How Does Local Media Spread Russian Disinformation in the Western Balkans?
Russian disinformation operations target information ecosystems by leveraging Moscow’s state-backed media outlets. However, a series of studies from the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (StratCom CoE) in Riga, Latvia found that Kremlin-backed international outlets such as Sputnik and RT have a limited reach in regions like the Western Balkans. In such cases, the spread of misleading content rests on local Balkan branches of Russian news outlets and Western Balkan media organizations that promote the same material and themes as those backed by Moscow. Exploring this broader content-sharing ecosystem illuminates how Russian disinformation operations capitalize on information disorder and local media outlets in target countries.
As analysis from EUvsDisinfo highlights, one of the StratCom CoE report’s key findings is that only about 10 percent of the Western Balkans audience (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania) turns to international media as its primary news source. In this context, the Belgrade-based subsidiary Sputnik Srbija is influential in spreading the Kremlin’s preferred narratives “mostly due to distribution of its content by local media.”
The study could not determine if the Kremlin organizes amplification of its narratives or national media pick up on narratives that are already circulating instead. This report did, however, conclude that local outlets in the Western Balkans re-publish Sputnik Srbija’s content or publish very similar content, with content spreading easily across countries thanks to language similarities. When news content spreads across the region, sometimes local outlets directly quote and cite Sputnik but other times they provide no source at all, leaving “little or no way for the audience to track if these are home-grown or Kremlin-driven” narratives.
Not all Western Balkan countries are equally susceptible to Russian disinformation. StratCom CoE measured the demand-side factors that make states more vulnerable to influence operations, including institutional weakness and low public trust. It identified the greatest “permeability” in Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by Serbia. GLOBSEC’s Vulnerability Index similarly shows how factors such as public attitudes, the health of the information ecosystem, and the quality of public administration create openings for foreign influence. A European Parliament study has found that foreign disinformation campaigns in the Western Balkans “tend to build upon, amplify and, in some cases, manipulate the actions of domestic players.”
These reports remind us that susceptibility or resilience to foreign influence operations hinge on domestic social, political, and information environments and not only the commercial reach of state-affiliated media entities like RT. To build resilience, StratCom CoE’s analysis recommends investing in civil society organizations to enhance civic education and improve media literacy as part of a whole-of-society response to the pernicious effects of disinformation. Although there is no one-size fits-all solution for each state, cooperation and the sharing of best practices and lessons learned can benefit all and improve long-term resilience to disinformation operations.
– Daniel Cebul, International Forum for Democratic Studies