Who are “our” disinformers?

Disinformation has become a powerful weapon, sometimes even stronger than military artillery, used to undermine democratic values. Its most common targets are democratically underdeveloped and insufficiently Europeanized societies. Particularly susceptible to such forms, sometimes overt, but most often through sophisticated media and digital violence, are small states with vulnerable and unprofessionalized media, lacking the strength and integrity to resist the aggressive onslaughts of much stronger predators.

From one election to another, be it local, presidential, or parliamentary, we have now come to the census, a new arena with the potential to further destabilize Montenegrin society. Media monitoring data from the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) indicate that during the parliamentary elections campaign, we made little progress in distancing from identity-based issues. However, there is a legitimimate concern that the upcoming census may provide a new opportunity to return to this topic, coupled with a disinformation campaign aiming to frame statistical enumeration within a dangerous political context.

Technology is advancing rapidly, often making it difficult for experts in the field  of media, let alone the average media consumer, to keep up. This opens up new possibilities for media manipulation, disinformation, and fake news. In this context, it should be noted that a significant portion of the public does not distinguish between disinformation and fake news, serving as a warning for all of us to work more actively to raise awareness about this issue and its various manifestations.

For clarification, disinformation is a mixture of facts, inaccurate or semi-accurate content with the goal of removing context, often distorting facts to create a false perception of reality. Fake news, on the other hand, is a false claim or fabricated information intended to attract attention, deceive the public, or hide the truth.

What is the goal of disinformation?

The goal of disinformation varies but is typically strategically planned. It includes inciting political tensions, discouraging free individuals, non-governmental organizations, and media from expressing their views and pointing out harmful government policies and practices, undermining institutions, causing economic and financial instability, and influencing specific social events.

Who are the “our” disinformers?

The source of the disinformation network in Montenegro lies beyond its borders (primarily in official Serbia and Russia), but its executors are found in various entities within Montenegro. Whether due to ignorance, deliberate inaction, or vested interests, “our” disinformers are often (top) representatives of executive, legislative, and judicial authorities, as well as certain political parties. Furthermore, this network includes unregistered portals that spread hate speech towards others and those who are different, as well as registered media outlets that disregard ethics and journalistic standards, or influence the degradation of fundamental civic values through so-called soft propaganda.

Consequences for Civil Society

Multicultural, multinational, and multi-confessional societies are ideal targets for disinformers. When this is combined with a surplus of history and a lack of facing historical issues, along with deep polarization, it creates fertile ground for the escalation of negative forces and dangerous manipulation of the feelings of Montenegro’s citizens. The most damaging consequence is reflected in the strengthening of ethnic and religious distance, as confirmed by CCE’s research from April 2023. Among other things, it showed that about 60% of respondents believe that most of the incidents witnessed in society in recent years are predominantly motivated by religious and ethnic intolerance. About two-thirds also believe that the media influences attitudes toward national minorities, with the majority considering that this influence is negative (44.7%).

Can those who create disinformation fight against it?

We have long awaited amendments to the Media Law, the Law on Public Broadcasting Service, and a new Law on Audiovisual Media Services, as well as the once-promised Media Strategy. The Ministry of Culture and Media, through drafts of these legislative texts, announces some, although insufficient, mechanisms that should contribute to the professionalization of the media scene in Montenegro. Unfortunately, it seems that neither the 42nd nor the 43rd Government of Montenegro has prioritized this issue, and there has been no positive pressure from MPs. This raises a crucial question: can those who create disinformation fight against it? The absence of political will for even a legislative response to this phenomenon provides a clear answer. While we await for these changes, disinformation outlets are funded with public money, and citizens continue to be(come) targets of hate speech that is more intense than ever. In this muddy water, those with the most power to address this problem – decision-makers and their loyalists – swim the best.

In the European Union, there are numerous documents and examples of best practices related to combating disinformation, such as the EU Action Plan against Disinformation, the Digital Markets Act, the Digital Services Act, and the Code of Practice on Disinformation. In Montenegro, there is no effort to incorporate these into internal mechanisms, which also confirms the lack of political and institutional will to effectively address this issue.

The upcoming census will pose another significant challenge, especially in the context of media coverage. We are already witnessing the activation of certain media-propaganda machinery, without a well-thought-out and valid response. It is up to the media to demonstrate whether they have the capacity for fact-based and non-sensationalistic reporting, strengthening media professionalism, and the integrity to cover this event in the public interest, which is more political than statistical.

Truth and facts must be a priority

And after the census in Montenegro, intensive efforts will be needed to find mechanisms to combat disinformation. In a society with weak media literacy, journalism professionals have a crucial role to play by reporting ethically and professionally with due journalistic attention. Meanwhile, the relevant Ministry and the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) must strictly adhere to the letter and spirit of the law, all in the public interest.

Institutions and public administration bodies must strengthen internal communication channels that will effectively counter disinformation campaigns by clearly and promptly presenting facts. Programmes to enhance the communication capacities of public relations departments, officials dealing with these issues, but also heads of authorities who must know how to communicate with the interested public are essential. Primarily, institutions must be more open to reduce the space for manipulation of any kind.

The fight against disinformation is crucial for preserving democratic values, strengthening the civic identity of Montenegro, and ultimately the health of all Montenegrin citizens. In this endeavour, civil society organizations, media, and relevant institutions must be honest partners. The new government faces numerous challenges, as well as the fulfilment of accumulated promises in the election campaign. It already appears that establishing mechanisms to combat disinformation may not be high on the list of priorities, although it should be.

Damir Nikočević, Development Coordinator at the Centre for Civic Education (CCE)

NOTE: Media are free to use this column with attribution to the author’s name and position at the CCE.