Montenegro is the least developed society in Europe when it comes to media and informatics literacy. Instead of searching for reliable information on relevant media, we wait for them to appear on social media, estimated Zoran Markovic Zonjo, director and member of The Books of Knjige (TBOK) organization, in the interview for the DFC Magazine.

Zoran Markovic Zonjo is someone who has been present in the media for ages and who often comments on fake news and conspiracy theories on his Facebook page, which has more than 113,000 followers. This is the reason why he was our best choice for the first interview, which we are publishing in the 20th issue of the DFC Magazine – the anniversary issue.

Markovic considers that the greatest war that has been waging now is the one against fake news, because, as he explained, anyone can create fake news or spread them on their social media accounts. We also discussed why people are more susceptible to believing fake news in the times of a crisis, and the possibilities of improving media literacy in our society.

DFC: Are you familiar with the work of the Digital Forensic Center and how would you assess it? To what extent is the work of such an organization important for society in the fight against disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: I have heard about you, but I haven’t been following you until now. Of course, it is important that such an organization exists, which would point out to citizens what disinformation is and what isn’t. The problem is that disinformation had already made harm before being debunked. People, however, tend to memorize the things which appear first. Nothing that comes after has the same effect as the first blow.

Our problem is much media per capita

DFC: How would you assess the Montenegrin media scene and which social media do you follow?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: Media in Montenegro can be better, that is for sure. But compared to those in Serbia, they are small potatoes. There’s a level of seriousness in our country, however, and luckily, the editors of the most prominent media have built a high wall to defend themselves from pap and pablum. Our problem is much media per capita. Those media can’t have financial stability on such a small market, therefore they can’t be immune to political spheres of interest. Now, it is more than clear which media support the government and which the opposition. Only by connecting these two dots, we are able to find the objective thread of a piece of information. When it comes to social media, I’ve been active on Facebook under the nickname ZONJO for over twelve years now, while I started using Instagram this January, under the name ZONJO_. Most of the time I create my own content and I don’t search for relevant information there.

Markovic has more than 113,000 followers on Facebook

DFC: On which platforms and in which media do you find fake news most frequently?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: Regarding the current media attacks on Montenegro coming from Serbia, it is evident that those are Serbian media and their promoters in our country. They really write a bunch of nonsense. It is interesting to note that every year before the summer season, there is a similar negative campaign going on, which has escalated this year. According to their reporting, every year there was someone eaten by a shark on our coast or a virus that made chaos, or harassment of Serbian tourists. However, the agenda obviously suite the ruling regime both in Serbia and Montenegro, because I can’t see us benefiting either economically or politically by Greeks or Croats making business.

No one has ever apologized to us for fake news

DFC: Have you ever seen fake news or disinformation published about you or your TBOK organization, and what was your reaction to it?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: As far as I can remember now, it happened only once. There was a research text in Monitor, republished by Vijesti, about the Montenegrin Ministry of Culture financing films. The Books of Knjige was lamped together with authors who have been financed by the Ministry for years and haven’t produced any film during that period. The truth was somewhat different. We got the money on paper, but we have never seen any of the cash in reality. While preparing his text, a journalist asked me for a statement, but it was done rather in an unserious way, via the Facebook page. These days, I was very tired and the obligation slipped from my mind, while he went on with the article containing half-information that he got from his source. In the end, fake news was good for us as we made pressure on the Ministry to wire finally the money, and shortly after, we made a film. Unfortunately, the received money wasn’t enough to meet the budget. It is important to note that no one has ever apologized to us for fake news, not even via message on Facebook. I see there a huge flaw of the domestic media. If it occurs that nonsense slips away and is published, then it would seem logical to compensate for the damage with an apology, at least.

DFC: The coronavirus epidemic, both in our country and the world, was followed by many fake news and conspiracy theories. Which of those do you find the most memorable?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: I wouldn’t specify one piece of news, rather a general feeling of a large number of citizens in Montenegro now that the coronavirus is nonsense which shouldn’t cause the world shutdown. This happened due to the influence of many conspiracy theories, but also because of the fact that much greater consequences have spared us. We could use here the old saying: out of sight, out of mind. Many didn’t care about the numbers of the dead or the images of mass graves, because they didn’t see it in person or experienced it firsthand.

People love to believe intriguing information

DFC: During the coronavirus, you wrote that you don’t know whether all those people, who were advocating two months ago that the situation around the novel coronavirus was another media falsehood, are now ashamed of it. Which profile stands out in such rhetoric and are people more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories and fake news during a state of emergency?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: It seems that people love to believe intriguing information, regardless of the situation, and that somehow stands out particularly in the times of a crisis. I see there two types: a carrier – those super-smarts who what to stand out from the masses, regardless of the reason, and spread conspiracy theories as a sort of their intellectual image. The other group is those people who believe foolishly such nonsense, without any sense of logic. It is interesting to note that those who believe that the COVID-19 wasn’t dangerous are anti-vaxxers by rule, and in a large number of cases procession-supporters too. In other words, those people don’t trust the system, because it has deceived them million times before. When people become existentially wasted, then one trouble more or less means nothing to them.

DFC: During the recent protests in Niksic, there was a photo on social media of an injured baby, with a claim that police beat the boy. To what extent can such manipulation be dangerous, particularly in a sensitive situation the Montenegrin society is now?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: This is a typical example of stirring up the divisions. But, I don’t fall for that and I made jokes about the post. An internal combustion engine called the DPS consumes a great deal of gasoline called pro-Serbian opposition. From time to time, the engine is lubricated by a minor political party, which after certain kilometers simply flows away. The problem with such engines is that they develop little power, literally CRAWLING ALONG. I like to think of me and my friends from the group as windshield washer fluids, which make the road ahead clearer.

DFC: Media literacy research recently done by the DFC showed that the majority of respondents find fake news mostly on social media and news portals. In what way can our society and young people, in particular, become more educated about media literacy?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: I was shocked by revelation two years ago at a regional IT gathering, lectured by the Google director from Southeastern Europe. He then stated that out of all countries in Europe, Facebook exerts the greatest influence in Montenegro. He then added that it is proportional to the development of media and informatics literacy. The more developed a society is, the less influence Facebook has, and vice versa – the less it is developed, the more influential Facebook is. According to that definition, Montenegro is the least developed society in Europe when it comes to media and informatics literacy. Instead of searching for reliable information on the relevant media directly, we wait for them to appear on social media. While waiting lazily, various bots are gladly shoving us different phallic candies, which we’re obviously sucking on with great pleasure.

The only solution – to unplug from the socket

DFC: Do you think that social media are sufficiently dedicated to the protection of those platforms from suspicious posts and what could be improved in that sense?

Z. Markovic Zonjo: The greatest war currently waged on the planet is the war against fake news. The situation, in which anyone can create fake news or spread it on their social media accounts, initially seems way too much for any algorithm to handle. No matter how much the filters are sophisticated, or helped by administrators who remove such news, I think that this task is impossible. Moreover, social media have owners who support this or that administration, so it is also possible to discuss their readiness to fight for the truth until the end. Apparently, the only solution is to unplug oneself from the socket.

Last days, the intensive anti-Montenegrin campaign on the Serbian portals aims at degrading the image of Montenegro as an attractive tourist destination. The Serbian and pro-Serbian media are not missing the opportunity to emphasize the weaknesses of the tourist offer on Montenegrin littoral, while simultaneously favoring other destinations.

Not considering the essence of the Montenegrin Government’s decision to take the same stand towards all the countries which have more than 25 infected people per 100,000 citizens, the official Serbia as well as the other mentioned media reacted strongly. Otherwise, the mentioned decision is not motivated by political or any other ideological reasons since the borders are closed for all the countries having more than 25 infected people per 100,000 citizens. On the other hand, the borders are open for Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Albania, Poland, Czech Republic and Greece. Meanwhile, the Government stated that the decision was made on the basis of guidelines of the EU and the Institute for Public Health, but it is also possible that Montenegro will open the borders with some other countries from the region, depending on the situation in the moment when the law comes into force.

Claims about politically motivated decision

Reacting to the Montenegrin decision not to include Serbia in the group of countries that Montenegro will open borders with on June 1, the official Belgrade stated that this decision is purely political. Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabic, stated that Serbia would not close its borders for Montenegrin citizens as Podgorica did for the citizens of Serbia, emphasizing that the Serbian citizens should not go where they are not wanted. The same day, the Civil Aviation Directorate of the Republic of Serbia banned the landing of the Montenegro Airlines aircraft to the Belgrade Airport. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, Ivica Dacic, stated that the Montenegrin Government intentionally did not include Serbia in the list of the countries whose citizens can freely access to Montenegro. According to him, what the Montenegrin authorities actually said is: we do not need Serbian tourists.

According to the data from the official portal, there have been 11,227 confirmed coronavirus cases since the beginning of a pandemic, and 6,067 persons were healed (in the moment of writing). This means that there are 5,160 active coronavirus cases currently, or, that there are 72 infected people par 100,000 citizens, which significantly surpasses the quota that Montenegrin Government imposed.

Negative narratives

Together with the messages of the highest Serbian officials that the Serbs should not come to Montenegro, there are also the messages from the Serbian tabloids:

MONTENEGRIN HOSTS DEVASTATED: No guests except for the local ones that come here on the weekends! Montenegrins are whining, their season is ruined! Beaches are empty, the guests not in sight, Is Montenegro condemned to failure without the Serbs this summer? Here’s how many Serbs exactly spend the summer there and how much money they spend, RUSSIANS ARE NOT COMING, EVERYONE IS CALLING OFF, NO WORKFORCE: Forecast for the summer season in Montenegro is bad! SHARK in Montenegro! THREE-METER beast spotted near the favorite beaches of the Serbian tourists, SERBS, DO NOT GO TO MONTENEGRO TO THE SEA! Here’s what could happen to you. Those are just some examples of the headlines that the media such as Espresso, Alo, Telegraf, Srbija Danas, Informer, etc. use to spread the negative narratives on Montenegro.

Along with these, the series of fake news is launched on a daily basis. One of the examples is that 17 sports fans of the club Buducnost were taken into custody in Podgorica and Cetinje. They were found with the stickers Hang the Serbs from the willow trees and Serbs, get out of Montenegro, as well as the arsenal of cold weapons. This was firstly published by Informer, the portal which also claims that the fans were preparing to lynch the Serbian tourists during the season in Budva, Kotor and Tivat, to crash their cars, take off registration plates and stick the threatening stickers.

Fake news and made-up statistics

Along with the media from Serbia, fake news was also published by the Montenegrin portals. Therefore, IN4S is writing on the new research in the field of hospitality, stating that only 4% of the citizens from Serbia want to go to Montenegro, while on the other hand, 80% want to go to Greece?! After this post, the article was republished by many tabloids from Serbia.

Some of the headlines in the Serbian tabloids during the last five years

We are reminding that this-year intensified campaign against the tourist economy in Montenegro is not a new phenomenon. It represents a continuation of the negative propaganda from the previous years when our country was represented as an expensive and unsafe destination, with dirty beaches and aggressive locals who do not like the Serbs. The narratives on a pre-failed season are repeating year after year. Luckily, they have not affected our tourism so far. We hope that situation will remain the same this year, having to take into consideration that the pandemic will definitely leave a trace not only on the tourist economy in Montenegro but also on the other tourist destinations in the world.

Sputnik just published a piece of information, which was republished by many media in Montenegro and Serbia. The information claims that the judges refused to try Bishop Joanikije and that they gave a written statement about it.

That it is about common fake news and its malicious spreading in order to create chaos in Montenegro was confirmed to us by relevant authorities from the judiciary.

After the fake news on judges was published, another one followed. This time, Serbian media published information about the explosive devices being thrown at the citizens’ protests in Berane.

That this too is fake news was confirmed to us by a DFC associate who was on-site.

A photography of a wounded baby was circulating on social media last night.

A description of the posts on social media stated that the injuries on the baby’s face were caused by the police officers in Niksic, which is the additional proof of their alleged brutality. Along with the pages on Facebook, the photo was posted on the profiles of the politicians Nebojsa Medojevic and Marko Milacic. Medojevic and Milacic asked the citizens to share the photo so that as many people as possible would see how far the regime could go. However, this was a manipulation – photography was not taken in Niksic nor did the police physically assaulted the child. The photo was downloaded from the internet, which is easy to determine with a simple research. After it had been concluded that this is fake news, Medojevic and Milacic removed the debatable post.

Measures introduced to prevent the spreading of coronavirus are in force in Montenegro just like in the rest of the world. Even though the citizens are obliged to comply with the measures in order to avoid possible consequences, the narrative that the church and believers are among the main targets and victims of the „regime repression“ is present on a daily basis in particular media in Montenegro and Serbia.

Ban on liturgies and Holy Communion

These narratives started circulating after the introduction of the measures prohibiting all kinds of gatherings, and therefore the religious gatherings. Even though the other religious communities in Montenegro (the Islamic Community in Montenegro and the Catholic Church in Montenegro) accepted the adopted measures and temporarily stopped the religious rituals in all places of worship, it cannot be said that the Serbian Orthodox Church did the same. The opinion that the adopted measures indicate to the inhuman discrimination „of the Orthodox people only“ is present as well as that the „persecution of the church and its believers“. The impossibility to organize liturgies with the believers and Holy Communion is presented as the greatest issue even though the SPC claims that „nobody got infected from the Holy Communion“ and „everything is being done so that the Church would be hated for its infectious spoon“.

Ban on intercity transportation

The arrest of priest Sinisa Smiljic, a Bosnia and Herzegovina citizen with a temporary residence in Ulcinj due to the violation of measures prohibiting the intercity traffic during the coronavirus pandemic is also presented as the reflection of the regime repression. Even though this is the well-known measure which has been in force for a long period of time and whose violation has always been sanctioned, portal Pravda reported on this piece of news with a headline: SCANDALOUS! MILO’S MONTENEGRINS ARE ARRESTING THE PRIESTS: Priest from Ulcinj is brought in for questioning because of his alleged violation of prohibition of movement which indicates to subjective reporting whose goal is to bring the narrative on the alleged regime repression to the first plan.

Metropolitan Amfilohije and the priests brought in for questioning

Metropolitan Amfilohije, Archpriest Velibor Dzomic and a couple of citizens were brought in on the Orthodox holiday Palm Sunday after the service which was held on Zlatica, due to the violation of temporary measures prohibiting all kinds of gatherings. This initiated a large number of articles on Montenegrin portals such as IN4S and Borba but also on Serbian portals (examples: InformerKurir) and on certain portals in Republika Srpska.

Almost every reporting on this event was followed by the narrative on the persecution of the church, the intention of President Djukanovic to send Metropolitan Amfilohije to jail, attack on the Orthodoxy and its believers, the government’s misuse of the pandemic to fight the church in a hidden manner, fascism and the atmosphere of the prison on Goli otok. There is also a theory that the police officers received the order to infect Metropolitan Amfilohije during his arrest.

Easter and the culmination of narrative on repression

The whole narrative on the regime repression during coronavirus culminated during Easter holidays. It is well known that the religious holidays are celebrated without the presence of believers in this situation all around the world. Therefore, Pope Francis sent his Easter message „Urbi et Orbi“ from the empty Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican, the Orthodox priests served the liturgy in the empty Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow invited all the citizens to spend Easter in their homes.

Before Easter, the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and Littoral announced that the Easter liturgy will be held without believers attending and they will comply with the measures but the part of believers still tried to enter the churches. During the reporting on these events, it is stated that the police occupied the churches and is patrolling fully equipped in front of the Church of Holy Resurrection in Podgorica just like in time of the Crusades.“

The disinformation are usually launched together with the narratives. Therefore, an article appeared on the IN4S portal reporting that a particular number of police officers refused to arrest the believers in front of the Church of Holy Resurrection in Podgorica. The Police Administration denied these claims on their Twitter account and stated that the police was not arresting the believers in front of the Church, therefore, a part of officers could not refuse to do this non-existent task and that this piece of news represents an unsuccessful attempt to disturb the public.

After the Digital Forensic Center had published the analysis on new network of bot accounts in Serbia, which was published by almost all local, but also regional and even Chinese, American and Central European media, the web sites of the DFC, Atlantic Council of Montenegro and “2BS” Forum have been constantly attacked by hackers since yesterday.

Let us remind that the analysis of tweets from March 9 to April 9 revealed 30,000 tweets produced by the accounts in Serbia, with keywords Kina (China) and Srbija (Serbia) in their content. As much as 71.9 per cent of the content originated from bot accounts. A large network of pro-government bot accounts wrote on and praised the Chinese aid, as well as the friendship between the two countries, and amplified the visibility of the tweets by retweeting. Simultaneously, they criticized the EU due to the alleged lack of its help.

It is interesting to note that the first hacker attack at our three web sites occurred shortly after Sputnik had published our analysis with a headline: “NATO worries from Podgorica about Belgrade being closer to Beijing than Brussels”. Only a part of our analysis was published by Sputnik followed by their conclusion that our research is connected with the Alliance, without reflecting on the facts that we discovered.

DFC successfully defended itself against the attacks

Therefore, they are concluding, “the DFC is resignedly asking if Belgrade is closer to Beijing than Brussels”. The truth is – we never wondered if Serbia is closer to China than to the EU. There is the inter-title in our article – Beijing dearer than Brussels. Therefore, we were not wondering but we supported the subhead with the facts. The President from Serbia thinks the help from China and Russia was “fraternal” but on the other hand, he openly criticized the EU assessing that there is no European solidarity. However, the help from Brussels arrived. Within the immediate support, Western Balkans received EUR340 million out of which Serbia received the majority –  EUR15 million for its health sector; and EUR78.4 million for overcoming the economic crisis which will follow after coronavirus.

The point of our analysis, even though Sputnik wants to suggest this through its spins, is not in our assessments that Serbia is changing its political course but in the new network of bot accounts that we discovered in Serbia, which was clearly indicated in the headline and the text itself. The fact that bots were consciously spreading the content in more than 21k tweets and praising the Chinese aid and President Vucic and simultaneously criticized the EU due to the alleged lack of its help is not our assessment or value judgment but the mere fact. As well as the criticism that Vucic voiced to Brussels, simultaneously commending China and Russia.

After Sputnik had published its own version of our analysis, the text was reproduced by the portal, and later on by Informer. The text of this tabloid was headlined: THEY CROSSED THE LINE! NATO FROM PODGORICA DOESN’T HIDE ITS ANGER TOWARDS SERBIA! They are bothered by the Chinese and Russian aid to Belgrade, and the gratitude of our country to Moscow and Beijing! The text was later on reproduced by the web site.

The DFC analysis published on front pages of the regional media

In our analysis, Informer is stated as one of the media, which was, along with Kurir and TV Pink, mostly mentioned by bots, and from before it has been known as a loyal supporter of Aleksandar Vucic, to put it mildly. Since the coronavirus outbreak, Informer has had two phases. First, at the end of February, it tried to downplay the seriousness of the situation, spreading the statements of Dr. Nestorovic with a headline: Coronavirus is ridiculous; we should not wear masks. Then, as early as March 12, they changed the story and instead of famous “shopping in Milan”, they opted for a front page: Serbia attacked by a dangerous virus – The war against coronavirus.

On the other hand, our analysis was spread in its original form by numerous domestic and regional media, even the Chinese ones, and after that, our representative appeared on a TV show of TV N1.

Attacks at our web sites, from the addresses we discovered, will not discourage us in our mission of debunking disinformation and fake news, in the fight for democracy. This only indicates that we are on the right track.

Our colleague Milan Jovanovic appeared on the television N1 Srbija (N1 Serbia) and spoke on the hacker attack which followed the analysis on the new bot network in Serbia connected with the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic. Watch the video bellow to find out what are the characteristics of these bot accounts, when these campaigns were intensified and when we could expect the similar actions in our country and the region.

After the Digital Forensic Center had published the analysis on new bot network in Serbia, which was taken by all domestic, regional but also Chinese and American media, the web sites of DFC, Atlantic Council of Montenegro and To be secure forum were taken down for a short period of time.

Let us remind that the analysis on tweets from March 9 to April 9 revealed 30,000 tweets produced by the accounts in Serbia, with keywords Kina (China) and Srbija (Serbia) in their content. As much as 71.9 per cent of the content originated from bot accounts. A large network of pro-government bot accounts wrote on and praised the Chinese aid, as well as the friendship between the two countries, and amplified the visibility of the tweets by retweeting. Simultaneously, they criticized the EU due to the alleged lack of its help.

It is interesting to note that the hacker attack at our three web sites occurred shortly after Sputnik had published our analysis with a headline: “NATO worries from Podgorica about Belgrade being closer to Beijing than Brussels”.

Additionally, we have seen strong but unsuccessful attacks at our IT infrastructure. With a swift reaction of our team, the websites have been restored again, and a detailed analysis will determine an origin, i.e. a source of the attack.

These days have seen numerous disinformation and conspiracy theories posted and shared on social media, doing unmeasurable harm to individuals and the community.

In this short video, find out what the new DFC Magazine issue brings, which can be also downloaded on our website.

What are the main disinformation on COVID-19 which the DFC detected? Does the 5G network have an impact on the pandemic? What was the number of posts on coronavirus on social media in ex-Yugoslav countries? What are the powers that mostly spread the disinformation on coronavirus? Our colleague Borislav Visnjic talked about it in the “Korona, ostani doma” TV show of TVCG.