The co-founder of the “Zentrum für Digitale Medienkompetenz”, Dietmar Pichler, says that the Western Balkan region is very important for Russian disinformation.
In an interview with The Geopost, Pichler points out that the Russian Federation uses the media and the Serbian diaspora as propaganda tools.
“The Balkans is a very important region for Russian disinformation, an important target region, and I think, at least what we can see from the last few months, they have a very sophisticated strategy in which they target this area,” Pichler points out.
According to him, these Serbs in Western countries can reproduce Kremlin narratives against Ukraine.
“If you look at Serbia, which is a very old ally of the Russian Federation, of course there are historical reasons for this, but basically the strategy is very different, it has more to do with the use of the population and the Serbian media, but also the Serbian diaspora in the West, which is quite large, as a proxy in their disinformation war”, he says.
“When I say proxy, I mean in the sense that they are like puppets that repeat the narratives and propaganda of the Kremlin even on social media and they are very successful in this because, if many Serbs have the same ideology when they immigrate to Western countries, they learn the languages there and are quite integrated in that sense, so you have millions of people who speak English, Spanish, German and they can reproduce the Kremlin’s narratives about Ukraine,” adds the Austrian analyst.
Regarding trolls, Pichler says that Serbs always spread lies against Kosovo.
“If you talk about the Serbs, they actually have two topics, one is about the internal situation or about Kosovo, they always spread “Kosovo is Serbia” and the old stories about 1999, their narrative about Ukraine, that Ukrainians are to blame”, claims Pichler.
In this interview, he also spoke about Russia’s year-long military aggression in Ukraine and how to act against Russian propaganda. /The Geopost/
The Geopost: It’s already been a year since the start of the Russian military aggression in Ukraine. How do you see this situation compared to a year ago?
I see a lot of parallels between the annexation of Crimea and the Russian aggression in Donbas, which was a quite hidden aggression, I mean, hidden from the western public at least, not so much for people who got little bit involved and were digging little bit deeper into this topic. But what we could see in 2014, after the annexation, there was some kind of public reaction “O my God, what Russia is doing”.
And after we imposed sanctions and Russian disinformation machine started to confuse the audiences all around the world, people got more and more filled with Russian narratives, Russian ideas. More and more the idea developed in their minds that Ukraine is to blame, that Ukraine actually deserved it because of some reasons and were looking for any possibility to blame the victim instead of the aggressor.
And now after the full scale aggression which happened last year, we can see that the same is happening, but in a different scale, because we have to understand that this is a full scale invasion, that Russia still probably plans to invade Kyiv for instance, to overthrow the government, to install a puppet regime and to annex officially huge territories of Ukraine. And still we have the same situation, in the beginning was this shock and lot of people talked about how terrible the situation is, and now, more and more people are defending the actions of Russia, blaming the Ukraine.
We have this victim blaming or both sides say things like they should just negotiate and they need to solve the problem, both sides need to de-escalate, something like that, and this is the result of Russian disinformation and propaganda that is very successful worldwide, not only in western societies of course.
The Geopost: When we talk about Russian propaganda and influence in the Balkans, can you draw a parallel with what has been done in Ukraine with propaganda and in other parts of Europe and the Balkans?
I think that Balkan is very important region for Russian disinformation, important target region, and I guess, it seems, at least what we can see from last months, they have a very sophisticated strategy in which they target this area. If you compare countries like Serbia and Kosovo, you see huge differences, of course, Kosovo is pro-western, very pro-European country, has very good long relations with the west, so, Russian disinformation when it targets Kosovo, it’s more about destroying unity, creating trust issues with the government or telling the people in Kosovo that everything is bad, you should not rely on the west and somehow divide the society.
On the other hand, if you take a look at Serbia, which is very old ally of the Russian Federation, of course there are historical reasons also for that, but, basically, strategy is very different, it’s more about using Serbian population and media, but also Serbian diaspora in the west, which is quite huge, as proxies in their disinformation war.
When I say proxies, I mean in the sense of they are like puppets that repeat Kremlin’s narratives and propaganda also on social media and they are very successful in this because if a lot of Serbian people have the same ideology when they immigrate to western countries, they learn the languages there and they are quite integrated in that sense, so you have millions of people who speak English, Spanish, German and they can reproduce the Kremlin’s narratives about Ukraine, then tell everybody at work that they are fascists that they want to kill ethnic Russians in Ukraine and old stories like that, and people listen to them because they are Slavic people, they think they are experts, because they confuse oldies, because people in the west Europe, unfortunately, have a lack of education about south-eastern Europe, about north-eastern Europe, and this is what the Kremlin propaganda is using.
Another goal is, of course to gain influence in the Balkan area, so a geostrategic interest of the Russian Federation to keep or even expand influence in Serbia and surroundings, also Montenegro of course is a huge issue.
The Geopost: Did you see lot of trolls and fake news coming from Serbia and destabilizing other states, what do you suggest about that?
When we speak about trolls, we speak mostly about real people, so they actually exist, so they are people sitting somewhere on a keyboard on a phone reproducing propaganda, so not bots, because bots usually are very stupid, it can only amplify some propaganda channels.
What we see about the trolls is that they are very much connected to these topics, if you speak about Serbians, they actually have two topics, one is about domestic situation or about Kosovo, always spread “Kosovo is Serbia” the old stories about 1999, their narrative and everything and about the Ukraine, that Ukrainians are to blame.
This is quite visible, but we don’t know anything about DNR, we don’t know how many pro-Russian trolls are outside, because is very difficult to measure it and we have no clue how many of them are real people and this makes the whole disinformation analysis very difficult, we can say what the narratives are, at least collect all the stories that are somehow relevant, all the fake stories, but we don’t know about the amount of trolls and where they come from and this is the problem of social media.
The Geopost: For the end, any suggestion for the media, journalists and fact-checkers?
You mentioned media, journalists and fact checkers, I think it is very crucial that journalists and media, first of all not create disinformation themselves, and they should be very self-critical, no matter on which side they are, because this is very important so people trust media, we have trust issues in any country no matter how good freedom of the press is developed, but I think what we should really take care about in the next months is, that the media should put some efforts into debunking common narratives that we can see, the common disinformation narratives, because we have situation where it’s like you have “A” what you read at media and “B”, you have some so called alternative media or social media trolling and this creates this false balance and we have also a problem that we give very much “screen” time to people who are not qualified to speak about certain issues and also during the pandemic, people who spread for instance Russian narratives and it’s like media wants to be neutral and they get go to this table to create kind of round table, and you have two people spreading the Putin version of something and two people spreading the actual truth, but somebody who is watching television, you think, OK maybe the truth is in the middle or something, but it’s not.
So this is very dangerous, so the media should act more responsibly about disinformation and of course also social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, they put some efforts into this topic, but not enough yet. /TheGeopost/