In the context of the current events in Montenegro, the emergence of numerous organizations advocating for the Serbian interests and rights in Serbia and over the world is noticeable

The Serbian- American Leadership Conference (SALC) was particularly noticeable due to its activities and rhetoric on social media (Facebook and Twitter),  offering selective facts and thus representing Montenegro in a negative light to the American public.

The mission of this non-profit organization, as it is emphasized on the website, is the advancement of the professional, educational, cultural, and civic interests of the Serbian-American community as well as the preserving of Christian faith. The SALC is accordingly commenting on the situation in Montenegro through the lenses of the events around the Law on Freedom of Religion, offering its support to the clergymen, believers, and local activists.

Three levers for supporting the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro

A discourse analysis is showing that the SALC is using three different levers to fight the authorities in Montenegro online. Rhetoric and content of the arguments are adjusted to the American citizens and the current situation in the USA.

First, the SALC aims to portray Montenegro as a country that prevents people from practicing their religion and alerts that it endangers religious freedom. This is an argument that resonates in the minds of American policymakers and the public. Several hashtags are promoted to illustrate these allegations: such as #ReligiousFreedom or #NeDamoSvetinje.

Hashtags promoted by the SALC

Second, as mentioned above, the SALC used the current wave of protests in the US in the context of the message Black Lives Matter to draw a comparison with the current alleged oppression against Serbian orthodox people in Montenegro.  The comparative picture presenting the apprehension by the police in Budva and the USA is used to illustrate this alleged similar situation.

The collage comparing the situation in MNE and the USA

The third way is lobbying of the SALC in the Congress and their post on a day when the illegally built monastery residence in Ulcinj was demolished on June 10. The President of this organization, Aleksandar Djuricic invited all the interested persons to inform their representatives in the Congress about this undemocratic and unconstitutional law passed by the Montenegrin Government and the dangerous actions it is conducting, with the necessary instructions.

SALC Information on Montenegro: How to Call Your Member of Congress

SALC Information on Montenegro: How to Call Your Member of CongressSALC’s Call to Action on Montenegro! Inform your Senators and House Representative about the dire situation in Montenegro! This morning, June 10, 2020, the Montenegrin government began its implementation of its so-called “Law on Freedom of Religion” by forcibly taking control of several church properties, including the demolition of the building where the monks and nuns live at the Monastery of St. Basil of Ostrog in Ulcinj, Montenegro. We also have information that the Montenegrin Government is preparing to demolish the chapel where baptisms are conducted in Tivat, Montenegro. Please call your representatives to inform them about this undemocratic and unconstitutional law passed by the Montenegrin Government and the dangerous actions conducted today that will only enflame tensions.Steps to call your member of Congress:1. Go to www.govtrack.us2. Click on “Legislators”3. Click on “Members of Congress”4. Either enter your address, or click “I’m at Home” if you are currently at home. The safest option is to enter your address. 5. Call your Senators and House representative either with your own commentary or the template provided below.6. Remain calm and cordial.Hello, my name is [NAME] and I’m a constituent from [CITY, STATE].I’m calling to inform [NAME OF SENATOR OR CONGRESSPERSON] about the situation in Montenegro and to voice my concern about the recent actions taken by the Montenegrin Government against the Orthodox Christian community living there. In December, the Montenegrin Government passed a law that violates the rights to freedom of religion and property of both the religious communities and individuals in Montenegro. The Montenegrin Government began to implement this controversial law today by forcibly taking control of church properties and demolishing the monastic residence at the Monastery of St. Basil of Ostrog in Ulcinj, Montenegro. As a member of NATO that receives American taxpayer funds, Montenegro should be asked to cease and desist until the constitutionality of this law is ruled upon by the courts.I ask [NAME OF SENATOR OR CONGRESSPERSON] to visit serbianleaders.com to view a legal analysis of this law.Thank you for your time and attention.(If there is no answer, leave your name with spelling, full home address, and phone number on the voicemail.)

Posted by Serbian American Leadership Conference – SALC on Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ties of the SALC in Montenegro

In order to better understand the scope of influence of this organization and detect additional persons coming from its network, the Twitter network of the SALC was analyzed.

The analysis discovered the accounts with which the SALC Twitter account has the strongest connections. Those are the accounts Neno Djordjevic and Vasilije Vranic.

Neno Djordjevic is a member of the Serbian American Leadership Conference board and is related to a Serbian political party named Narodna Stranka. This Twitter account reveals that Djordjevic is fully in line with the SALC activity around the current political situation in Montenegro. Djordjevic is a major individual spreading words in English about the developments in Montenegro.

Vasilije Vranic is a Priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, living in Washington DC. An analysis of his account led to assess that he is a strong opponent of Montenegro’s government and supports the Serbian Christians of Montenegro. Since the creation of his account one month ago, he tweets several times a day, promoting numerous hashtags related to religious freedom in Montenegro.

In March 2020, Vranic attended the meeting between the Patriarch Irinej and Sam Brownback, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. On that occasion, they discussed the issues including the Serbian people and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Vranic is equally active on Facebook where he frequently shares the posts of the SALC. The photo which confirms that Vranic met with the President of the SALC in White House was detected right on that social media.

Serbian American Leadership Conference#serbian #salc #srbiuamerici🇷🇸 @ United States Capitol

Posted by Vasilije Vranic on Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Online briefing with the opposition activists

Analysis of the Facebook page of the SALC led to the post concerning a special online briefing on the situation in Montenegro, held on May 16 in the organization of the SALC.

SALC Special Briefing on the Recent Situation in Montenegro

SALC Special Briefing on the Recent Situation in MontenegroSALC hosts a special briefing on the recent events in Montenegro after Bishop Joanikije and other clergy of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro & the Littoral of the Serbian Orthodox Church were arrested and detained, and dozens of peaceful marchers in the procession of St. Basil were beaten. Joining SALC to discuss the events on the ground in Montenegro are Nebojša Medojević, Vladimir Božović, Vladislav Dajković, and Milojko Spajić.

Posted by Serbian American Leadership Conference – SALC on Saturday, May 16, 2020

The first speaker on the briefing was Nebojsa Medojevic, one of the Democratic Front leaders. Besides him, the opposition activist Vladislav Dajkovic received the invitation for briefing. However, he could not join the video call since, as he explained, he was on the way to a hospital due to the injuries that he received from the police during the protests in Niksic.

The Ambassador of Serbia to Montenegro, Vladimir Bozovic, and Milojko Spajic, from the group Montenegrins for Religious Freedom, also took part in the briefing. After the briefing, the SALC thanked everyone for tuning in for the special briefing and posted the press release from the Democratic Front on the police brutality against the opposition activists in Montenegro.

The SALC does not hesitate to comment on the ruling party in Montenegro through its Twitter account, comparing it with the Communist Party in China. It is important to emphasize that this Tweet, posted on June 19, is the only post mentioning the political parties in Montenegro since the account has been created. This may be indicative in the context of the upcoming elections in Montenegro.

Attorney Ilijana Todorovic

At the beginning of June, the news portal IN4S published an article on Ilijana Todorovic, attorney from the USA, who destroyed the Law on Freedom of Religion in her video analysis. In a video which was posted on YouTube on May 30, Todorovic is interpreting the articles of the Law and pointing out to its inconsistencies commenting that almost each article of the Law contains some mistakes. It is important to emphasize that this video was pinned on the Facebook page of the SALC, i.e., this is the first post on their feed.

Further analysis showed that lawyer Todorovic is a SALC VP of Legislative Affairs.

The Digital Forensic Center did a detailed analysis of the pieces of research of the International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan studies (IFIMES), due to discovered inconsistencies in claims, biased coverage of specific topics and changing attitude towards the events and players in a short period.

In their last research 2020 Bosnia and Herzegovina-Montenegro: Dodik and Đukanović are destabilizing factors in Balkans and Europe?, IFIMES states that the declaring Montenegro a corona-free country was met with ridicule in Western diplomatic circles. Recently, Montenegro’s President Milo Đukanović (DPS) lightly declared Montenegro’s “victory over the Corona virus”, which was met with indignation, disbelief and ridicule in Western diplomatic circles. What the US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and other world leaders have not managed to do, Đukanović managed to do through a Twitter post, by which he deceived once again the Montenegrin and international public.

Without any intention of commenting on or disproving the author’s personal opinion, we cannot ignore the fact that the vocabulary used is neither appropriate nor characteristic of academic pieces of research of the Institute, whose name suggests influence, along with expertise and professionalism.

Shift in writing about Montenegro and Serbia

The research Security-intelligence activities at the time of Covid-19 pandemic, published on March 29 of this year, suggests that Montenegro is hiding results in the fight against coronavirus and withholding the data on the infected, presented itself as one of the few countries with no Covid-19 cases, which did not actually reflect the real situation in the country.

Besides negative narrative about Montenegro and its President, favoring the Serbian President and Serbia is evident, and they have been portrayed as victims of the intelligence services’ activities in the region. The research Serbia 2020: Serbia – scene of confrontation of intelligence services? (published on May 15) suggests that cooperation Podgorica-Zagreb-Pristina is directed against Aleksandar Vucic, without providing any proofs for the claim.

Vucic and Becirovic at the meeting in Belgrade

Analyzing IFIMES’ pieces of research, published from 2016 until 2020, a set of inconsistencies has been seen. The differences are visible in the tone and shift in writing about specific countries and actors. The changes happened after the meeting between President Aleksandar Vucic and IFIMES’ director Zijad Becirovic (on February 12, 2020), even though there was no significant political or social events in the preceding year that would support such a shift.

Vucic – a factor of instability, Djukanovic – a leader

Before the meeting in question, pieces of research had mostly been criticizing the politics of Aleksandar Vucic, calling it a successor of Milosevic and Seselj, and his party right-wing, conservative, and in many aspects nationalistic. Vucic was portrayed as a factor of instability in the region, whose destructive politics is based on media control, creating of crisis in the regional countries, schizophrenic foreign policy and inability to face the past. Both Vucic and Dacic have been constantly creating problems and crisis to appear as problem-solvers and solution-makers, thus ensuring themselves a status of regional leaders.

On the other hand, President of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic is presented as a leader who is establishing harmonic relations with all ethnic communities and whose country became a prominent factor of stability in the region, with one of the best macroeconomic indicators in the region.

Change of tone – roles reversed

In the research Current events in the region 2019: Who wants to destabilize Serbia? published on June 18, 2019, after the meeting of Vucic and Becirovic, the tone of writing is changed and the narratives opposite to the previous analyses of IFIMES are increasingly noticeable. Vucic is presented as a factor of peace and stability in the Balkans and his current position is the most difficult. Even though he has been criticized for media control, now he is the target of the financed media network. The Serbian opposition is also threatening to the integrity of the President of Serbia by misusing the civilian protests and meetings with Kosovo-Albania politicians.

Montenegro, previously presented in the pieces of research of IFIMES as a factor of peace and stability is now presented as a country in which the virus of corruption and criminal is widely present through the DPS and Djukanovic, whose intelligence services are protecting the regime. President Djukanovic, who used to be portrayed as a factor of peace with all ethnic communities, is now playing the card of manipulation, nationalism, and religion in the analyses of IFIMES, and as a former participant in war crimes threatens to the image of NATO.

Besides the change of attitudes of IFIMES towards Montenegro and Serbia, during the observation period, the constant of a positive rating of Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and former Prime Minister of North Macedonia is noticeable. When Zaev came to power, this country became a bright spot in the region, was stated in many pieces of research. Affirming the politics of Zaev continued in the period from July 2017 to July 2019 when Becirovic, together with the other director of IFIMES, Aljaf Bakhtyar became an advisor in the Government of Zoran Zaev.

The credibility of the IFIMES under the microscope

Stjepan Mesic, former President of the Republic of Croatia and Honorable President of IFIMES and Budimir Loncar, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and President of IFIMES Advisory Board distanced themselves from the recently published pieces of research of that Institute, by the mutual press release. The Slovenian media wrote many times on the affairs in relation to the financing of the Institute and its work. The case of Kopar municipality and six ordered pieces of research stands out.

Between 2011 and 2016, the municipality of Kopar bought six pieces of research from IFIMES for EUR 69,132 on the possibility of economic cooperation with the Balkan and Middle East countries, migrants, and Albanian families in that municipality. Instead of detailed analysis, the research provided general information on the wanted topics. A detailed analysis of the Slovenian portal Pod Črto demonstrated that two out of six pieces of research were completely plagiarized, while the two of them contain the parts taken from other sources.

A piece of research from 2016 conducted by the Radio-Television of Slovenia RTVSLO points out to another paid research where the municipality of Kopar sought the analysis on the funeral customs of Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox people for which they paid EUR 11, 000. It is stated that the research is bizarre and does not make any sense since only five Muslims are buried in the municipality of Kopar each year. Therefore, the President of the Islamic Association himself was surprised by the research. The opposition of Kopar stated that a mayor Boris Popovič and director of the Utility Company of Kopar, Gaspar Misic ordered this unnecessary study in order to finance Zijad Becirovic, their acquaintance and Director of IFIMES.


After a recent debunking of the bot network connected with the ruling party in Serbia which was promoting the Chinese aid in that country during coronavirus pandemic, the Digital Forensic Center discovered a new network of accounts from Serbia whose main target is Montenegro.

Through Twitter monitoring, we have noticed numerous posts containing the keyword Montenegro and username of the Serbian President @avucic

Through analysis we found 2, 025 of these posts from the period May 14-20 coming from 637 bot accounts which are connected with the Serbian Progressive Party and President Aleksandar Vucic. The posts were launched in a coordinated manner and were intensified on May 14 after the protests in Montenegro. The majority of the content on these accounts is not original but posted in the form of retweets.

The analysis of the content demonstrates that the primary task of the wide network of accounts is to create the image that the Montenegrin authorities allegedly strive to seize the churches and monasteries from the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), that the Serbs in Montenegro are being persecuted and that Serbia will do everything to protect them.

Network of the bot accounts

While some accounts were created in 2009, the analyzed network started growing in 2018, continued to grow in 2019, and had a real expansion in the beginning of 2020 when as many as 491 bot account was created.

Number of accounts created per each year

Out of 2,025 posts from the bot accounts, 1,620 (or 80%) were retweets which is another key characteristic of these accounts and networks. This demonstrates that the goal is to increase the reach of the existing content, not to create new and original content.

The visual link analysis of all the accounts in the network indicates that, besides the common topics of the accounts, this network is directly connected with the profile of the Serbian Progressive Party on Twitter.

Serbian Progressive Party in the middle of the bot network

For a better insight into the accounts that mostly wrote on this subject, we filtered a graph in order to display only the accounts with the strongest connection, or, the highest number on posts on this subject. These are: @VladeMladjen22 with 70, @Nsegedinski with 62, @JelenaMilinko13 with 57, MilosSimic89 with 55 and @De_Vla95 with 54. All five profiles were created in 2020.

Bot accounts with the majority of posts on this subject

Narratives

We grouped the posts in accordance with the key narratives which were being spread:

  1. Churches in Montenegro belong to and will always belong to the SPC;
  2. Persecution of Serbs and tyranny over the Serbian people in Montenegro;
  3. Montenegro is the Serbian Sparta;
  4. Djukanovic is the main culprit for the deteriorating bilateral relations;
  5. Serbia will do anything to protect the Serbs and its national interests in Montenegro;

During the last seven days, the accounts were continuously promoting the attitudes and narratives of the highest Serbian officials but also the tabloids from Serbia.

The churches in Montenegro were presented as Serbian and every attempt of their alienation is clashing with the principles of humanity and sanity. Therefore, as it is stated in the posts, no one is entitled to seize the churches from the SPC.

The posts claim that the change in relations between two countries started when Montenegro adopted the Law which stipulates the seizing of the SPC property but also the implementation of the anti-Serbian campaign by the Montenegrin government, which is reflected in the harassment of the priests and the Serbian people itself.

The accounts were writing that Serbia is obliged to protect the Serbian people in Montenegro but without directly meddling in the internal affairs of the other country. However, they assess that the Serbian President will find a way to help in a democratic way and that he will not let the Serbian people in Montenegro be in need of anything.

They are adding that the position of Serbs in Montenegro is getting more difficult every day since their identity is being in danger as well as all the rights that they are entitled to. Also, all the current circumstances in Montenegro are leading to the disappearance of the Serbian people in the following ten years.

Another narrative was that the Montenegrins are running from their lineage and past, that Montenegro is the Serbian Sparta, and that it is striving to rewrite its history.

Some of the posts from bot accounts

Almost all the content from the network of bot accounts corresponds to the attitudes of the Serbian President towards the situation in Montenegro, which he has been expressing last days. Therefore, during the online meeting with the representatives of Serbs in Montenegro on May 16, Vucic said that Serbia will support its people while on May 20 he stated that someone in Montenegro is trying to create the new church so that the Serbian people would disappear.

Social influence

The analysis of the number of followers was also made in order to determine whether this bot network contains the influential figures.

The account @simeontrkuljic which was created in October 2018 has the biggest number of followers (1037) while all the other accounts have less than a thousand followers.

When it comes to the Twitter reactions (sum of likes and retweets), the posts did not gain many of them. Out of 2,025 posts, two are standing out: the first one from the profile @Milica_1990 with 47 reactions and another one with 45 reactions from the profile @Fred_Kremenko

We are reminding that Twitter recently removed more than 8,500 accounts in Serbia whose only purpose was to promote Vucic and the ruling party in Serbia. Bot accounts are usually formed during the important events in a country, with the main goal to redirect the public opinion to the desired direction.

The project Russia’s Footprint in the Western Balkan Information Environment, published by NATO Stratcom Centre of Excellence, investigates Russia’s tools of influence in the Western Balkans (WB), with a focus on the media landscape. The scope of analysis is Russia’s activities in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. The project analyses Russia’s interests and influence toolbox, as well as identifies the vulnerabilities that make the Western Balkan countries susceptible to hostile influence.

It also identifies the Kremlin’s narratives in the WB as well as looks at the role of local WB media in spreading those narratives. The project consists of 4 reports, and one of them – Russia’s Narratives toward the Western Balkans, Analysis of Sputnik Serbia, was done by the Digital Forensic Center.

Russian narratives in the Western Balkans

This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the content of the Kremlin-sponsored Sputnik online news website in Serbian (Sputnik Srbija). It is aimed at understanding the narratives Russia is promoting about six Western Balkan countries, the EU, and NATO.

Sputnik has been recognized as one of the main channels of Russian influence in the Western Balkan media space. It has the potential to reach audiences that speak BCMS (Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian) languages in several countries in the region and its content is republished by local media.

The report is based on analysis of a year-long monitoring process that lasted from January 1 to December 31, 2018. The authors analysed 7,193 articles about Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, as well as the EU and NATO.

The report identifies several narratives promoted by Sputnik Srbija:

  • The WB region is a playground for a clash of interests between East and West
  • The WB region is unstable and there is a high potential for conflict
  • The EU is hegemonic
  • WB countries are weak, incapable, and corrupt
  • Human rights are endangered
  • The EU and NATO are weak and not united
  • NATO is aggressive and provocative
  • Montenegro is seeking to rewrite history
  • NATO is not beneficial

The analysis demonstrates that Sputnik tries to emphasize that the region is divided into pro-Western and pro-Eastern sides. The narratives encourage feelings of unease, insecurity, and worry in the region. The Western Balkans are presented as the next place of confrontation between NATO and Russia, with the six countries seen as having to pick sides sometime in future.

The countries that are close to the West, such as Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia, are described as losing their sovereignty to Western influence. They are portrayed as corrupt, crime-ridden and disrespectful of minority rights. Meanwhile, Serbia is continually presented as an economic success story in the region.

While the EU is portrayed as hegemonic and meddling in regional dialogues, NATO is depicted as aggressive and provocative toward Serbia and Russia.

Russia is presented as the protector of Kosovo Serbs, while the West is described as supporting Kosovo Albanians. Russia is also described as a military power that scares NATO, and at the same time victim of NATO’s aggression.

About the research

In order to estimate the attitudes and opinions of the citizens of Montenegro when it comes to their critical view on media content available on a daily basis, the Digital Forensic Center conducted quantitative field research of the public opinion.

The research was conducted on a representative sample of 1,054 adult citizens. The representative sample is defined as a random three-stage stratified sampling. The sampling evaluation is based on the available data from the 2011 census and evaluations on the population demographic characteristics from 2019. The sample is representative according to socio-demographic criteria – region, settlement type, sex, and age.

The research was conducted in the period between February 19 and March 20, 2020. “Face-to-face” survey lasted 15 minutes on average. For the purpose of this research, the questionnaire was made and it encompasses 4 units: media usage; trust in media and information quality; fake news and disinformation; responsibility, and information control.

The margin of error for the cases with incidence 50% equals +/- 3.0%

After the field research, a descriptive online indicative research was done, in order to estimate the media usage and the extent to which the citizens are informed on the COVID-19 epidemic.

Media usage

According to the results of the field research, televisions represent the media mostly used by the respondents. The majority of respondents (76.6%) state that they are watching television every day.

Among the younger respondents up to 24 years, only 50 percent claims that they are watching TV several times a week or on a daily basis while among the respondents older than 64 years old, 93% claim the same.

On the total sample, social media represent the second most present media which more than half of the respondents (64.7%) use on a daily basis or several times a week. Almost all respondents up to 24 years (92.8%) claim that they use social media on a daily basis or several times a week.

Older respondents and particularly those in the north of Montenegro usually state that they do not have access to online media such as news portals and social media.

The least used media according to the respondents’ opinion is the daily press. Just under half of the respondents (43.8%) state that they read daily press on a daily basis or several times a week while almost half of the young respondents up to 24 years never read the daily press.

Trust in media

Average trust rate in the Montenegrin media on a scale from 1 to 5 equals 3 approximately, therefore, there is no noticeable difference in the expressed level of trust in different media. In comparison with the other media, the respondents express the highest level of trust in television (32%). When it comes to other media, 28.2% trust radio, 28% trust YouTube, 24.4% daily press, 15.4% social media, and 14, 8% news portals.

Based on a total sample, only 28.1 percent of respondents estimate that the Montenegrin media report objectively and professionally, following the code of ethics.

Just over a third of respondents (36.9%) estimates that the media reporting influences the change of course of events. More than half of respondents (56.9%) states that the media does not influence their views on current affairs.

Half of the respondents estimate that the media frequently or almost always reports differently on the same event (50.6%) and that they frequently or almost always ignore or omit vital elements from news or important events (48.2%).

Fake news

Most of the respondents (85.3%) state that they are familiar with the notion of „Fake news“. As many as 79.2% of respondents estimate that they have noticed fake news in the Montenegrin media at least once.

If they notice „fake news“ on social media, a third of the respondents estimate that they would probably do nothing about it and ignore such a piece of information.

As few as 27.8% of respondents estimates that it is difficult to assess whether the information found in the media is true or false. One-third of respondents (34.4%) estimates that it is partially difficult to assess the truthfulness of the information. And 27.4% of respondents estimate that such a task is easy.

Almost 67.4 percent of respondents estimate that the state should monitor and control the media content on the internet in order to stop the spread of disinformation and fake news.

COVID-19 and the overall trust in the Montenegrin media

After the field research, a descriptive online indicative research was done, in order to estimate the media usage and the extent to which the citizens are informed on the COVID-19 epidemic.

As many as 80.5 percent of respondents follow the news on coronavirus in Montenegro almost every day, while 11.1 percent of them do it sometimes, and 7.6 percent do it rarely or almost never.

A total of 55.6 percent of respondents have trust mostly or totally in the Montenegrin media, whereas 21.7 percent trust them partially and 22.7 percent do not have trust at all or only partially.

The citizens mostly get informed about the pandemic via the internet portals or TV, while they do it most rarely via daily press and radio.

When it comes to trust in TVs, citizens almost equally and the most trust TV Vijesti (45.5%) and TVCG (42.2%), then Nova M and TV Prva.

The Vijesti news portal has the biggest trust of the citizens when it comes to getting informed about the coronavirus via news portals. Then follows RTCG, CDM, Antena M, Analitika, Pobjeda, FOS, and Dan.

Almost 78 percent of respondents have come across fake news and disinformation on coronavirus, and such news is mainly found on social media and news portals.

Analyzing posts on Twitter for the period from March 9 to April 9, we discovered 30,000 tweets coming from accounts in Serbia with keywords Kina (China) and Srbija (Serbia) in their content. As much as 71.9 percent of the content was produced by “bot“ accounts.

A huge pro-government network of “bot“ accounts wrote and praised the Chinese aid and the friendship between the two countries, amplifying the visibility of tweets by retweeting. The analysis shows the approach, tactics and reach of the campaign.

Beijing dearer than Brussels  

Even though Twitter announced recently that it removed several thousand accounts from the network, mostly serving to promote Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his political party, the Digital Forensic Center’s analysis shows that the botnet is still active in Serbia – this time it promotes the Chinese aid to the country during the coronavirus epidemic.

Many times, during the epidemic, Vucic has praised the aid from China and Russia, while criticizing the European Union. Thus, he stated that he believes in his brother and friend Xi Jinping, adding that China is the only country that can help them. After China had sent its aid consisting of experts and medical equipment to Serbia, the billboards of gratitude followed, displayed by the Serbian tabloid Informer on its own-initiative at several locations in Belgrade.

On the other hand, Vucic has strongly attacked the EU and said that the European solidarity does not exist and that it is all a fairy tale on a sheet of paper. The similar opinion shared Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic, who said that China can help them at the moment, while the donations of the European union are reflected only in a flight bringing aid from India. This „only“ accounts for EUR 7.2 million for cargo-only flights.

Brussels reallocated about EUR340 million in non-refundable aid for the Western Balkan countries, the most of which will go to Serbia – 15 million in immediate support to healthcare sector and 78.4 million to mitigate the coronavirus impacts. Besides, the EU supports constantly the healthcare sector in Serbia. Since 2000, the Union has provided EUR450 million in grants and the EIB loans for hospitals all around Serbia, the Torlak Institute, ambulances equipped with respirators, and virus testing equipment.

Despite the EU’s aid, Twitter shows an active campaign aiming at promoting the Chinese aid and creating false perception among other users.

A network of “bot” accounts

A detailed analysis of 30,000 tweets showed that 21,572 of them (71.9 percent) were produced by “bot” accounts.

Unique 1,124 “bot” accounts were identified in the analyzed content.

Analyzing content, it can be seen that the primary task of this large network of accounts was to praise the Serbian-Chinese friendship, as well as the significance of the Chinese aid during the coronavirus epidemic. On the other hand, the content criticizing the EU and its alleged lack of help was also present.

While some accounts were created as early as 2009, the analyzed botnet has begun to grow in 2018, when the „One in five million“ protests were being organized all over the country, it continued to grow in 2019, and saw its first expansion in the first quarter of 2020, when 954 accounts were created.

Overview of the network’s growth from 2009 to 2020
Overview of bot accounts created in the first quarter of 2020

For the given period, the analyzed “bot” accounts had 186,584 followers in total, or 166 followers per account on average.

Out of all 21, 572 “bot” account tweets, 18,422 or 85.4 per cent were retweets, which is one of the key characteristics of such accounts and networks. This shows that their goal was to amplify the reach of the existing content, and not to create the new and original one.

Within the frame of the analyzed sample, the two accounts with the largest number of tweets concerning the topic of China and Serbia were: @opancina_nevena with 135 tweets and @UDrskNYdBGfZzpA with 138 tweets, and all 273 of them were retweets. Hence, there was no original content.

Some of the most frequent posts in this network of accounts

Out of 3,150 original tweets, 1,134 tweets (36 percent) did not show engagement (likes or retweets), while the average of engagement is 7,79 per tweet.

Narratives

The analysis demonstrates that the content (tweets) can be grouped into three categories, in accordance with the narratives that they spread:

  1. Praising the Chinese aid and friendship between China and Serbia
  2. Praising the President and Government of Serbia for great steps in this case
  3. Lack of help from the EU

Generally speaking, the accounts were continuously praising Vucic, Serbian Government and China – by retweeting and responding with positive messages to the content in connection to them.

Some of the opinions is that China was in a difficult situation but it fought it out successfully, therefore, it is aware of the difficulties that Serbia is facing. Thankfulness for honest friendship is expressed in the tweets, while the focus is on the efforts of “two fraternal nations that will defeat epidemic together “.

Additionally, it is emphasized that President Vucic strengthened the position of Serbia in the world with his politics and that is why Russia and China are also helping Serbia. It is also indicated that the members of the Chinese administration were pleasantly surprised with concrete actions and measures that the Serbian Government took during the spreading of the dangerous disease.

The EU is also criticized, i.e. the alleged lack of its help. Reportedly, China is sending the packages and goods and the EU is only financing transport from China to Serbia.

One of the most shared photo within the network

Examining mentions and retweets in the analyzed sample demonstrates the extent to which this operation was concentrated on Vucic, China and sources from the pro-Government media. Accounts @avucic, @AmbChenBo (Chinese Ambassador to Serbia) and @anabrnabic (Serbian PM) were mentioned in 11,346, 460, and 270 tweets.

Accounts @avucic, @AmbChenBo and @anabrnabic were mentioned in 11,346; 460, and 270 posts.

The accounts did not only mention Vucic @avucic (and other accounts in connection with this one) but they also “pumped” the hashtags #vučić, #brzejacebolje (#fasterbetterstronger), #celicnoprijateljstvo (#ironfriendship), #srbija and #kina.

Three trending hashtags: #srbija was present in 14,388 tweets, #vucic in 13,057 and #kina in 4,909 tweets.

Another noted activity was the promotion of the content coming from different addresses, close to Serbian authorities.

Therefore, the Instagram profile of President Vucic, his official site www.vucic.rs, the pro-government InformerKurir tabloids and TV Pink were the external sources that the bots usually made reference to.

Conclusion

By analyzing data from 30,000 accounts referring only to China and its aid to Serbia during last month, we are concluding that the activities of the “bot” accounts are still present in that country, which was also detected by Twitter. Similar campaigns are always amplified when a country is ahead of the important events, such as the elections in Serbia that are envisaged for this year.

Such activities have recently been seen in Brazil, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, India and all of them have the same goal – to raise visibility and popularity of particular content in order to redirect public opinion to a preferred direction.

In time when fighting coronavirus is a priority for the majority of countries, two superpowers are entering the stage, representing themselves as saviors and the only powers capable of fighting out the current problem.

Soon after the crisis started intensifying, China and Russia launched the narratives that the EU is down on its knees or that the virus was created by the USA and this way they are striving to gain a position of winning countries in the situation which is clearly showing that there is no winner until each country eradicates this disease.

Spreading of these narratives and disinformation started after Italy (the world coronavirus hotspot in that period) has received the aid from Beijing and Moscow. While the Brussels administration (quite slowly and without particular success) was preparing the response to this new crisis, China and Russia have already had their answer – at least, through their media. Instead of the unique planetary battle, the battle to discredit the EU has started.

Justified criticism of majority due to the fact that China has retained the information and has reacted slowly to COVID-19 which contributed to the spreading of the virus, represented one of the most serious threats to Chinese leadership in last decades, as it was stated in the British Guardian. Therefore, it is not surprising that China presented itself as the leader and main benefactor for preservation of public health while the epidemic was spreading all around the world.

Therefore, after sending the aid to Italy, it was reported that the Italian citizens are applauding to express their gratefulness, even that they intonated the Chinese anthem. This version was posted by a spokeswoman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying on her Twitter profile, quoted by state media later. In fact, as the Italian fact-checking sites concluded, the citizens of Rome applauded to their health workers and the instrumental of the Chinse anthem was inserted later in the montage.

Along with sending the aid to Italy, Russia led a disinformation campaign on March 23 when Sputnik published the tweet (now deleted ) of the Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov that Poland allegedly blocked the access of Russian humanitarian aid to Italy through its airspace.

On the other hand, Italian media La Stampa published that even 80% of aid that Russia directed to Italy was useless or not particularly useful so those are just excuses to spread the influence. It is written in the text (with reference to the statement of anonymous official of the Italian Government) that the Russian shipment was just an excuse for aid. Shipment contained the supplies for bacteriological disinfection and mobile laboratory for biological sterilization but no respirators and protective gear for doctors which was the most needed in that moment, specifies this Italian newspaper.

Spokeswoman of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russian Federation, Maria Zakharova, reacted strongly to this, stating that on the example and humanitarian aid that Russia provided to Italy and that Cuba and China are providing to numerous countries, it can be seen what informative aggression is in fact. Spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Defence, Major General Igor Konashenkov, went one step further of Zakharova and accused La Stampa for Russophobia, threatening to this newspaper and the author of the article in a skillfully disguised manner.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy reacted to this statement by saying that they appreciate Russian aid but the freedom of expression and press must be respected while the European Commission stated that free and independent media represent the DNA of the Old Continent.

These threats did not particularly affect journalist Jacopo Iacoboni who published the second article on Russian shipment couple of days after the first one. It is stated in the article that along with doctors and medical supplies, the intelligence officers from GRU also came with shipment from Moscow. There is no doubt that GRU officers are also among them, striving to obtain as many details as possible on the Italian Armed Forces, stabilizing the intelligence network. This huge action is taking place right now, La Stampa quotes the statement of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon who is currently a military advisor and a former NATO commander.

Taking down the EU flags, a motive for disinformation

After the aid from Russia and China had come, numerous media outlets published that the Italians were massively taking down the EU flags and replacing them with the Russian and Chinese ones.

However, the situation on the ground was slightly different. This phenomenon did exist but was not that large-scale. Therefore, Sputnik published the following article on March 24:  Video circulating on social media: Italian removed the EU flag and replaced it with the Russian . It commented that Russia sent large quantity of medical aid to Italy and Russian administration stated that they are asking nothing in return, not even the abolition of sanctions that the EU countries imposed. The same day, Sputnik published another article, referring to Tanjug Agency, where they claim that the citizens of Italy are taking off the flag of the Union and replacing it with the Chinese flag, saying that Brussels did not show any solidarity to Italy. However, it was not about large-scale replacing of the EU flag with the Chinese one but about individual and again not large-scale gesture of gratitude to China.

The regional news portals were not the only to question the solidarity of the EU and its survival. News portals IN4S and Borba did the same by publishing the texts Retrograde bureaucracy – Coronavirus shattered the illusions on the European Union, it is time to turn to ourselves; or the EU fell apart, but they do not know it yet.

The aid was late but was not missing

It is true that many European countries just like the Union itself did not respond well to coronavirus at first but the claims that the aid from Brussels and the EU member countries was missing are false. This is confirmed by the data on EUR50 million of aid to Italy from the EU as well as the medical supplies through the European solidarity in action program. President of the European Commission, Ursula fon der Layen apologized to Italy on April 2 due to the lack of solidarity from Europe and added that the majority of the EU members focused on their own problems. However, in spite of the initial delay, the help in form of tens of billions of euros for small enterprises are announced as well as EUR15 billion for global fight against coronavirus.

It is probable that the perception on the EU will change together with the response to crisis of its member states, notices the European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borel. But, as the experienced diplomat is reminding, citizens need to be aware of geopolitical component which includes fight for a stronger influence in the world, spinning „the politics of aid and generosity“, clearly alluding to Russia and China.

Therefore, there is a good reason to ask the question from the headline – friends in need or tacticians?

Besides causing the disease, SARS-CoV-2 gave a possibility of spreading different conspiracy theories. At the same time, those who support them were at spotlight of alternative groups and pages. That is why it is not surprising that several months old appearance on a regional TV is becoming increasingly popular at the moment and has been shared many times on social media.

Dejan Lucic, a publicist and a conspiracy theorist, and Vojislav Rodic, an IT consultant appeared on September 24, 2019, on the “Jutro” TV show of TV Prva, where they talked about 5G network.

Contrary to Rodic, who provided scientifically proven and verified claims, Lucic brought the conspiracy theories to the fore and spread untruths, concerning primarily 5G networks and vaccines.

Additionally, Lucic appears frequently on alternative TV shows and web sites, where he talks about different conspiracy theories and unverified facts. On the famous YouTube channel “BalkanInfo” he is a frequent guest, where he reveals “secret plans and arrangements of the governments, intelligence services, and rulers from the shadow”.

What is disputable this time?

His appearance on TV Prva last year, Lucic started with the following claim:

5G network will kill birds, bees, and people too. This was told to me by people who know this stuff but are not to reveal it publicly.

First, when it comes to immense bird deaths (in the Netherlands), which many conspiracy theorists refer to, it is important to emphasize that this is not true. As we have already written in one of our analysis, in the period when the bird deaths occurred (November 2018), no 5G testing was performed on that location, and the last testing was carried out on July 28, 2018, or a few months before the incident. The theories were denied even by local societies for the protection of birds. One of the societies posted on Facebook that “5G testing did not occur during those days, and if it were, the question is why such radiation would have had an impact on birds of just one kind that fly in flocks of a thousand birds?”

Second, like other generations of wireless technologies (4G, 3G, and 2G), 5G cellular data are transmitted through radio waves. Radio waves constitute a small part of a broader electromagnetic spectrum of waves and they emit the energy called electromagnetic radiation. Radio waves can be found at the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum – and they produce only non-ionizing radiation (a type of electromagnetic radiation that does not have enough energy to ionize atoms or molecules, i.e. to remove electrons from atoms). That means that those waves cannot damage DNA inside cells, compared to waves with higher frequency (such as gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet light) which may cause alteration in the DNA inside any cell.

Lucic claims further that microwaves are forbidden in Russia, but despite this, Russians have started the implementation of 5G infrastructure. However, this claim is not correct either. It was analyzed and debunked by Snopes, a fact-check portal, given the fact that the forbidden microwave myth in the country has been popular for years now at a global level.

Besides, Lucic promotes different conspiracy theories that 5G network is controlled by rulers from the shadow, a deep state, “whose goal is to make us more stupid and eventually to kill us”, while not providing concrete proofs and arguments to support the claims. Moreover, he talks about halls and factories where people will be heated by microwaves, and instead of heating the premises, they will heat the water inside people. Therefore, he makes many claims, presenting them as facts and determining causal connections between them, while not providing any credible proofs.

Furthermore, he states that Atlanta is the first city with 5G network installed, adding that there is a monument erected to “the idea of reducing humanity’s population to 500 million “.

What monument is it about?

Georgia Guidestones is a big granite monument erected in the U.S. state of Georgia, with Atlanta as its capital city. Besides the fact that the monument was built in 1979, little is known about it. It is made from huge granite slabs, with 10 messages engraved on it, i.e. principles to help reboot the civilization after an apocalypse. They are written in eight different languages, one language on each face of the four large upright stones that constitute the monument. Moving clockwise around the structure from due north, these languages are English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, and Russian.

The messages engraved are the following:

  1. Maintain humanity under 500 million in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

It is evident that Lucic thought of the first principle when talking about the reduction of the population number. However, he made it simpler and did not provide a broader context, presenting the monument as a symbol of reduction of the humanity’s population, which cannot be considered correct.

Finally, an anti-vaxxer narrative comes to the stage, i.e. a story of side effects of vaccines that represent, as he put it, a biological weapon, which was even defined by NATO. Fake news again, which we analyzed at the beginning of 2019.

This thesis was developed by a Serbian organization “Pravo na izbor” (Right to choice), which posted on its Facebook page that NATO, in its book entitled “Immunological Adjuvants and Vaccines”, called vaccines a biological weapon.

The FB page claims that on page 37 of the book the following is stated: “Vaccines cause autoimmune diseases. As an adjuvant, aluminum increases the production of certain antibodies, causing allergies and anaphylactic shock.”

The analysis of the whole book and the extracted page 37 showed that there is nowhere a similar phrase formulation to this one. Even a syntagmatic unit “biological weapon” is not mentioned in this study.

The opinion of other institutions and organizations regarding 5G network

Let’s remind that last week in several cities in Great Britain, mobile phone masts were set on fire due to an unfounded theory that there is a link between coronavirus and the 5G network, which was reported by the British mobile operators. After photos of burning masts had been posted on social media, the British Department of Digital, Media, Culture, and Sport highlighted that the spread of such rumors raised concern.

Full Fact, a fact-check organization from Great Britain, researched the claims on links between coronavirus and 5G after the topic had been widespread in the British tabloids. 5G has a higher frequency of radio waves than 4G or 3G, but the levels of the 5G electromagnetic radiation are significantly below international standards. The maximum level of electromagnetic radiation that the British Ofcom measured was about 66 times below the safety margin set by international standards.

Even the Public Health of England and the World Health Organization stated that the 5G network does not have consequences for health. As WHO stated, after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies. The tissue heating is the main mechanism of interaction between radiofrequency fields and the human body. Radiofrequency exposure levels from current technologies (about 3.5 GHz) result in negligible temperature rise in the human body. Provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated.

A Petition against the implementation of the 5G network in Montenegro has been launched on the petition.online platform on April 4, and by the time of the Magazine issuance, it has had around 1.880 signatures.

The petition claims that:

“5G has more negative effects – countries that implemented 5G network saw many consequences even during the 5G performance testing – in the Netherlands, hundreds of birds fell from the sky and died because it has frequency ranges that are beneficial neither for human health nor for nature.

Over 400 signed papers from the field of medicine, science, environmental protection, and others, work for the PROOF that 5G radiation is harmful. With this petition, we want the Government of Montenegro to ban the installation of 5G networks in OUR country.”

When it comes to immense bird deaths in the Netherlands, which many conspiracy theorists refer to as well as this petition, it is important to emphasize that this is not true. In the period when the bird deaths occurred (November 2018), no 5G testing was performed on that location. The last testing was carried out on July 28, 2018, or a few months before the incident. The theories were denied even by local societies for the protection of birds. One of the societies posted on Facebook that 5G testing did not occur during those days, and if it were, the question was why such radiation would have had an impact on birds of just one kind that fly in flocks of a thousand birds?

When it comes to the papers the petition refers to, they involve YouTube channels, social media, and alternative websites, because neither one of the relevant institutions does recognize the technology’s adverse human health effects.

As a proof, the petition provides a video 5G network – A video that will make you think, from the FES TV YouTube channel from last May. The video shows plenty of conspiracy theories on alleged harmful effects of 5G technology and radio waves transmitting the data. Additionally, the Fes TV channel is visited by conspiracy theory enthusiasts from the Balkans, which is even stated in some videos from the channel.

Let’s remind that in February 2020, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic met with the representatives of the Czech PPF Group and spoke with them about further technical and technological advancements of telecommunication infrastructure in Montenegro. On that occasion, the PPF Group presented its plans for the implementation of a new generation of cellular technology – 5G in Montenegro.

As well as other generations of wireless technologies (4G, 3G, and 2G), 5G cellular data are transmitted through radio waves. Radio waves constitute a small part of a broader electromagnetic spectrum of waves and they emit the energy called electromagnetic radiation. Radio waves can be found at the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum – and they produce only non-ionizing radiation (a type of electromagnetic radiation that does not have enough energy to ionize atoms or molecules, i.e. to remove electrons from atoms). That means that those waves cannot damage DNA inside cells, compared to waves with higher frequency (such as gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet light) which may cause alteration in the DNA inside any cell.

Full Fact, a fact-check organization from Great Britain, researched the claims on links between coronavirus and 5G after the topic had been widespread in the British tabloids. 5G has a higher frequency of radio waves than 4G or 3G, but the levels of the 5G electromagnetic radiation are significantly below international standards. The maximum level of electromagnetic radiation that the British Ofcom measured was about 66 times below the safety margin set by international standards.

Even the Public Health of England and the World Health Organization stated that the 5G network does not have consequences for health.

As WHO stated, after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies.

WHO added that tissue heating is the main mechanism of interaction between radiofrequency fields and the human body. Radiofrequency exposure levels from current technologies (about 3.5 GHz) result in negligible temperature rise in the human body. Provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated.

This, however, did not stop the spreading of such narratives.

In several cities in Great Britain (Liverpool, Birmingham, and Melling), mobile phone masts were set on fire due to a widespread belief that there is a link between coronavirus and the 5G network, which was reported by the British mobile operators.

After photos of burning masts had been posted on social media, operators highlighted that the spread of such rumors raised concern.

The Srpska cast Facebook page posted on March 28 a photo, claiming to be a 5G mast set on fire in Nepal during the citizens’ protests against the implementation of the network in the country. The photo was actually created in 2013 in Philadelphia and it showed a transmitter mast on fire. Nevertheless, the fact did not prevent extensive spreading and sharing of the photo on social media.

Interactive graphic showing the key narratives, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news related to coronavirus in March.