Are the Balkans the capital of fake news?

The epidemic of pseudo-news sites that has spread across the region makes it difficult even for journalists to tell facts and fakes apart. A small Macedonian town played a surprising role in the process, when it became known as “Trump’s Veles.”

Lidija Pisker
Lidija Pisker NewsMavens, Balkans
Are the Balkans the capital of fake news? - NewsMavens
Fake news. Wikimedia commons

Why this story matters:

Fake news -- one of the most discussed phenomena of 2017 and one of the least understood. 

In her article for MC Online, journalist Una Čilić wrote that the term entered not only everyday slang but also dictionaries worldwide, when President Donald Trump used the phrase "fake news" to discredit all the media whose reporting he disliked.

“But fake, invented, problematic information has existed as long as the factual, true and relevant one. Would we have spent the entire 2017 talking about ‘fake news’ if that term had not showed up in almost every tweet or statement of the US President? Probably not,” argued Čilić.

Yes, the term made its way to the dictionaries, yet most of us still have hard time discerning fake news when we encounter them.

Especially in the Balkans. 

A 2017 report about media literacy and the educational shortcomings of both the journalists and the public in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia claims that, although some of the countries recognize the importance of media literacy in their legislation, none of them approaches the problem in a systematic and structured manner.

For example, Bosnian education authorities do not see media literacy as a priority. Journalists are also part of the problem. According to the report, the low quality of formal education for journalists negatively affects their abilities to debunk false information and propaganda news, and downgrades the overall quality of reporting.

“As of today, no state document directly addresses this issue. There neither is systematic presence of media literacy on any level of education, nor any discussion in the media concerning the problem,” the regional report noted.

There are some attempts to improve citizens' ability to access, share and critically evaluate media contents, such as the web platform Raskrinkavanje.ba created by organization Zašto ne, which analyzes media reports and checks their validity and credibility of the media (both Zašto ne's fact checking websites are partnered with Newsmavens). 

Yet, the epidemics of pseudo-news sites that rapidly spreads across Bosnia and the region makes it difficult for small local organizations to cope with the ever-growing phenomenon. 

Incidentally, the fake news industry made a small Macedonian town of Veles popular around the globe, giving it an unlikely role in world politics. During Trump’s presidential election campaign, it was the young citizens of Veles who created sensationalist pro-Trump articles (or articles targeted against his opponents) and launched them on Internet thus making a living.

That is why a city, known as “Tito’s Veles” during the communist times got a new name -- “Trump’s Veles.”

In an effort to counter its questionable reputation in the field, Macedonia lately put some efforts to improve media literacy skills of its citizens. As part of the new Law on Audio and Audio Visual Services, media literacy has become a public priority.

"Looking back, maybe it was not such a bad idea that Trump mentioned 'fake news' in his tweets," Čilić concluded. "The question is whether the other side, the one that stands for transparent and verified information, would have started the debate and numerous initiatives if it was not for that attention."

Details from the story:

  • In general, the level of media literacy and knowledge in ICT across Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia is low or non-existent, the regional report found. 
  • The same report noted that numerous professional media associations have been established in the region. However, they do not seem to inspire change in the industry, as the majority of them are not active or operate sporadically. 
  • In their annual global media assessments, Freedom House, Reporters without Borders and IREX have repeatedly stated that Western Balkans countries face systemic shortcomings in ensuring the freedom of press and professional journalism.
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