Distorted perception of Montenegro in the study conducted for the European Parliament

The study Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans and Identifying Ways to Effectively Counter Them was published on December 3 on the website of the European Parliament. The authors analyzed the events and disinformation in the Western Balkans in the period from 2018 through 2020.

The independent experts conducted this study for the needs of the Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union, analyzing the information environment in the six Western Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia. The Digital Forensic Center (DFC) analyzed the stated observations about Montenegro. It was noticed that the study contained a lot of imprecise information, one-sided conclusions, and incorrect data in the part concerning Montenegro, which may blur the image and understanding of the information environment in our country.

Therefore, the DFC contacted the Delegation of the European Union in Montenegro in order to demand clarification of the parts presented in the study. We received an answer that they did not take part in the study and that we should contact the European Parliament. Subsequently, the DFC contacted the European Parliament which directed us to the academic coordinator of the study. His response was that the study represented an academic product, which did not represent the official position of the European Parliament. However, this certainly does not mitigate the fact that the study contained particular oversights.

Taking into consideration that particular Montenegrin media republished the original report from the European Parliament’s website, and therefore, the expert and lay audience were presented with a false image of our country, the DFC analyzed the debatable key parts of the study for the purpose of the objective informing.

Debatable items in the study:

  • Information taken from the stated reference is put into a different context
  • Some information has been presented out of the stated period from 2018 through 2020
  • Večernje Novosti and Kurir are presented as Montenegro-based media
  • The news portal Danas portrayed as media that supports the ZBCG coalition
  • Facebook is not particularly popular in Montenegro
  • The Government of Montenegro publicly leaked the identities of the country’s first confirmed coronavirus cases
  • Most disinformation in Montenegro remains domestic
  • Even in the heat of the election, most of the disinformation appeared to focus on other issues, most prominently – COVID-19

False data on media and Facebook popularity

Within one of the sub-chapters of Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans, in a part referring to Montenegro, it is stated that Vecernje Novosti and Kurir were Montenegrin media which is false since they are Belgrade-based news portals and editorial offices.

Equally, it is stated that the news portal Danas, also from Serbia, supported the coalition For the Future of Montenegro (ZBCG). Based on the DFC’s analysis and monitoring, the news portal Danas is recognized as an independent media outlet whose reporting was not supporting any political option during and after the last elections in Montenegro. Additionally, the DFC contacted the editorial office of Danas and we received a confirmation that the information given in the study was false.

On the other hand, it is interesting that the analysis of disinformation in Montenegro did not mention Borba or IN4S, the pro-Serbian media, known for spreading misleading content.

One of the conclusions of the study is that the media from Serbia generally supported the ZBCG coalition. Since the period of the analysis is not completely precise, and the English language manuscript was completed on November 19, 2020, that claim is partially true. The Serbian media indeed promoted the ZBCG coalition in the pre-election period, but that narrative has changed soon after the election outcome. Even though the key figures of the coalition, Milan Knezevic and Andrija Mandic are still supported by the media from Serbia, the leader of the coalition Zdravko Krivokapic is frequently targeted by these news portals and tabloids, which the DFC already addressed in one of its analyses.

The study also emphasizes that Facebook is not particularly popular in Montenegro. However, the data of the DFC prove the contrary. The number of people that can be reached with Facebook adds amounts to 400,000 for December of this year. Given the fact that Montenegro has around 630,000 citizens, this datum indicates a significant Facebook activity.

Actors of the former government put in a wrong context

The study reads that the President of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic poured further disinformation into the uproar around the coup attempt affair in 2016, and therefore contributed that the opposition leaders Milan Knezevic and Andrija Mandic, without corroborated evidence, be added to the list of prosecuted co-conspirators (author’s comment: the process is not finalized yet, the decision of the Appellate Court is waited upon). As a reference for this claim, the analysis entitled Hanging by a Thread: Russia’s Strategy of Destabilization in Montenegro published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute was given in the study. However, insight into the abovementioned analysis led us to a conclusion that nowhere was it mentioned that President Djukanovic was spreading disinformation in the context of the coup attempt in 2016 nor this analysis addressed his alleged contribution to the prosecution of Knezevic and Mandic.

The study also reads that the Government of Montenegro leaked the identities of the country’s first confirmed coronavirus cases in March 2020. The article from the news portal Balkan Insight that is given as a reference points out that the infected patients’ identities were revealed by social media users and not the Government of Montenegro itself.

Even though the authors of the study stated that Montenegro was the subject of significant external disinformation activity (coup attempt in 2016, NATO accession in 2017, and elections in 2020 to a lesser extent), they maintain the position that most disinformation remains domestic, and has been an important tool in internal political competition. However, given the popularity of the Serbian media in Montenegro – the media recognized for spreading tendentious content and disinformation – it is evident that a large number of such content is foreign.

About 2020 elections – superficially

The study also addressed the August parliamentary elections in Montenegro, but an insufficient quantity of information about the period is also visible. Insufficient data available on Montenegro, as they stated, prevented them from providing a more detailed analysis of the elections, even though the DFC conducted a large number of analyses and much research on the topic.  

It is not logical that the authors of the study stated that they could not use the stated open-source tools in the case of Montenegro, since the DFC used precisely the same tool, besides others, to monitor the elections and analyze both Facebook and the media scene. The tools were used to measure the activity increase of the pages and groups of the political parties which took part in the parliamentary elections, as well as the amount of money they spent on Facebook ads.

In the context of the elections, the study presented disinformation about disappearing ink pens, which was debunked by Raskrinkavanje.me. However, the disinformation was taken out of the real context. The message circulating on Facebook was not designed to suppress turnout by scaring away voters, as stated in the study. The message warned the citizens about the very existence of the pens and the possibility of their votes being altered, but with the advice to carry pens with themselves so that the alterations would not occur. The fact is that the media, politicians, and activists were encouraging citizens to vote, this year even more than during the previous election cycles, with one of the leading narratives that this year’s elections were the fight for the existence of the country.

The conclusion of the authors that the issue such as the COVID-19 pandemic remained in the focus of disinformation during the August elections is also false. Since mid-August, the DFC ran a blog dedicated to elections, which shows that disinformation around coronavirus was not largely present at that time. Additionally, the analyses of Serbia and Montenegro-based media reporting during the August elections, conducted by the DFC, showed that the main topics in the articles were: elections, crime and corruption, defending shrines, and tourism.

Additionally, the authors of the study stated that mapping disinformation in Montenegro with any accuracy is unusually difficult, especially because the literature was extremely thin. However, the Digital Forensic Center, whose analyses were enlisted in the references of the study, but superficially presented, has an extensive range of analyses, texts, and infographics which represent the quality literature for the research of information and disinformation environment in Montenegro.

The Digital Forensic Center believes that the lack of complete information in the study Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans and Identifying Ways to Effectively Counter Them creates a wrong image of the information and disinformation environment in Montenegro. The insufficiently analyzed political and social situation in Montenegro leads to a general impression that the authors are not familiar with the events in our country.