Meta.mk spoke with Petra Balažič from the Slovenian Center for European Perspective, which works in the Western Balkans region in dealing with disinformation. Answering our questions, she pointed out that spreading of disinformation is a matter of security and stability of the countries of the Western Balkans, but also that different age groups in societies should be approached differently when dealing with disinformation. Balažič emphasized that the educational systems in the Western Balkans could work better and be upgraded in order to have a young generation capable of critical thinking. You can read the entire interview with her below:
Do you or your organization consider the disinformation issue to be a stability and security issue?
Petra Balažič: Disinformation is most definitely a stability and security issue. What disinformation try to do is to expose and abuse the vulnerabilities of societies to tear those societies apart.
If disinformation campaigns are successful and you lose societal cohesion, then you come into a situation where implementing democratic principles, standards and practices becomes very difficult.
With a lack of societal cohesion, you have greater antagonisms in the society, and that also invites, in the worst case scenario, even aggression, violence and unwillingness to work together for a common future.
Maybe you can tell us more about the projects that the organization where you work at the Center for European Perspectives. Tell us more about those projects, especially the one called “Strengthening Societal Resilience and Countering Foreign Perpetuated Disinformation in Western Balkan countries”.
Petra Balažič: The Center for European Perspective is an institution that was established by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of Slovenia. We have since then grown considerably and are now implementing a vast number of successful projects. We have, with our hard work, proven that we are trustworthy, and because of that, we have had a lot of projects coming in.
We implement projects in regional cooperation, in peace and security, in strategic communications, and of course the flagship Bled Strategic Forum, which is very well known in this part of the world. And it’s really something that we as Center for European Perspective and as Slovenia are really proud of.
You can check out our website and learn more about all projects. They’re definitely very interesting. But when it comes to Strengthening societal resilience and countering disinformation in the Western Balkans, it is a very ambitious project that has been running since 2020.
What we are trying to do, the overarching aim of the project, is to get the government, the media and the civil society organizations to work together to maintain a dialogue and to eventually come to a point where they can together establish national mechanisms for the fight against disinformation.
Having a strategy in place means that you know how you define disinformation, who is responsible for countering them and in what way, how you will communicate the response to the people as well as which sector will be responsible for which part of the defence. That concerns both the sectors within the government, and the sectors of the overall societies.
It is a long-term project. It’s very ambitious in the current context of the Western Balkans, but we are trying our best and I am happy to say that North Macedonia has been doing really well in this area, especially compared to the other Western Balkan partners. But we hope that also in those countries we will soon see some progress as the project advances.
I would also like to mention another project that has been very successful and that is complementary to the project that I just described, and that is the European digital diplomacy exchange. This is a project that is focused on the proactive strengthening of social resilience to disinformation through successful strategic communications of governments, to the societies in order to inoculate societies when it comes to disinformation. This project has been running for six years now, and it has truly been a very successful one. And it doesn’t include only the Western Balkans, but also the Eastern Partnership countries, the Baltics and the US and Canada.
Follow up question on this. I really want to ask you – you said that the idea is to have the government, the civil society, the media, to sit on one table and discuss strategy for combating disinformation. Do you think this is possible?
Petra Balažič: I have to believe that it’s possible. And I do. I do, honestly in my heart believe that it is possible. I think it takes time. I think it takes a lot of energy and unwavering commitment. It does require an investment both in terms of time and in terms of many frustrations that we encounter along the way. It’s not stopping us. And I do believe that there is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
To some extent, the mistrust between sectors makes sense, but it is also not a finality. It doesn’t have to be this way. If we maintain this dialogue, we will be able to rebuild that trust. Three good people – one in each sector – can be enough for a step forward to be taken. We obviously hope that there is more than three, but we are confident that as time progresses we will get more people on board and be able to rebuild trust.
I want to mention at this point that we had in June in Portorož, in Slovenia, a regional training on countering disinformation. And we had representatives of every Western Balkan government, of Western Balkan media and Western Balkan civil society sector join us in Portorož. We had people from all three sectors working together at a single table. Things did not necessarily always at every point go smoothly, but I saw at the end the exchange of contacts. I saw the dialogue continuing and that is a good sign that when we all gather next time, we will be able to make a step forward.
Your organization recently issued a publication which is titled Information War and Fight for Truth – Tactics and Harmful Effects of Foreign Perpetuated Disinformation in the Western Balkans. Can you tell us, in short, what are the main takeaways from this publication?
Petra Balažič: The most recent publication that Center for European Perspective published in the framework of the project Strengthening societal resilience and countering disinformation in the Western Balkans, has really shown in no uncertain terms that disinformation are very much present in all of the Western Balkan countries and that they have incredibly harmful effects on the societies in its entirety.
It also showed that disinformation are part of larger influence campaigns. That means that they are not targeting only the information space. The information space is only one piece of the puzzle of influence campaigns. It affects the economy. It effects diplomacy. It affects relations with our Euro-Atlantic partners.
It’s really important to, first of all, have the awareness that disinformation are there, that they’re part of the bigger picture and that we are at this time still unable to counter them effectively in the Western Balkans. And that’s why it’s important to continue working on it. And when it comes to awareness, to also be able to have the research and the institutions committed to exploring this phenomenon in the most result oriented way possible.
Has your organization maybe or you as an individual looked at how disinformation narratives are targeting youth in the region of the Western Balkans, do you think that youth are especially vulnerable to this kind of malign narratives?
Petra Balažič: Our project does not deal with youth specifically. However, youth are a part of society and obviously we take that in consideration as well. Many times when we have conversations with our partners, this issue comes up. Youth are as vulnerable as every other part of society, but in a different way.
The ways that disinformation reaches them is different to the way that it reaches older populations and generations. We have to take into account the venues of disinformation proliferation among young people. We also have to think about how to explain the dangers of disinformation to youth.
Moreover, it’s important to show young people that they have a say, their voice matters, things can change for the better and they do not need to give in to apathy, which has been rising among youth.
And that is something that we can achieve if we give young people a proper perspective and make sure that they know that even though malign actors are trying to convince them that there is no way forward, especially when it comes to the European Union or the Euro-Atlanticism in general, that is not and does not need to be true.
As I mentioned, we need to understand that generations function differently and they have their own challenges. For older generations, the use of the digital sphere might be a challenge in and of itself. And it’s important that older generations are taught how to navigate the digital sphere and to explain to them that not everything that’s written online is true.
Younger generations don’t necessarily have this problem. Younger generations have been brought up with the tablets and computers and smartphones. They know how to navigate that space. They probably know how to do that better then, you know, the mid generations like Generation X or even Millennials can. What is important for us now is not showing them how to navigate that space and telling them that not everything that’s written on the Internet is true. They know that. But we need to be able to communicate with them as effectively and as attractively as the adversaries do.
We have to make sure that they are able to recognize when something has a malign intent and when it doesn’t. I think that this is a very important point. The main way to do that is through education and critical thinking. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to media literacy exclusively; we need to push for critical thinking in its more general form.
And that is something that the education systems in the Western Balkans, but also in Slovenia and most of the world, could be doing better and should be constantly upgrading, in order to have new, young generations capable of critical thinking. So when they receive an information, they are able to make their own assessment on whether it makes sense or not.
But it’s very hard when you have one side, you have a group of people that doesn’t follow any rules, doesn’t abide to any ethical constraints or any, you know, they can invent whatever they want. While, you have to do it specifically by those set of rules that you need to follow in order for you to be credible.
Petra Balažič: Of course. It is. It is difficult that we have to follow certain rules while the adversaries do not. But that’s what we should appreciate about ourselves, we should be happy that we have committed to following these rules. After all, this is why the European Union, for all its flaws, is still more attractive than autocratic regimes.
The artificial intelligence AI, recently it has been developing very fast and it’s influence as a tool for mass production of disinformation is being debated at this very moment, and this is something that some people consider very, very dangerous as a new challenge. Do you have any thoughts on what can be done about this issue?
Petra Balažič: I am not an expert on artificial intelligence. However, the way we look at it is that it is a new technology, a new and developing technology. At every point in history of humankind, we encountered new technologies and at every point in history, those new technologies were considered as a threat by some, and as an opportunity by others.
What we need to do, what is our responsibility to do, is to make sure that the opportunities of artificial intelligence outweigh the harm that artificial intelligence can cause.
Basically, it’s not the tool, it’s how you use it. And I think that there are great opportunities with artificial intelligence to actually complement our work and to help us fight disinformation more effectively, while also being aware that the malign actors will be using this tool for their own gains.
It’s important that we stay at the top of the game and that we stay one step forward compared to our adversaries.