Info warfare in Serbia: The hidden hand of internet interventionism

By EDRi · November 30, 2016

Over the past couple of years, the digital environment in Serbia has become a new area for battle over information control. We’ve witnessed technical attacks on online media websites, attempts at suppressing information online, organised social media campaigns for narrative control, as well as offline tactics such as detentions, threats and equipment seizure. SHARE Foundation has been monitoring the state of digital rights and freedoms in Serbia from May 2014, having seen a large number of violations during the floods that hit the region at that time.

After more than two years of collecting and organising data, SHARE Lab researchers, an investigative data reporting team of SHARE Foundation, mapped and quantified the data and compiled it in a two-part story of information warfare tactics in Serbia, influenced by the politics of hidden “internet interventionism”. Governments are now able to use sophisticated ways of pressuring the free flow of information on the internet, which are often hard to detect. SHARE Lab examined some of these methods based on local experience from Serbia, as it is possible that they could be used by other governments around the world.

The first part of the research covers propaganda, domination and attacks on online media, while the second part is focused on the social media battlefield, arrests and detentions of individuals. Findings of the research have shown that online media news in Serbia, especially those during the campaign for parliamentary elections held in April 2016, are short-lived with a “lifespan” of just around two hours when they are commented on and shared, after which they are lost and replaced with new short-lived content. The info-sphere is dominated with fabricated comments, which are relentlessly upvoted or downvoted, depending on whether or not they support the narrative of government officials. A very similar method is applied on the two most popular social media platforms in Serbia: Facebook and Twitter. Technical attacks on media websites that publish content critical of government actions, attempts of suppressing “undesirable” internet content, as well as targeted attacks on individuals, such as manipulations with their online identities, make up the rest of the matrix of domination in the Serbian info-sphere.

On the other hand, challenges are also present in the offline arena: journalists, activists and netizens expressing their opinions and views online faced arrests and detention. This was most evident during the above mentioned floods, when citizens were called in for questioning by the police on suspicion they were “inducing panic” with their posts on social media. There was also the problem of “selective reaction” from the authorities; they reacted quickly in cases of threats made to high-ranking state officials, but were not so diligent when journalists or activists were targeted. These pressures lead to insecurity and fear, a chilling effect on the general public, privacy violations and discouraging public dialogue on matters of public interest.

Full research: Mapping and quantifying political information warfare

Part 1 : Propaganda, domination & attacks on online media (26.10.2016)

Part 2 : Social media batllefied, arrests & detentions (26.10.2016)


Internet remembers everything (28.05.2014)

(Contribution by Bojan Perkov, SHARE Foundation, Serbia)