One of the most commonly used accusations against media by Donald Trump is that of ‘fake news.’ Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, the public heard over and over accusations against ‘mainstream media’ (used as a pejorative term) by Trump and his team. After winning the election, his administration continued to make the issue of fake news even more popular by adding it in the context of any news that was not going to report things as they (the administration) saw fit.
Whether it’s used by the so-called leader of the free world, journalists, analysts or social media commentators providing their opinion on the latest scandal, the term “fake news” appears to be everywhere. Last year, following the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum, its conceptual companion, “post-truth” was declared Oxford Dictionaries’ international word of the year.
Fake news is when the report or news is inaccurate entirely or partially and misrepresents the true information, thereby creating misleading information for the public. In the world of advanced internet speeds and mobile tech such as smartphones, information travels fast, and so does fake news.
How fake news affects audiences globally is illustrated best by the example of the group of youngsters in Veles, Macedonia, who played a role in generating fake news during the presidential election campaign in the U.S.. According to analysis conducted by BuzzFeed, in the final three months of the campaign the most popular fake news articles generated more engagement on Facebook than the most popular articles from major news outlets; two of the top 10 fake news articles in this period originated in Macedonia.
Fake news central
While the term ”fake news” may be fairly new, the phenomenon is not, and it is by no means just an issue that affects other countries.
Kosovo was exposed to fake news before and during the war, especially with reports regarding losses during the war and the number and civilian status of many victims, who — after Albanian journalists had been expelled from their jobs — were often labelled as ‘terrorists’ by Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) and Television of Prishtina (RTP), both of which were controlled by the Milosevic regime. For being a propaganda mouthpiece and a source of hate speech that mobilized the public, RTS was even bombed by NATO troops in their 78-day campaign against Yugoslavia.
Lately, with the Balkans becoming one of the centers of generating fake news for the U.S. elections, much attention has been paid to the region by the international press. However, fake news also enjoys a level of consumption domestically in Kosovo.
To help raise awareness and address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age, U.S. based non-profit organization First Draft News has provided practical and ethical guidance on how to find, verify and publish content sourced from the social web. Earlier this year, strategy and research director Claire Wardle categorized seven types of fake news that are equally relatable to Kosovo.
In short, Kosovo ticks all the boxes suggested by Wardle in her ‘misinformation matrix,’ in which she categorizes fake news into the following: satire or parody, false connection, misleading content, false context, imposter content, manipulated content and fabricated content. She suggests further that in order to understand the current information ecosystem, we need to break down three elements: type of content, motivations and dissemination.
With many interests involved in Kosovo between the U.S. and Russia, one of the main sources of fake news on the topic of Kosovo is the identified ‘government mouthpiece’ of Russian television, the news agency Sputnik. As it is, Sputnik produces a high number of reports and news pieces from Kosovo misquoting from Kosovar sources.
According to a statement on Facebook in July by the director of the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies (KCSS), Florian Qehaja, Sputnik continues to produce fake news and launch propaganda by quoting from previously produced research papers initially and then using other sources while still attributing these sources to KCSS, giving the impression that the subsequent sources are also part of the empirical research. In this way, Sputnik misleads the public regarding the situation in Kosovo by claiming that the entire article is written on the basis of research by KCSS. The article Qehaja was responding to was published by Sputnik Serbia and titled “Recruits, trains, kills: The head of the female ‘Death Detachment’ comes from Kosovo.”
But Sputnik is no stranger to fake news phenomenon elsewhere as well. In Ukraine, Sputnik is also regarded with the same repulsion and disgust. The web based initiative to combat fake news “stop-fake” warned earlier this month that “Sputnik Journalists receive 103 pages of guidelines” on how to “stay true to the national interest of the Russian Federation.”
Made in Kosovo
Kosovo produces “fake news” on a national level as well. Following the unfortunate events of the March 2004 violence, in which, as a result of unverified and half-true reports transmitted by the media in Kosovo, 12 people were killed and more than 4,000 Serbs, Roma, Ashkali and other minorities had to flee Kosovo, today’s fake news has another dimension.
Fake news in Kosovo often comes in the form of unverified, un-researched, half-true news items that are ‘leaked’ to look like a news piece. Typically, in economic fake news, parts of contracts are photographed and leaked to journalists who do not research the reasons for the leak or require access to the entire contract document in order to study it and verify its authenticity.
Partially, this is what happened with the ‘leak’ of the supposed Bechtel and Enka contract for building Kosovo’s highway to Albania. Online media especially took it and published it unverified, whereas other more serious journalists took it with a pinch of salt and reported it with a question mark. The contract has still never been officially made public so it is still unclear if the document ‘leaked’ to the opposition — who in turn ‘leaked’ it to the media — was genuine or not.
The Brussels negotiating process with Serbia, mediated by the EU, has also seen journalists lacking official versions of the agreements that have been reached. Often, officials from both Serbia and Kosovo have leaked unauthorized copies of draft agreements, causing widescale confusion in the press and public. By publishing these documents unchecked, journalists have contributed to a lot of unverified news and speculation regarding the agreements between the two countries.
To date, there is still no official database of these agreements that is accessible for journalists or the public. In such situations, driven by time pressure and the desire to publish the news, journalists often forget that their duty is to research, verify and confirm all information that they publish.
Other reasons for the propensity for “fake news” in Kosovo are many and varied, sometimes deliberate and sometimes through inadequate ethical/professional standards. Poor journalism in many cases results from decades of inadequate education in the 1990s and the continuation of a devalued education system in Kosovo has produced journalists that can lack skills in specialized reporting, despite having degrees in communication and journalism.
But it also stems from the problematic media ownership model in Kosovo, leading to economic and political pressure, which — as I have written about previously for K2.0 — often drives journalists toward a life known in the 1990s as “coexistence with politics”; rather than playing their role of holding politicians to account, journalists can instead find themselves ‘scratching the backs’ of politicians through self-censorship and serving as political mouthpieces.
Blurring the lines
Another element of “fake news” is satire or parody. While there is generally no intention to cause harm, these types of journalism still have the potential to mislead the public. Internationally this medium has a long tradition dating back many decades, with a string of popular television and radio shows such as satirical news program “That Was The Week That Was” springing up in the UK in the early 1960s, while comedians such as John Oliver and Stephen Colbert have long entertained worldwide audiences with U.S. television shows such as Saturday Night Live.
In the internet age, satirical news sites such as The Onion use satire and humoristic pieces to depict important moments and twist stories to lead the public into believing something that is utterly unbelievable.
In recent years, Kosovo has seen the entrance of this type of “fake news,” especially on social media and networks. Two of the main parody sites in Kosovo are Pampress, which operates its own website and also distributes its content via Facebook, and KukuNews, which is based solely on social media. Both share ‘fake content’ with the aim of parodying political figures, often deliberately misrepresenting them with funnier versions using voice-overs and heavy editing.
One of the famous articles was when former journalist Halil Matoshi was depicted as initiating a petition to remove the statue of Skanderbeg from the center of Prishtina, while on another occasion he was depicted as removing Albanian flags from the capital’s Mother Teresa Boulevard. This case particularly generated a heated debate on social media, to the point of members of the public who had not understood the satirical nature of the article issuing violent threats against Matoshi.
Besides good satire and parody that often feels like a breath of fresh air in heated political discourses, journalists should remember that their primary duty in news production is to verify information from multiple sources, to check the motivation of ‘leaks’ and to research the data that they receive from leaks to explain them to the public. Journalists should learn from the practice of the grand coalition of journalists that worked for months on deciphering, decrypting and connecting the dots to check, verify and confirm the information leaked in the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.