Disinformation Will Not Disappear – Creators Must be Exposed

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It is high time to turn the recommendations into actions and to know exactly which actors in society have a role in the fight against disinformation – to recognize who is the enemy, the creators of disinformation, and to understand the goal behind the propaganda he/she is spreading. The process will be challenging, but it can only be successful if the countries of the region cooperate and exchange practices and experience – these were the main conclusions of the panel discussion titled “Solutions and next steps – recommendations for joint action” that took part on the conference “Building Social Resilience to the Harmful Effects of Disinformation in the Republic of North Macedonia”, organized by the Presidential Centre for Political Education and the Metamorphosis Foundation today.

Building resilience to disinformation is a multi-dimensional issue – from national security, up to the promotion of media freedoms and fight against corruption, including strengthening the role of civil society as a driver of democratization, making inclusion a requirement. This was emphasized by Elida Zulbeari, project manager from the Metamorphosis Foundation.

The next step, she said, is to turn the recommendations into joint activities.

“That, first of all, means consultations with all stakeholders in order to finally produce a specific document – it could be a strategy or some other document that will provide the framework for the fight against disinformation. As those involved in the process, we propose a more open and consultative process with several interactions so that no one is left out of the process, because this is not a process of Metamorphosis, or the Government, or ZNM, but a joint process,” said Zulbeari.

Conference “Building Social Resilience to the Harmful Effects of Disinformation in the Republic of North Macedonia”, 20th June 2023 / Photo: Meta.mk

In the document stemming from the completed process, the role and responsibility of each social actor should be known in order for them to contribute in reducing these harmful effects which – as Zulbeari put it – “will not go away”.

“The plan is to continue with this process through a systemic approach to build a culture of critical opinion and social dialogue at all levels, starting with the education system, the relationship between the institutions and the stakeholders in all sectors, including the family and the individual level. In addition, depending on the resources, we would like to invite representatives from the more developed democratic countries who also have a high level of media literacy, to come here with their examples and help us to adjust our approach and take over the things that work and those we know are good, without risking the freedom of expression and the independence of the media”, said Zulbeari.

But there is no exact recipe for fighting disinformation known to be operational. Each society struggles in its own way with such challenges and has more or less success in the fight to deal with disinformation, said the Associate for Communications and Public Relations of NATO and Security Issues in the Government of the RNM, Svetlana Siljanoska.

According to her, before considering the solutions to the problem, the goals of those who “knowingly and purposefully organized and funded the creation of disinformation” should be looked into.

“One goal is to undermine the confidence in the institutions. The second goal is to shake off the desire or need of the citizens to participate in the democratic processes. The former is obvious from the low trust demonstrated towards all social actors, including the institutions. We see the latter with the refusal to participate in the democratic processes such as referendum or census. The democratic institutions want and aim at citizens’ participation in the democratic processes as they should in a developed country”, stressed Siljanoska.

Conference “Building Social Resilience to the Harmful Effects of Disinformation in the Republic of North Macedonia”, 20th June 2023 / Photo: Meta.mk

She added that disinformation can affect the electoral process even in the most developed countries, which means that the creators of such disinformation are achieving their goals.

“The third aspect is passive behaviour. When a citizen is exposed to a great deal of information, finding the right one can be very difficult. Finally, he/she makes a choice not to be informed. But uninformed citizen makes uninformed decisions. We can see this especially in the past period since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The intensity of different narratives about the same situation is much greater than ever. If previously disinformation aimed at contrasting two concepts, now the goal is to establish a whole plethora of narratives, so when a citizen wants to be informed, that becomes his/her job. Citizens start looking for the information trying to find the right one, but then eventually give up by saying: “I fully aware choose not to be informed”. In that society decisions are made by a very small percentage of people and citizens,” said Siljanoska.

Project manager and head of strategic communication of the Centre for European Perspective from Slovenia, Petra Balažić, shared the results of a public opinion survey regarding information, which was conducted in the countries of the Western Balkans at regional level.

According to the survey, 72 percent of the citizens of the Western Balkans believe that disinformation is a problem in their respective countries. 57 percent are somewhat confident that they can identify themselves with news that portray their reality. On the other hand, Balažić said that, the other 43 percent of the citizens do not know whether they can identify themselves with the information they read.

Balažić also announced that the largest part – over 50 percent of the citizens of the Western Balkans were informed through national media, 44 percent through friends and family, while 13 percent trusted their governments.

“This means that if you have disinformation that is well spread in a country in the Western Balkans, the people who believe this disinformation could share it with their friends in other Western Balkan countries. That information circulates. The last bad news is that 55 percent of the citizens of the Western Balkans do not trust their governments, which questions the effectiveness of public communication”, said Balažić, adding that it serves everyone’s interest to strengthen regional resilience to disinformation through joint cooperation.

Conference “Building Social Resilience to the Harmful Effects of Disinformation in the Republic of North Macedonia”, 20th June 2023 / Photo: Meta.mk

She pinpointed North Macedonia as a positive example of a country that has made great progress in fighting disinformation. A possible solution, according to her, is for the countries of the Western Balkans to exchange information and good practices, and learn from each other. The fact-checking organizations and media that had cross-border cooperation were given as an example.

“Another thing is ensuring inter-sectoral cooperation. The problem is that we in the Western Balkans have difficulties finding cooperation that involves the whole society. It is difficult to get the governments and the media to sit down together,” added Balažić.

Narratives are especially important in the upcoming process in the fight against disinformation while understanding that particular struggle and learning how to deal with it will be a parallel process, said Rosana Aleksoska, programme manager for dealing with fake news and narratives in the Civic Association MOST.

“Why is the narrative important? Because some of the population in the Republic of North Macedonia, but also in the Balkans, especially the Orthodox population, have certain inaccurate beliefs, perceptions and misconceptions that allow disinformation to find a way in and influence people. This means that the process is not one-way. The more disinformation, distorted information and influence, the more these deep-rooted misconceptions will become even deeper”, pointed out Aleksoska.

The process is challenging and should involve education, political system, media and other stakeholders.

“Comprehensive social process is required where we will firstly try to understand, and secondly, define the enemy accurately”, said Aleksoska, adding that disinformation is only one of the tools of Russia’s harmful and malignant influence.

„Yes, the goal is to create distortions and divisions, to undermine the trust in the institutions, in the media, civic organizations, our allies, but the other very important goal is to overwhelm the information process with so many different data so that the people, at some point, will get confused and not know what to believe”, added Aleksoska.

She welcomed regional initiatives, but said that regional cooperation must not take place at the expense of the Euro-Atlantic integration.

“I appeal to everyone to abandon the non-affiliated concept, because the West – that is us today. We are the West. Euro-Atlantic integration must not suffer because of regional initiatives”, said Aleksoska.

The last session titled ”Solutions and next steps – recommendations for joint action” moderated by Despina Kovacevska, media monitoring specialist at the Metamorphosis Foundation, the conference “Building Social Resilience to the Harmful Effects of Disinformation in the Republic of North Macedonia” was concluded with representatives of central government institutions, civil society and the media discussing and bringing about some of the most important issues of the fight against disinformation.