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Here are eight of the most egregious lies caught in 2018 by the Fake News Tracker in Serbia, a country with a long history to re-write.by Stefan Janjic 28 December 2018
How important is fake news in Serbia today? According to the European Communication Monitor 2018, the impact of disinformation on Serbian society is worryingly high. Serbia ranks among the top four countries in Europe with the greatest influence of fake news (68.2 percent), along with the Czech Republic (80.3 percent), Romania (73.6 percent), and Russia (66.0 percent).
Not surprisingly then – according to research by the Novi Sad School of Journalism and the Fake News Tragac (Fake News Tracker) site – media outlets in Serbia announce a war with a neighboring country on average every three days, and “discover” a medicine to treat cancer once a week.
If we look through the history of the press in Serbia, we will see a rich tradition of fake news, whose disastrous effects were especially evident in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Let's go back in time to 12 January 1904. On the front page of the first issue of Politika – the oldest daily newspaper still in circulation in the Balkans – is the now-famous article: “The task of the independent press,” which, in the spirit of a manifesto, aimed to establish the professional standards of the newly founded newspaper. Quoting Bismarck's views on the purpose of an independent press – “to freely examine all public questions, without anger and without bias; to support opposition through correct criticism of the government’s work; through its loyalty and impartiality to protect the government from unfounded attacks; [and] to strike with equal ardor both the right and to the left” – the writer of the manifesto then added that the realization of this freedom was “neither a simple nor (an) easy task in much older countries, let alone our state. It needs a lot of consistency, a lot of civic courage, a lot of deep, political conviction in order to achieve high standards.”
Yet just two pages after hailing the importance of media professionalism and credibility, there is a news item under the headline “Female monster,” which informs readers that: “Recently, in Maros Lugos, Teofila Vekes gave birth to a daughter with a cow-like head, big ears, and little horns upon the forehead. Her hands did not have fingers, but were cloven in two, like hoofs. This monster was baptized and given the name Mary, but died two days later.”
This kind of news item is one of the many proofs that “fake news” existed long before its current notoriety.
The 21st century has seen ever-increasing opportunities for the production and dissemination of fake news, but at the same time there has been an increase in the number of tools for the assessment of the credibility of media content.
Over the past year, three portals have been launched in Southeastern Europe to deconstruct fake news: raskrinkavanje.ba in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as raskrikavanje.rs and the FN Tracker in Serbia.
Here are eight stories stripped bare by the FN Tracker since the beginning of this year, illustrating various models of manipulation, which we are exposed to on a daily basis.
This summer, the daily newspaper Srpski Telegraf published a completely fictional front page story that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban planned to establish an “E6 Union” – comprised of Serbia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland – that would stand as an alternative to the EU.
By checking directly with the Hungarian government, FN Tracker confirmed that Orban had never mentioned such a plan.
Despite this fact, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic declared the next day that the Serbian government would seriously consider Orban's idea. Similar statements were made by two other ministers, Zorana Mihajlovic and Jadranka Joksimovic. This example shows us that not only media content, but also the political agenda can often be based on misinformation. If the minister of foreign affairs does not have the correct information about a key foreign policy, if he relies on fabricated stories from the media, we can only imagine how difficult it is for others to know the truth.
A video showing two people having oral sex surrounded by a crowd at a concert, with the Serbian folk song “Mihajlo, Miki, Miki” in the background, went viral this summer. Online media outlets claimed that the video was created at a concert by folk singer Nada Topcagic.
FN Tracker found that the video had actually been recorded during a performance of metal band Mokoma at the Finnish festival “Paskis Sh#t Happens” in July 2018. Someone had replaced the original soundtrack with a live performance of the Serbian folk song.
The fake video was probably made as a joke, and it is more or less harmless, but problems arose when the media started to mislead readers by encouraging the belief that the video was authentic.
A series of media outlets reported this July that a Swedish company had offered $1.4 billion for exploratory rights to a mine in Bor, eastern Serbia. Yet FN Tracker's research showed that not a single element of the news was true: the company was not Swedish, but Canadian (and the dollars in question were not American, but Canadian). The offer was not for exploratory rights alone, but for the purchase and acquisition of the entire company, which owns a mine in Eritrea in addition to the mine at Bor.
Creators of fake news often count on readers' ignorance about business and its terminology, which allows them to exaggerate Serbia's economic successes, and give a misleading sense of prosperity.
The weekly news tabloid Afera has several times named “Stela Pecarski” as the author of various investigative stories. This name was accompanied by a photo that FN Tracker has revealed as that of Gigi Paris, an American model of French-Venezuelan origin.
Is this a harmless lie? Gigi is probably unaware that she is known in Serbia as the author of articles about a “Court cover-up, under the bedcovers in Vranje” and “Suspicious tenders in Simanovci.” And the possible use of a pseudonym because of the threat of political or some other pressure doesn’t seem to be justified in this case.
In July, the daily Alo carried a story on its front page, announcing that “research carried out by Professor Mrmend Meja” showed that “at least 60 percent of Albanians from Kosovo have Serbian genes.”
However, FN Tracker has determined that the professor mentioned is not named Mrmend Meja, does not conduct genetic research, and did not say what was published in Alo.
What's behind this piece of fake news? An economist from Kosovo, named Armend Muja, did quote a study published in the European Journal of Human Genetics, which showed that Serbs and Albanians were genetically much more similar than previously thought.
Professor Muja told FN Trackr that he was shocked by Alo's deliberate misinterpretation of a Facebook post he had made, and stressed that his only intention was to show that nations were social constructs.
Alo had clearly abused his post in order to further exacerbate tensions between Serbs and Albanians.
During the football (soccer) World Cup the daily newspaper Informer spread a story that the Croatian team had ordered black jerseys as replicas of the jerseys worn by the national team under the World War II-era, pro-fascist independent state of Croatia.
This false information was circulated in the midst of heightened intolerance toward Croats and jealousy of the Croatian national team's success, so many readers swallowed the story of the “black fascist jerseys.”
However, the fictional context of black shirts was a complete lie. On the basis of the archival material available, FN Tracker found that during the war, Croatia played 20 football matches – all of them in red shirts.
Fake games of chance can be used for collecting not just likes, but also personal data such as identification numbers or bank account numbers, as we have found.
This year, thousands of Instagram users were deceived in one day by a fake Instagram profile of a shopping center in Novi Sad, promising vouchers – up to a total of 4.5 million euros – to the first 30,000 followers.
In order to underline the absurdity of this lie, FN Tracker calculated that this sum totaled 11,450 average net wages in Vojvodina, Serbia's northern province.
Fake news often seems trivial, escaping scrutiny by hiding in the different trivia sections in media outlets, but such news can also turn into a myth and be accepted as truth.
When biometric ID cards were introduced in Serbia, some media started to spread a story that on the back of the ID card there was a number that showed how many people in Serbia resembled the ID holder.
By reviewing the official requirements for identity documents, FN Tracker showed that the story about the “mysterious number” was a completely fabricated claim – nothing but a composite check digit that does not reveal anything about the ID card holder.
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