Resonant Voices Radar examines the disinformation, propaganda, hate speech and other dangerous online messages that polarize communities in Western Europe and the Balkans.
These are the major polarizing messages from December 2019.
Handke’s Nobel Prize Inflames Post-War Divisions
Austrian author Peter Handke’s reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature sparked a heated online debate. Comments on social media and articles online ranged from praise to abhorrence.
Users commented on outlets across Europe, including on Der Standard, Taz, Zeit Online, Kronen Zeitung and more. Many posted nationalistic and hateful comments against people of different ethnicities in the Balkans.
While both sides of the discussion contained harmful rhetoric, those in support of Handke additionally expressed dangerous arguments that accommodated genocide deniers and revisionist narratives.
The debate as a whole reflected the lack of consensus on historical events during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. Moreover, the outpour of reactions to Handke’s award demonstrated how actions beyond the Balkans can act as catalysts for polarization in the region.
Croatia’s Election Highlights Susceptibility to Nationalist Rhetoric Online
In the first round of Croatia’s presidential elections, online media projected candidates’ extreme positions to Croatians around the world. Much of the content covered highly polarizing candidate Miroslav Skoro.
Far-right media, including Narod, Domovina and the Bujica TV show, publicized content in support of Skoro and his ultranationalist platforms, including his pledge to pardon a former far-right paramilitary leader.
In addition, social media acted as an echo chamber among the more extreme Croatian diaspora. Facebook pages for Croatians living abroad primarily shared posts backing far-right positions, which generated fervent support among its followers.
This positive characterization of extreme platforms reveals the public’s susceptibility to nationalistic and revisionist narratives online. The coverage not only helps spread false and polarizing rhetoric, but it promotes hate against others.
Disinformation Targets New Religion Law in Montenegro
False information flooded online media, after the parliament in Montenegro adopted controversial legislation regarding religious organizations’ property ownership.
The Serbian and Russian media outlets Srbija Javljia and Sputnik published articles that sensationalized the protests and falsely stated that the law intended to limit religious freedom in Montenegro. Sputnik later switched to 24-hour coverage of the protests containing outlandish conspiracies.
Facebook pages, including Serben & Russen and Srbija, also posted polarizing content about events in Montenegro. The posts often manipulated religious symbols to support political statements and called on people to “alert authorities” in response to the parliamentary vote. Many of these posts attracted comments that slandered those with differences in opinion.
In effect, the disinformation surrounding the vote undermines democratic processes in Montenegro through false reporting. The polarizing commentary also raises tensions among communities in the Western Balkans, only to make them more susceptible to unrest.
Nationalism Dominates Coverage of Croatian Folk Singer’s Trial
Serbian and Croatian outlets promoted nationalistic narratives in their online coverage of the trial of Marko Perkovic Thompson, a popular folk singer from Croatia currently facing trial for saying the Ustasha slogan from World War II during his concerts.
The Croatia-based far-right platform, Narod, spread conspiracies about a Jutarnji List journalist who published a version of the court’s judgement that allegedly acquitted Thompson. The conspiracies spread quickly online to supply lines of arguments in support of Thompson on Twitter and Facebook.
Serbian media also picked up Thompson’s trial to advance their own extreme positions. Three of the country’s pro-government online portals, Informer, Kurir and Srpski Telegraf, sensationalized the trial, comparing Croatia to the former puppet state in World War II.
The biased reporting of Thompson’s trial fits into broader nationalistic narratives that promote discriminatory views. This dangerous messaging only inflames hatred across the region.
“Hrvatsko Iseljenistvo” Facebook Page Pushes Extreme Articles
The Facebook page, Hrvatsko Iseljenistvo, spreads xenophobic, nationalistic and false articles targeting the Croatian diaspora. Its posts include articles from the portals Sloboda, Slobodna Dalmacija, Eksklusivno, Priznajem, among others.
Articles on the page promote harmful narratives, ranging from praising war criminals to demonizing migrants. Its followers primarily respond with comments, reactions and shares that reinforce and spread the manipulative content.
Essentially, the page contributes to the problem of online radicalization. Its hateful content has the potential to entrench its followers’ opinions, even to encourage violence offline.
Serbian News Outlets Publish Doomsday Migration Scenarios
The Serbian online portals Dnevna gazeta and Srbija24 published stories designed to incite fear and anger against migrants. Their content created a false impression of total chaos in Belgrade due to increased migration.
Beyond their dangerous generalizations of migrants as criminals or terrorists, the articles call on people to “take arms” against migrants.
The sites generated comments containing hate speech that supported indiscriminate violence against migrants. Other commenters posted conspiracies about Western European countries plotting against those in the Western Balkans.
This type of xenophobic content pushes doomsday scenarios that have no basis in reality. Moreover, it catalyzes additional hate speech and conspiracies that can lead to a false sense of insecurity among online readers.
Religious-Intolerant Posts on Croatian Facebook Pages
Facebook pages specific to the Croatian diaspora have recently shared polarizing messages on religion.
The first page, Hrvatsko Iseljenistvo, posted a link to an article about an insensitive tweet from Serbia’s far-right politician, Misa Vacic, which contained offensive content toward Catholics. By posting this with its other content promoting identity-based nationalism, the feed exacerbates divisions between communities in the Western Balkans.
Another Facebook page, Hrvati Rhein-Neckar, which focuses on the Croatian diaspora in Germany, shared a photo with the Ustasha slogan. The photo’s caption refers to the Catholic cross as a national symbol. It is not only reminiscent of Croatia’s fascist government during World War II, but it promotes a national identity based on religious homogeneity.
These pages threaten to inflame hostilities in the real world by sharing religious-intolerant and nationalistic posts.
Austrian Outlet Details the Serbian Diaspora’s History with Far-Right FPO
The Austrian news outlet, Der Standard, published an article on the relationship between the Serbian diaspora in Austria and its far-right FPO party. According to the article, members of the Serbian diaspora have largely supported the populist party, while the FPO has financed cultural events for the Serbian community in the past.
The diaspora’s historical support of the FPO underscores its tendency to hold more extreme views. This has implications beyond Austria, as the diaspora can also act as a polarizing force in the Western Balkans, our recent investigation found.
The online column attracted comments from readers that characterized migrants as “good” or “bad” depending on their nationality. These are harmful generalizations that promote discrimination and alienate different groups of people.
Although the column itself does not contain discriminatory statements, it demonstrates how online platforms can still project polarizing messages in their comment sections.