the citizens in order for them to advisably and equally take part in any dialogue with the state institutions.

“Very early we began to analyze the effects of the disinformation, spins, and propaganda, and even then we noticed that they are present, but they weren’t recognized as a serious threat to the democracy,” said Jashari.

He also said that the process was very complex since the media in that period were under the influence of the government at the time and the only free space against the deviations in the media were the social networks and the Internet.

“This is how Metamorphosis’ fight began,” said Jashari. “Firstly with the creation of Vistinomer, which is analyzing statements and promises made by politicians, and then the Service for checking facts began working that began with fact-checking of content published by the media. Its goal is not only uncovering disinformation but also educating the citizens about the presence of hate speech, disinformation, and similar occurrences,” said Jashari.

According to him, as time went on, the methodology and the approach also evolved, but it was noticeable that the fact-checking, regardless if it is of essential importance in the fight against disinformation, wasn’t enough to deal with the negative and dangerous effects caused by disinformation narratives.

“One of the conclusions that we arrived at then was that media literacy and critical thinking are becoming increasingly important,” said Jashari. He also stressed that regardless of people’s age groups, digital skills are necessary in order to help them to surf the Internet and use the social networks safely and then to be able to critically analyze the received information, to evaluate their quality and on a basis of this to form their opinions.

“The disinformation is on the rise and since it doesn’t know of any borders, the news is transferred from one state to another. Some of them are specific and relate to specific issues during moments of crisis. No one should fight the disinformation alone and what is necessary are more efforts since this is something that will be resolved. There will always be certain agendas that will use their tools at their disposal in order to achieve their goals and to influence the processes. The mutual collaboration is necessary to decrease the negative effects caused by these deviations that can endanger human lives,” said decisively the Director of the Metamorphosis Foundation.

The advisor to the Government’s president about media reforms, Zoran Bojarovski, during the discussion stressed that the Government is maximally transparent and open for cooperation with all media, media organizations, individuals, but it has no exclusive place in the fight against disinformation, conspiracy theories, and manipulations. He stressed that the Government has its own important obligations with which it should participate in the joint fight with all affected sides in the society, but the fact is we are all in this together.

“These days a single thought returns to me that brings me back to the 2000s when on the horizon we were able to see the opportunities that they offered and we were seeing the tip of a single iceberg and we couldn’t assume what was hiding under the sea surface. Today it is evident what is there and what is hiding under the iceberg that we keep crashing into with all the consequences it brings,” said Bojarovski. He said that what we are facing with is a situation where there is a permanent, continuous fight against all false information, disinformation, manipulations, wrong and malicious concepts that are promoted, spread, and which are causing enormous damage for everyone including individuals, organizations, governments, international organizations, etc.

Bojarovski also talked about how the Government in the past several years, especially now during the pandemic, dealt with the so-called epidemic of false news and disinformation. He was decisive that the good soil for the development of these deviations are the periods when the state is in a state of flux and crisis situations. As key periods for our state, when the Government should have confronted directly with the consequences of the spread of this phenomenon, he stressed the period with the referendum for the name change including the current covid-19 crisis period.

“Since the 12th of March, one day since the declaration of the first state of emergency, the Government issued press releases and then at a press conference reminded that the spread of false news is a felony according to the current criminal code. This wasn’t a threat, but it was a fact and we did that taking into account the previous experiences that we dealt with and we wanted to remind of this article of the law. The reality that ensued showed us that we were right about this issue,” said Bojarovski, who also reminded of the creation of an official communication channel of the Crisis headquarters for fighting the crisis from where the people were able to inform themselves with the current events and activities in relation with the coronavirus.

He also mentioned the press conferences that took place every day and these provided answers for all questions that the media and the citizens had in order for the manipulations to be avoided. Bojarovski didn’t avoid mentioning the cooperation with the media, but also with global networks such as Facebook, YouTube, and Viber who allowed the Government to reach the citizens and inform them about the activities related to COVID-19.