From regional perspective it is not unusual for Bosnia and Herzegovina to be a separate case. Unfortunately, the same applies in the sphere of disinformation. While in countries, such as Serbia, the most of disinformation campaigns are carried out through tabloids, in Bosnia and Herzegovina a substantial mean of disinforming are anonymous portals, encouraged by armies of bots and trolls in online sphere
This was eventually approved by the analysis of citizens’ association Udruženje građana Zašto ne and Raskrinkavanje portal. Their research (published in May this year) showed that the most common source of disinformation, as well as the most efficient channel of distribution, are the anonymous portals. How significant that problem is for true and right public informing show numbers as well: on the sample of 2.500 published articles comprising some type of disinformation, two thirds were published on these very portals.
The analysis also identified and proved what we, as experts of the field, have been pointing out that for a long time. Only one part of those portals is driven by profit – they lure the public with clickbait and other mechanisms of disinforming in order to gain income from Google Ads and similar services. Larger amount of them is clearly connected to certain political agenda, and their purpose is to create narratives that will provoke animosity, polarization or creation of non-existent discussion about the boss’s political opponents.
The exact number of anonymous portals is yet unknown
We see how big the problem is because it is impossible to know the exact number of anonymous portals. Some evaluations showed that there are thousands of them operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that number has been seriously increasing, while the most pessimistic ones speak about hundreds of new portals on a daily basis. For a state counting 3.5 million citizens, such amount of disinformation sources gives an excellent image of why anyone aspiring malign influence does not need bots or trolls.
Anonymous portals know no for responsibility. According to the definition, those are media that are practically impossible to find data on ownership, editor structure or journalists as authors of the texts. Thus, it is not unusual that the analysis of Zašto ne determined that only in 19% of cases the request to publish denial was accepted. The authors and owners of the mentioned anonymous portals are fully aware that they are not subject to any legal liability. At the same time, given the fact that their identity is unknown, moral (ir)responsibility does not pose an obstacle.
Furthermore, the team of Raskrinkavanje, as the most concrete project of analyzing and categorizing disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a subject to more attacks and threats coming from the owners of the anonymous portals. And not just them – anyone who at least once tried to cope with the analysis of the content on the anonymous portals experienced discrediting, aimed attacks of the individuals in an online domain, as well as life and security threats. In some cases, there was about the protection of lucrative business, in others about protection of the political interests. There are portals whose owners believe to be doing the right thing, and their enemies are, initially, those who constantly point out the facts.
Fearing no consequences
The reasons of popularity of such type of disinforming, partly should be sought in non-existent regulation and insufficient self-regulation. Given the fact that there is no way or mechanism to sanction their doings, anonymous portals have no reason to show any fear of consequences. Online media space in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the rule should be self-regulated by the Press and online media council in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, their function is limited to directing requests for removing content based on the citizens’ complaints, which turned out to be insufficient, even when it comes to mainstream media, let alone anonymous portals.
Another problem is insufficient information literacy, but also how much the citizens are interested to report contents that are of no personal interest for them. This year’s research conducted by Mediacentar about media literacy among the young in Sarajevo, proved what we have been pointing out for a long time. The young in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not know to whom and how to report publications identified as disinformation or malign content, and have no stimulus, considering that is none of their business. The greater issue is that the young do not have aspiration for fact-checking the source of information, the research showed. It is shattering that new generations take for granted and with no critical approach published content, although that very fact-checking would take them only couple of minutes.
Solution – record of the portal ownership
Is there a solution? Albania has recently introduced mandatory record of the portal ownership. It could be a good start if such record would not be used for ruling political actors’ clashes with unwanted, professional online media. In that manner every effort towards the creation of legal limitations for online medias must go hand in hand with more powerful mechanisms for journalist’s protection. However, in a country such as Bosnia and Herzegovina nowadays, it is surreal to expect that.
Perhaps the best long-term solution would be to focus on improving media literacy. Introducing mandatory subjects about media and digital literacy in schools and at the universities we would ensure one part of the population to, in foreseeable future, gain knowledge and abilities to differentiate truth from lies!