Printscreen from the online campaign for positive promotion of the party bots in Serbia | Source: Instagram profile of Aleksandar Vučić
Someone is a proud political party bot, while another is praising the party leader and attacking his opponents, under the threat of losing his/her job. Yet, one thing is certain – the number of people recruited by political parties to spread propaganda on social networks is in the realm of tens of thousands. In the country of origin of most of the disinformation in the region – Serbia – a great debate is ongoing nowadays. It started when the names and the profiles of 14,000 persons believed to be bots of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) were publicly revealed.
Meta News Agency contacted the person who published the list of names and profiles of some of the bots in Serbia, Dragan Vidaković – Mrki. The information shared in his statement cannot be verified by an independent source, but if the social network profiles are analyzed, one will indeed see that a large number of them are actually political party bots.
€15,000 for a list of 14,000 bots
He says that he paid €15,000 for the list – money collected from the Serbian diaspora. Allegedly, the list was purchased from one of the heads of the IT teams of the Serbian Progressive Party (SPP). According to Mrki, these IT teams orchestrate the entire bot operations through Viber groups once they receive instructions from the party headquarters.
Regarding the authenticity of the list, Vidaković claims that it can be verified and that he will soon publish a large number of evidence about the way in which this bot system operates in Serbia.
The published list divides the bots into three categories: ”super special”, “fans”, and “haters”. Vidaković explains that the “super specials” are the most active bots who attack the opponents of the party and publish false information about them, while the “fans” disseminate “support for the regime”.
The “haters” are those who attack every piece of news by the free media. Frequently, they can be recognized by comments such as “I am not a supporter of Vucic, but these…” or “They are all the same” and similar comments. Haters are in charge of killing the morale of the politically neutral,” Vidaković explains.
Vidaković has not expressed much mercy for the persons whose personal data he also published, although he suspects that many of them were forced to serve as SPP bots to keep their jobs. He says that the people from smaller settlements in Serbia are now put to shame. He also adds he hopes that criminal charges will be brought against them.
But contrary to his claims, botting is not a criminal act in itself, unless it involves threats to public security. What is criminal in such an operation is the abuse of funds from the state budget for bribing citizens to perform activities that are not legally defined at all. The President of the Association of Prosecutors of Serbia, Radovan Lazić, in “Newsnight” on Serbian TV N1 confirmed that elements of serious corruption were apparent in this case.
There are suspicions that the people on the list of bots, in actual fact, are employed in public enterprises and state institutions, without specified job positions and defined duties. They earn their salaries for writing posts that indicates the possibility of serious corruption, and that should be of interest to the prosecutors. I am not an optimist that it will happen, but the Prosecution should initiate an initial investigation for this case, although it is too early to talk about that, added Lazić.
After the list was published, the Serbian ruling party, led by country president Aleksandar Vučić, initiated an online campaign titled “Yes, I am a SPP-bot!” instead of answering the questions of the public.
“I love Serbia and the Serbian Progressive Party most of all in”, specifies the graphics of the campaign showing young people eating sandwiches.
Who is Dragan Vidaković – Mrki?
Vidaković presents himself as the president of the Serbian Movement – Guerilla, which, as he says, he formed after the blockades of the crossroads in Serbia as a response to the high fuel prices in 2018.
“I have secondary education, I did not complete higher education and I am not hiding that”, says Vidaković for Meta.mk. He added that he had been arrested and detained several times, among other things, also for putting at risk the security of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, with a tweet. As he says, he is in political asylum in Switzerland now.
At the same time, it is difficult to find more detailed information about his Serbian Movement – Guerilla”.
Concerning their values, in one of his tweets, Vidaković says that the Movement stands for “autonomy of Vojvodina, recognition of Kosovo, sanctions against Russia and EU-membership”. However, he also put winking emoticons in the commentaries, which could suggest that this explanation was sarcastic. On the YouTube channel of the movement there is a video titled “We will not surrender Kosovo” – but one cannot confirm for sure that the channel belongs to the movement.
In May 2019, the movement organized a protest with tents and a banner stating “Not one or the other”. The daily newspaper “Danas” reports that flyers were handed out during this protest demanding the fulfillment of 11 requests or else the Serbian people would demonstrate civic disobedience and general strike. But in that period neither civic disobedience nor general strike happened.
In June 2019, the Movement announced a protest in front of the US Embassy in Belgrade against – as they stated – “the American policies on Serbia and Kosovo”. The protest was aborted by the lack of a pyrotechnician who would operate the fireworks, such as smoke grenades and torches, reported Radio Free Europe at the time.
Fellow journalists from Serbia say that Mrki is not a “visible” person, therefore it is quite difficult to check his claims.
“He is a right-wing person who attracts many young people who believe that the change of government in Serbia (even through violence) is the only way to reconstruct the state and society”, says Nikola Petrović from the International and Security Affairs Centre – ISAC Fund in Belgrade.
In addition, one can notice that Vidaković has quite extreme positions on specific issues, for example, he frequently tweets that he wishes Vučić does not survive his next medical check-up.
The number of party bots is much bigger
For Meta.mk, Vidaković himself says that what he published was not the full list of SPP bots in Serbia and, most probably, their number is much higher. If one draws a parallel and compares the activities of some of the Macedonian political parties, it can be said that similar activities for alleged mass support on social networks also happen in our country. On several occasions, former ministers and Members of Parliament have spoken publicly that they had been targets of online attacks of party bots.
In 2018, the former Minister of Health and also former Minister of Education in the governments of VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Todorov, in an interview revealed that the party is “rearing” party bots used for lynches on social networks, including spreading lies and hate speech.
The former Member of Parliament from VMRO-DPMNE, Daniela Rangelova, also gave a similar statement thereby confirming the existence of party bots publicly in 2019.
Apart from these public statements about the existence of party bots in North Macedonia, up to date we have not seen concrete evidence about the identities of these people – are they in the public administration or simply members of the youth branches of the parties?