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The Power of Truth is in Emotions

The Resonant Voices Initiative is a three-year program, launched in 2017, that tackles the problems stemming from creating and spreading radical extremist content. “This is one of the pioneering attempts in this region to investigate this phenomenon and develop a response strategy. We will measure the results carefully and gradually, on a limited sample, trying to track the findings of the research and adjust the approach accordingly,” says Goran Zarić from the Resonant Voices Initiative (RVI).

D&C: How fertile of ground are Western Balkan societies for disseminating radical extremist content?

Goran Zarić: The issue of creating and disseminating radical extremist narratives and propaganda is one of the key security issues today both in entire Europe the rest of the world. It is a well-known fact that societies are affected by war, poverty, misery, unemployment, low education level of the population and corruption are particularly sensitive and subject to such phenomena. This is the case, to a greater or lesser extent, in all Western Balkan countries, and these are societies in which the system and the state are not established on the foundations of basic civilizational trends, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but on political populism and national mythomania, which is certainly a fertile ground for the growing radicalization and violent extremism. In the last few decades, human life – i.e. the right to live and to survive – hasn’t meant much to humankind; people had no life values and principles to hold on to, so they, driven by the political elite and not accustomed to critical thinking of reality, turned to racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and hate speech.

Considering all of the above, it is important to mention that the serious scientific-research approaches in studying the phenomenon of radicalization and extremism in this region are still insufficient so we could easily understand these trends and draw certain conclusions.

We, in the Resonant Voices Initiative Program, have been trying to come up with answers together with other interested individuals. Over the past two years, we have collaborated with dozens of initiatives and hundreds of people from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, invested hundreds of hours in mentoring and consulting support, and thus empowering their work and encouraging them to, in particular, to use social networks and other online channels to create powerful and effective counter-narratives that will confront dangerous and inflammatory messages directed at particular groups or minorities. This is done jointly by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and my team, Propulsion.

D&C: Since last year, you have been focusing on the effect that such narratives have on the diaspora. What are you focusing on the diaspora? What makes these communities particularly vulnerable?

Goran Zarić: Hate speech, extremism and radicalization that lead to violence are global problems. That is why we are interested in exploring what role the events in the countries of the Western Balkans have in a wider scheme of things and in the European Union and vice versa, especially today, at the time of the expansion of economic and tourist migration in this part of the world. How a topic comes into focus, how extreme right-wing and radical attitudes are formed around it, how are they communicated and disseminated, how they spill over externally and internally, do they affect the official policies and the general public, and how to fight them – these are all questions that we do not yet have sure answers to, but the causal connection is obvious.

The diaspora is also interesting to observe because of its strong connections to the motherland, its very strong influence and an important role it plays in dissemination and sustainability of these narratives. A large part of the Western Balkans is made up of immigrants during and after the wars of the 1990s with many of them being victims of war or active fighters, with a strong sense of their own ethnic and religious identities, and who were especially carefully nurtured and encouraged for the purposes of war. There are very sturdy and active networks and channels for the illegal smuggling of weapons, narcotics, and even people, from the Middle East to Europe, which have been massively used in recent years to spread radical ideologies and share resources through the diaspora. In 2015 alone, the diaspora sent 8 billion Euro to the region, so this financially dependent impact on “those who stayed”, especially in the era of social media and the Internet, is immeasurable.

According to certain allegations, the Balkans is mentioned as one of the Recruitment Centers of Terrorist Organizations (FTF). Along with constantly active disinformation campaigns, the growing Euroscepticism, and the influence of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Russian propaganda in recent years, analyzing the diaspora, which is a particularly interesting category for the Resonant Voices Initiative, was the next natural step.

📷: Đorđe Radošević

D&C: What is more challenging for researchers today – discovering channels, vocabulary and methods by which fake news attach to our emotions and move us, or developing defensive strategies?

Goran Zarić: It is probably equally challenging to determine which rules apply when it comes to spreading harmful messages in the online sphere, and how to develop adequate and effective responses to it.

In the last few months, while preparing for the program, I discovered two things that seemed to me to be particularly important. At a public meeting, we heard an interesting observation by a reputable communication expert and former journalist Krunoslav Vidić who lives in Zagreb. He said that, while we were dealing with political correctness and watering down messages that are important to us so not to offend anyone, at the same time, right-wingers and radicals communicate directly, simply, from the heart and through emotions, and people understand them better and connect with them more easily. Similarly, a young educator and trainer from Belgrade, Demir Mekić says that, in fighting to change thinking process, attitudes and prejudices, information is not enough (e.g. „refugees are people like everyone else“), but rather we need direct contact, experience and emotions because only acting based on emotions can lead to change.

That is why we decided to consult and work with communication and online campaign experts at every stage of our work, as well as with the representatives of local communities in which we want to work, including Zagreb and indirectly Croatia.

D&C: What is it, in the motherland and the diaspora, that radicalizes people the most and makes them assume extreme attitudes? Does our region have specific narratives that nurture old animosities or are they universal?

Goran Zarić: It is interesting to note the mechanisms that prompt such things in the diaspora communities. During one of the meetings with our people in Vienna, the actress Ana Stefanović called it “discrimination against the discriminated”. Many economic migrants from our part of the world, who have immigrated to Germany and Austria in the last twenty years, including those who are highly educated, qualified and competitive in the labour market, have encountered something that can be seen as an example of a cold shoulder treatment – they have faced with some sort of silent, non-verbalized discrimination and exclusion in the society that doesn’t really want them. In this position, frustrated by the lack of opportunity and burdened by the imposed sense of inferiority, many of them act only as they know and know; they direct their wrath and aggression to the weaker ones, to the refugees, to the Roma, to the members of the LGBT+ population… It seems that only a handful of them get a sense of belonging to a privileged majority.

On the other hand, if we consider the narratives specific to the Balkans in relation to the rest of Europe, it seems that there is not much difference here. Both radical extremist content and topics are created under the influence of global daily political events, with the specifics depending on the local context. Our interlocutors in Zagreb, for example, were most concerned about radical attitudes and narratives related to the reproductive health of women in Croatia, which apparently only intensified and worsened after the reinforcement of pro-life and anti-abortion movements in America and Europe.

Other worrying topics include the attitude towards the Roma people and other national minorities, including the sexual minorities, as well as all radical extremist agendas that are against these minority groups and pose an additional danger to them.

D&C: What kind of people or groups are targeted by extremist activists? Why are these groups chosen to be subjected to hate?

Goran Zarić: In June, we had a series of conversations with our people in Zagreb, Vienna and Berlin, i.e. those who live and work in the European Union countries or are, in some way, close to that experience. We asked what did they think was the problem? We also asked them about the social groups that are the most jeopardized by extremist activities?

It came as no surprise that all these communities cited the refugee crisis as the No 1 problem, i.e. the attitude towards refugees and the narrative of violent extremism directed towards refugees. In terms of the diaspora from the Western Balkans and their attitude towards refugees, based on the conversations we had, we were under the impression that they thought of refugees as people that had privileges and benefits handed to them as part of the practical policies of accepting refugees and asylum seekers.

This belief is deeply rooted and supported by personal experiences in which migrants from the Balkans have been fighting to make living and have a better life through hard work, while today, everything is just given to them, in the space of one day, just like that. A certain form of perverted perception of reality is created i this way, whereby a person from Syria or Afghanistan, who was left homeless and barely made it alive, is regarded a competition in the struggle for the same resources, affection, understanding, acceptance and love.

📷: Đorđe Radošević

D&C: Who are your natural allies in an attempt to convey different opinions and attitudes to people?

Goran Zarić: Our direct allies in this mission are creatives and communicators, including the media. We think that we need to choose and access channels that are considered unusual and find ways to offer something different; something that we have not seen and experienced so far, but which can help us to reach out further and understand better.Paragraph

In the future, we will rely heavily on the help, experience, skills and knowledge of all those people who are interested in experimenting with us: script editors, videographers, photographers, editors, actors and theatrical workers, designers, developers and other creative forces.

Source: Diplomacy and Commerce