Online space has become a key platform for political confrontation in Montenegro. Social networks especially enable political parties and activists to reach a large number of people in a short period of time. In addition to this facilitation, social networks, due to weak regulation, enable technical coordination. Technical coordination refers to the use of specific platform manipulation techniques that can be detected for artificially boosting or propagating a message or narrative on social networks.
Due to the turbulent socio-political situation caused by passing a no-confidence motion in the Government of Zdravko Krivokapić and the removal of Parliament spokesman Aleksa Bečić, as well as negotiations on forming a new government, the Digital Forensic Center analyzed Facebook pages of political parties that had significant activity in that period. During this analysis, the DFC focused on identifying coordinated inauthentic behavior on these pages that aims to promote certain policies and thus influence public opinion. Coordinated inauthentic behavior does not in itself include an assessment of the veracity of the content that is placed, but implies synchronized deceptive actions of several entities within Facebook. During the analysis, bot accounts and fake accounts were discovered, but also real accounts, where coordinated activities for the needs of certain political parties were noticed. Bot account networks are most often created during important socio-political events in a country, with the main goal of directing public opinion in the desired direction.
Fake accounts and political parties
Political parties used fake accounts to create fictitious personalities who support their policies and activities in order to make certain content as visible and popular as possible. Such user accounts provide support through interactions, comments, and content sharing. Although accounts that support certain political parties through interactions have not posted on their profiles, the DFC analysis found that these accounts are interconnected because they are friends with each other on Facebook, like each other’s comments, share mutual friends, and interest in the same pages. The analysis established that some of these bot accounts used photos generated by artificial intelligence as profile photos, but also photos of real people outside Montenegro.
A network of bot accounts was noticed on the official Facebook page of the Civic Movement URA, which left positive reactions and comments in a short period of time after a certain post on this page. It was noticed that almost all of them were created in the first two months of 2022 and were marked by Facebook as new accounts. Further analysis determined that these accounts use fake photos, that they do not have posts on their profiles, but also that they like identical pages. Profiles that stand out: Aleksa Mitrović, Dario Raković, Janko Matković, Goran Petrušić, Milan Nikolić, Maksim Miletić, Milić Vuković, Ognjen Kontić, are friends of each other and they all liked the same group of Facebook pages – Ta OLOŠ, Dnevne novine Dan, Portal Analitika, Kolektiv.me, Vijesti, CDM Portal, Information portal IN4S, RTCG. It is important to point out that the Facebook page Ta OLOŠ, which is followed by these profiles, is a meme page that targets all political parties and actors except the Civic Movement URA.
Somewhat more active are accounts Krsto Kukuličić, Irina Stamatović, Jasna Krivokapić, Josif Lalatović, Milić Vuković, Andrijana Ana Sekulić, whose profile photos can be found by simple Internet search, or are created through artificial intelligence, for instance on a website such as thispersondoesnotexist. The algorithm of that platform is trained on a huge set of data from real images, and then uses a type of neural network known as the generative adversarial network (GAN) to create new examples. The position of the eyes in all profile photos is identical and forms a straight line, which is another indicator that the photos were created via artificial intelligence.
According to the same pattern as the previous ones, these profiles leave reactions to the posts of the Civic movement URA page and like the same pages. In addition to supporting the URA with their comments, these accounts often target the party’s political opponents. It is interesting that most fake and bot accounts that comment on and like the posts of the GP URA page, do not follow the page itself. These profiles are very active on the Facebook page of the Vijesti portal, leaving comments that either support the URA or attack all other political parties. They also like each other’s comments and thus increase visibility.
When it comes to Aleksa Bečić’s Democratic Montenegro (Demokratska Crna Gora), there are accounts on their Facebook page that are active in all posts, leaving reactions or comments, while they do not have posts on their own accounts. Another group of accounts was noticed on the Facebook posts of Democratic Montenegro, which is in charge of sharing content in certain Facebook groups or accounts. Thus, the accounts: Luka Popovic, Josephine Zemfeld Delacroix, and Natalija Vukcevic, exclusively share the contents of Democratic Montenegro on their profiles. Luka Popović further shares this content in the group Kupujem prodajem, which has 897 members, and the account of Zorica Ristic named Tekstopiosac in the group ZAJEDNO SMO JAČI (We are stronger together) numbers over 2,000 members, all with a view for these posts to reaching a larger number of Facebook users.
Along with the page of Democratic Montenegro, the Facebook page of Marko Milačić and Prava Crna Gora (True Montenegro) also had significant activity in the analyzed period. Non-authentic accounts (i.e. fake and bot accounts) have not been detected on these pages. However, the largest number of interactions on the posts of those two pages came from people (accounts) who are not from Montenegro, but from Serbia and the Republic of Srpska.
Online antibodies and hate speech
We should not ignore the pages, groups, and accounts that are part of the propaganda network that openly promotes Zdravko Krivokapić, ministers close to him, as well as former spokesman of the Parliament Aleks Bečić and MP Marko Milačić. The network, which the DFC has written about on several occasions, has been particularly active in targeting members of the URA GP and the Socialist People’s Party (SNP). Also, those pages, groups, as well as fake profiles, actively called for protests.
Due to the current aggravation on the political scene, DFC also analyzed comments on social networks and portals that proved to be a testing ground for insults and hate speech addressed to certain politicians due to a no-confidence motion in the government of Zdravko Krivokapic and the removal of Aleksa Bečić. Representatives of the Crno na bijelo Coalition (Black and White coalition) were the most frequent targets of hate speech. Hate speech, which included insults on religious and national grounds, was particularly prevalent. All this was accompanied by threats and calls for physical confrontation.
This analysis offers evidence that there is a coordination of Facebook accounts whose activities create the illusion of greater support for political parties than it is the case, trying to influence the political opinion of citizens and create opinions according to their agenda. Therefore, this analysis aims to inform citizens and point out to them the negative activities on Facebook that may affect their choices and perception of socio-political events. Through its activities, the Digital Forensic Center will continue to work on raising citizens’ awareness of abuses and coordinated activities on the Internet in sensitive socio-political moments.