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Information has the potential to be a global threat to democracy that extends far beyond election results. Clear, accurate information is key to ensuring open and transparent governance. Manipulated information can lower public trust in a country’s governing and oversight institutions and in the media, making people more likely to seek out alternative, unverified sources of information. This damages democratic processes by impeding informed decision-making and political participation by citizens. As part of NDI’s broader initiative to combat disinformation and other forms of information manipulation, NDI/Kosovo has systematically monitored social media and  online media outlets in Kosovo since March 2020.

NDI/Kosovo research in 2019 found a robust domestic marketplace for disinformation and a media environment that lacks transparency in Kosovo. There are no legal obligations for the media to publish detailed funding reports, and regulatory agencies are chronically underfunded. These factors create an information environment particularly vulnerable to information manipulation and in which disinformation can flourish. Critically, the information environment in Kosovo is fractured along ethnic lines, with separate Albanian language and Serbian language news and information sources. Around 95 percent of the population in Kosovo has access to the internet – higher than the average for the European Union member states. Internet usage has increased with the pandemic. Facebook is the most widely-used social media platform in Kosovo.

Since March 2020, NDI/Kosovo has been systematically monitoring disinformation in the media in Kosovo, using structured, manual monitoring and other automated tools and found results that suggest a high degree of engagement with information disordered narratives. As it began tracking engagement in greater detail, including monitoring Facebook pages and groups with Crowdtangle in September and another automated tool which monitored online news portals, Twitter and Instagram, NDI/Kosovo found that from March 2020 to February 2021, 35,899 articles and news posts that were reviewed and 3,613 contained some form of information disorder. These articles and posts generated 28,728,270 clicks and 81,777 shares on Facebook.

Disinformation narratives about COVID-19 were widely spread in news portals and social media posts. Many of the stories in the sample centered around conspiracy theories related to technology’s role in the pandemic. Some common narratives connected 5G technology or the internet to the spread of COVID-19, stated that microchips would be injected into humans with the vaccine in order to track movement, claimed that a new Samsung charger could cure the virus, or targeted Bill Gates as a source of chaos and destruction in the world. One example contained a falsified document that claimed to be an official government source, which stated that vaccines contained microchips to monitor movements. Other conspiracy narratives claimed that the pandemic was a Freemason plot or a conspiracy to cause panic and fear in order to expand control. Many of the conspiracy theories targeted the World Health Organization.

In addition to conspiracy-related narratives, there were many instances of false or misleading information about cures for or the causes of COVID-19 in both the Albanian and Serbian language media samples. Some narratives claimed that garlic, hot lemons, ibuprofen or aspirin, or even religious practice, could cure or prevent COVID-19. In addition, stories claimed that bacteria really caused coronavirus, contained exaggerations or misleading facts about the cost or effectiveness of a COVID-19 test, or that Europeans were being paid to say their family members died of the virus. In both the Serbian and Albanian samples, stories claimed that mask wearing was either ineffective or dangerous. One Serbian language Facebook post that claimed masks reduce blood oxygen and pose a risk of carbon dioxide poisoning amassed 300,000 views, 2,197 interactions, and 1,124 shares in just a few days.

Much of the misleading information about COVID-19 came from sources outside of Kosovo, including Albania, Russia, the US, and other Western countries. One portal, publishing in the Albanian language with 1,244,000+ followers, shared an article on its Facebook page that falsely claimed there was a new cure which can be infiltrated inside human bodies and stop COVID-19 within 24 hours. The post had a reach of 668,700+ and two shares on social media. The post was also shared in other portals. An online news portal in the Serbian language sample published a supposed explanation of the  effects face masks have on humans, claiming they reduce blood oxygen and increase carbon dioxide poisoning. The article had a reach of 300,000 and was shared 1,124 times.

Important differences were present in the Albanian and Serbian language samples, specifically in their characterization of the response of the international community and other countries to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Albanian and Serbian language media tended to exaggerate China’s responsibility for the virus, often mischaracterizing the Chinese population’s consumption of wild animal meat. However, Serbian language media outlets also tended to blame the West for the uncontrolled spread of the virus, and praised Russian and Chinese assistance in countering the pandemic and in procuring vaccines.

Overall, several important trends emerged from NDI/Kosovo’s media monitoring throughout 2020-21. In most cases, disinformation was shared hundreds of times across different social media platforms and online media portals. In addition, the use of Facebook fan pages as a means of spreading disinformation is increasing, as well as the use of YouTube and Instagram.

Systemic measures to bolster societal resilience and strengthen information integrity in Kosovo must address both the supply and demand-side factors of disinformation and must be contextually tailored to be reflective of the unique ways that manipulated information impacts women and marginalized communities. A successful strategy to mitigate the effects of disinformation on Kosovo’s democracy must involve all actors that contribute to the information environment, including the media, tech platforms, political parties, civil society organizations, and the wider electorate. NDI/Kosovo will use its media monitoring and analysis to help these actors begin shaping such a strategy.

NDI’s media monitoring and information integrity support are funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Consortium for Elections and Political Processes Strengthening (CEPPS). The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

Authors: Ellery Cushman, Nikola Djakovic, Besart Zhuja, and Nancy Soderberg