Disinformation and fake news are not just a media problem, but a security problem. They destabilize the countries of Western Balkans, including North Macedonia, undermining the trust in democratic institutions and hindering the realization of their most important strategic objectives.
This is the general conclusion of the new analysis titled ”Geopolitical Perspective of Disinformation Flows in the Western Balkans,” published by the Metamorphosis Foundation. It explains the connections between the foreign malign influences and the domestic actors which use disinformation narratives to destabilize the region and obstruct its Euro-Atlantic integration.
“The internet enables malign actors spreading disinformation and propaganda to reach wide audience in a very short time in easy, simple and cost-effective manner, influencing perceptions and opinions of millions of people. It is gaining huge potential for geopolitical influence that harms the strategic interests of Balkan countries. It’s alarming that this this issue, initially considered a media problem, turns into security threat with a tendency to shake the fragile peace in the Balkans,” notes the study author, geopolitical analyst Irena Vishinska.
This research maps key trends and patterns in disinformation dissemination based on analysis of over two thousand documented examples of misinformation, disinformation and fake news, indicating that the Western Balkans continues to be a field for strategic competition between the great powers, primarily because of its unresolved status in relation to Euro-atlantic integration. The slow progress of this reform process is partly due to foreign malign influences and their local antidemocratic allies.
“The Western Balkan region borders with the EU which makes it interesting for foreign political and economic influence, as it provides a gateway to the common European market of nearly 800 million people. Russia, China, Türkiye, the Gulf States and Iran have different interests in this region, but all of them show eagerness for presence and influence in order to achieve their own strategic goals,” Vishinska remarks.
The analysis that covers North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro concludes that the countries of the region need to increase cross-border cooperation and close cooperation with the EU, the USA and NATO, share best practices and lessons learned to create resilience and strategies to counter foreign malign influences.
Filip Stojanovski, Director for Partnership and Resource Development at the Metamorphosis Foundation, stated that key feature of this publication is detailed analysis of the situation in each of the six Western Balkan countries, alongside providing regional overview. Understanding the local context is crucial element of building societal resilience.
“For instance, while countries across the region share common features regard to types of disinformation narratives, dominantly under influence of Russian propaganda justifying its aggression over Ukraine, in North Macedonia the focus of these efforts was to lower support that the state provides for defense of Ukraine and the support for joint European sanctions,” Stojanovski notes.
According to the analysis of geopolitical perspectives, various other foreign influences had been noted in North Macedonia, but they don’t always express themselves by spreading disinformation. Some foreign actors exercise “soft power” via promotion of economic, cultural or ideological aspects. These recognized geopolitical positions endorsing interests of authoritarian regimes display potential to grow into disinformation sources. Observed differences of Chinese influence in the region and the country provides an example.
“While the Chinese influence in the region mainly focuses on promoting China as economic power and the effectiveness of their authoritarian communist system, some Chinese diplomatic factors in the country also provided media support for the Russian narratives related to Ukraine,” Stojanovski said.
Example of influence operations present in the region which had not been registered in North Macedonia include efforts by Iran, which set its sights primarily on Albania. The analysis diferentiates between types of geopolitical influences, including Turkish and from other countries of the Middle East, that manifest differently in individual countries.
The publication ”Geopolitical Perspective of Disinformation Flows in the Western Balkans” was publish by the Metamorphosis Foundation within the framework of the regional project Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism, supported by the kingdom of the Netherlands.
Irena Vishinska is a geopolitical analyst specialized in examining hybrid threats to contemporary society and geopolitical trends in the region of Western Balkans. Focus of her attention is examining disinformation flows and foreign propaganda, and their effects on the Balkans region. She had developed her expertise through engagement in the security and diplomatic sector in Repubic of North Macedonia in the period from 1993 to 2022.
Filip Stojanovski is Director for Partnership and Resource Development at the Metamorphosis Foundation whose work experience focuses on managing projects aimed at building resilience to disinformation via upholding human rights in the digital sphere, development of media and digital literacy and critical thinking, including fact-checking and promotion of professional journalism.