Serbia: propaganda and control on the web

(Matt Brown / Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The impact of cyber-attacks, digital surveillance and sophisticated techniques of computational propaganda is growing. The case of Serbia in an interview with Vladan Joler, director of Share Foundation.

28/03/2017 –  Rossella Vignola

On March 12, on the world wide web’s 28th birthday, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the co-inventor of Internet, sent an open letter on the changes affecting the web and expressing his worries about new trends that, according to him, are threatening the original promise of internet as an open, plural and democratic platform allowing everyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate without borders. In his letter, Berners-Lee mentioned three major challenges affecting today’s internet: first, the current dominant business model based on the offer of free content in exchange for personal data, which are controlled in a proprietary and opaque way by few internet giants (FB, Google, etc.); second, the spread of misinformation disseminated by algorithms which learn and constantly harvestfrom our personal data; third, the increased sophistication of political online advertising which enable political campaigns to build different individual adverts targeting millions of voters.

Especially after the recent elections in the United States, the impact of such technologies on the outcomes of elections is a debated topic. What is certain is that they are changing the way consensus is shaped and public sphere has been conceived so far. We spoke to Vladan Joler, Director of the Novi Sad-based organisation SHARE Foundation which monitors internet trends and violations of digital rights in the Serbian online sphere.

Share Foundation was founded in 2012 with the aim of protecting digital rights in the area of privacy, free speech, transparency, human rights and of fighting against surveillance in the digital sphere…

We started as one of the biggest gatherings of internet activist in this region, but shortly we understood that we would have not been able to address and confront important issues without having a strong expert base, a lot of research and different forms of advocacy and policy making activities during the whole year. That was basically the shift from an activist to an expert group. Now our team is mostly made of lawyers, journalists, experts of technology, forensic and data analysis.

Cyber-attacks against online media, journalists, activists and citizens are becoming more and more frequent in the Serbian online sphere. Could you explain how the phenomenon has evolved in recent years?

Mainstream media have been an instrument of politics for a while now, with very few exceptions, which made the Internet virtually the only channel for independent journalism. As the popularity and the relevance of online and citizen media grew in the past years, so have the attacks against them. These attacks vary from pressure to threats and cyber-attacks.

In terms of cyber-attacks, they became visible as a social phenomenon in 2014, and are still present today. In the last three years, they have evolved from frequent DDoS attacks [Distributed Denial of Service], to more sophisticated mechanisms of hacking and interception of communication. Nowadays, cyber-attacks do not happen as often as two or three years ago, but they surface in times of need. Most notably, during periods of elections, protests, and other mass social phenomena.

What about the most prominent cases that have raised public attention in Serbia?

The most interesting cases in the past 3 years have been mostly connected to cyber-attacks. For example, pescanik.net , a popular op-ed portal has been under various technical attacks several times, most notably in the summer of 2014, after a group of young scientists published a story of how the Minister of Interior of Serbia plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis.

The site was under constant attack and could not be accessed, and was targeted again after the same group published a new story about the Minister’s academic mentor, who oversaw the work on his Ph.D. It turned out that the mentor, at that time the headmaster of a private university in Serbia, did not have a valid PhD himself. The portal was again under attack and the headmaster then went on live television and read out parts of email communication between the authors of the research. All of these cases are yet to be resolved by the competent state bodies.

The target of another large-scale technical attack, which happened in April 2015, was Teleprompter, an online news portal which mostly publishes ethically problematic content, but was at that time critical of the government. It was something of an “all out attack”, as Teleprompter’s website, social media accounts and email addresses used for administration were breached. The editor of Teleprompter had implemented advanced digital security practices and he managed to regain access to the accounts.

As documented in your research “Mapping and quantifying political information warfare ”, the first signs that some kind of illegal activities within the Serbian internet underground appeared to be closely connected with the ruling party political agenda began to emerge in 2013

In most of the cases that we analysed, the targets were not elements of the power structure but mostly small independent online media and blogs, websites that criticise the government and publish articles that expose corruption or point out to the inefficiency of the government or ruling party members.

It’s symptomatic that such attacks usually took place just after the publishing of stories or investigations that were not in favour of power structures. In those cases it is hard to define this practice as an electronic civil disobedience act [carried out by human rights groups and social movements against power structures], but more as a form of intended censorship.

We can claim that the main consequence of these attacks are increasing insecurity and fear, resulting in a chilling effect on freedom of expression online. The fact is that publishing content that criticizes the structures of power (government, criminal groups or any other powerful actor) can result in the destruction, blocking or temporary disappearance of a website, followed by large amounts of stress and expensive working hours to restore the system, which can impact the willingness of people to express themselves freely.

There were three pieces of software that were allegedly used by the ruling party for “astroturfing”, i.e. creating a fake sentiment in online media through posting comments on websites, on particular articles. They were used consecutively and each one was more sophisticated than the one before. We don’t have any information whether any of them are still in use, even though the presence of real-life bots is notable in the comments sections of online media.

Have you developed a specific methodology for detecting and analysing the data you collect?

Having in mind that the subjects of our interest are fairly diverse in terms of segments of society and the Internet, we approach every investigation as a separate unit. First we brainstorm the potential outcomes, set a hypothesis, and then think of the best route to get to the results. We try to minimise the human factor in the process of actual gathering and processing the data we collect. We use different tools, mostly open source, freeware, or on an academic license.

As for violations of digital rights, we have developed a methodology for sorting cases in different categories, such as technical attacks on the integrity of content, surveillance of electronic communications, abuse of freedom of speech and so on, and as well as subcategories within them. Each case we collect is stored in our open online database and the data is used for analysis and writing periodic monitoring reports on the state of digital rights and freedoms in Serbia.

How is your work perceived within Serbian society and media? Do public institutions react to your activities? If so, how?

There is a portion of Serbian society that follows our work on relatively regular basis, through our website, social media and attending events where we speak about our investigations. However, I wouldn’t go as far to say that our work is mainstream. The reasons for that are much broader, and it would take a while to explain what is mainstream in Serbia.

The situation with public institutions is similar, i.e. there are institutions that acknowledge our work and us as a relevant actor in society, like the office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection.

As shown by the US elections  and Brexit , computational propaganda and the use of bots to manipulate public opinion is on the rise. In this sense, is anything happening within the Serbian digital environment in view of the forthcoming presidential elections?

By using Facebook or Google for example, citizens are by default manipulated and exposed to computational propaganda or surveillance economy, as we prefer to say. The fact that those methods are now used to manipulate public opinion by different actors on the large scale in cases of election or referendum campaigns is nothing new and is obviously expected.

The root of the problem lays in our willingness to pay for internet services with our personal data, transforming us into the object of potential manipulation and product that is being sold. The fundamental battle being fought in society is the battle over the minds of the people: with psychological profiling, data analysis and continuous tracking of our behaviour online, the doors to our minds are now slightly more open than before to any interested buyer.

In the case of Serbia, during past elections we saw an urge of political actors to control and dominate all fields of online communication, from content and comments to online votes. As mentioned before, there were some indications that the ruling party used software for dissemination of comments online. The background of this issue is more social than technological, in regard to the motivation for such an activism. There is an urban legend according to which activists get a sandwich for their activities, but there were also indications that activists, or bots as they are called in Serbia, receive a compensation for their activities through employment in state-owned companies or institutions.

In 2012 Philip Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, advocated for the creation of “pro-democracy bots ” to make these tools working for democracy and human rights. Do you believe it is possible for human rights groups and activists to make the best of these technologies?

The idea of “pro-democracy bots” sounds funny. In my opinion this idea belongs to the realm of solutions envisaged by “tech-optimists”. Frankly, I don’t believe that adding even more artificial noise to the online public discussion sphere can help real opinions to be heard. Even though this might sound too centred on the human role and against the potential future “bots rights”, I still believe that democracy among other things is about letting the different human voices to be represented in some form of dialogue. It is not a competition of different technological tools, nor a race between two different lines of code. This idea belongs to the same narrative of public sphere colonization, where public discussion sphere should be conquered by technical means. Whether it works in favour or against democracy, it still remains deeply wrong as a method.

How can public literacy and awareness be improved to prevent the abuse of technology and social networks in manipulating and controlling the public sphere?

In a society like ours, in which traditional media outlets such as television and newspapers are under high influence of the ruling structures, online platforms are rare channels through which citizens can be fully informed about what is actually going on in their society.

Nowadays, investigative journalism in Serbia is almost exclusively available online. Therefore, it is important to explain these tactics of manipulation to regular internet users in order to educate them how to recognize propaganda in comparison to quality content online. There needs to be an open debate on matters of public interest and we are always willing to provide our research results to the public.

Education in the fields of media and information literacy is vital for internet users, as methods of computational propaganda and targeting are becoming more sophisticated. This is particularly important for “digital natives”, young generations that do not remember being “offline” and who have had almost their entire life captured in a digital format, for example on social media or other content-sharing platforms.

The article was republished from Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa with permission. 

This publication has been produced within the project European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project’s page

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