Disinformation exacerbates polarization in society and undermines democracy

Disinformation exacerbates polarization in society, builds up mistrust towards institutions, and ultimately undermines democracy; coupled with conspiracy theories, disinformation increases the prospects of children dying from diseases that were eradicated over 70 years ago, as stated at the conference “Disinformation as a Threat to Democratic Societies”, organized by the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT) with the support of the Embassy of the United States of America (USA).

President of Montenegro Jakov Milatovic stated that disinformation is known to breed or fuel social tensions, exacerbate polarization in society, create mistrust of system’s institutions, and, in some cases, even hinder critical thinking.

Milatovic has stated, “Disinformation fundamentally undermine democracy and hinder democratic development,” whilst recalling his own prolonged exposure to a disinformation campaign.

“According to Police Administration reports, my images were accompanying news story headlines in order to redirect users to pages with fake content. Disinformation agents attempted to cause political damage through headlines that touted different payouts and staggering salary rises and benefits. Every day, my coworkers were taking calls from citizens that wanted to find out more information about this. I still do not know who was behind this disinformation campaign, even though it involved serious manipulation,” Milatovic has stated.

“How safe can a citizen be in the virtual space if the system is unable to protect president of country”, the president has stated.

He went on to express a grave concern over CDT’s survey data, which show that nearly two-thirds of citizens find that state institutions are performing either poorly or very poorly in combating disinformation.

“Citizens find that the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) plays a vital part in this respect, with an increasingly important role of Police Directorate and the State Prosecutor’s Office, which clearly tells us that the state apparatus needs to come up with a synchronized and well-planned action,” says Milatovic.

He further considers online violence as a problem closely tied to disinformation.

“Which often migrates from the virtual to the real world, and what is very concerning is that these campaigns were specifically directed against women in politics, and Bozena Jelusic, Vesna Bratic, Draginja Vuksanovic Stankovic, Jelena Borovinic Bojovic, Aleksandra Vukovic Kuc, Jevrosima Pejovic, Dragica Sekulic and many civil activists were heavily targeted”, Milatovic has said.

According to CDT Executive Director Dragan Koprivica, if one is to assess the level of development of democratic instruments for preventing disinformation or, more broadly, malignant influences, data security, protection of citizens from harassment, protection from cyber attacks and digitization of society in a broader sense, it becomes evident that our system features more of the characteristics otherwise associated with a primitive community rather than those of a modern society at the threshold of the EU.

“In essence, citizens are left to their own devices and the state lacks interest and practical mechanisms to take a more active approach in tackling these problems.” The situation is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that disinformation and conspiracy theories have been causing the risk of our children dying from diseases that were eradicated 70 or more years ago, that the majority of citizens recognize the problem of disinformation, as they self-admittedly fall for a disinformation once a week, but at the same time believe that global elites control the weather,” Koprivica stated.

He also said that democratic processes and values – primarily elections, are just as seriously affected by such inaction.

“So, as you can see, everything is just bursting with democratic and European values in a country that genuinely strives to join the EU. And to be clear: these are not data taken from a satirical story, but from professionally conducted public opinion surveys that we have been running for several years, which clearly point to trends that are characteristic of severely backward societies,” he stated.

Meanwhile, as Koprivica points out, our lag behind the EU and other democratic societies persists due to the rapid pace of change.

“The Digital Services Act, a landmark in legislation on digital services, came into effect on February 17 2024. It affects European users that generate and share online content as well as businesses such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, and others. There is hardly any mention of it in our country’, the CDT director has said.

The goal of disinformation is to make people doubt everything

There are multiple obstacles that prevent the most effective response to disinformation, as noted by Minister of Culture and Media Tamara Vujovic.  

“It’s the incredible speed at which news are spread, and the different modalities for disseminating it. Every individual is in a way a medium that has the potential to disseminate fake information and fake news, and we’re no different from the rest of the world in this respect. Another issue is lack of media literacy, and there will be some improvements in this area”, the minister has said.

According to her, it is important to acknowledge that disinformation have a negative impact on professional media and citizens’ right to be informed, as they undermine journalistic integrity and trust in the media. “Sometimes, the goal is to make citizens lose trust in all media and not believe anything with absolute certainty; this is far worse than them falling for a piece of fake news from time to time. Professional reporters find it challenging, as it gets increasingly difficult for their story to reach the audience in the first place. A poorly informed citizen is unable to make an informed decision, as the decision is based on misleading information”, Vujovic has stated.

US Ambassador Judy Reising Reinke said that Milatovic is right in saying that disinformation does not only pose a risk to president, but to every citizen.

 “Disinformation is not a toy, it’s not an empty gun, it’s a loaded gun. It’s a weapon in peacetime and it’s a weapon in wartime. Montenegro is in peace and yet it’s being assaulted by false narratives. The goal is to destroy a democratic society, it’s about loss of trust, destroying democratic institutions. Citizens lose trust in the authorities, institutions, media and, essentially, in democracy itself.

According to her, disinformation are particularly evident when there is something at risk.

 “That’s why you see disinformation really very active during elections or in the run-up to the elections, we saw it here in 2016 and later, we saw it in my country, we’re seeing it in this election-rich year in Europe. They are trying to polarize societies to make voters doubt and make them unclear about what the better choice is”, US Ambassador has stated.

Russia’s false narratives

These are especially prominent when a country is at war.

“Let us not forget war that’s going on on this continent in the 21st century, the war that Russia continues to wage against the sovereign country of Ukraine. Disinformation is a key weapon used by the Kremlin. It’s been used for 10 years and more, and one of the main narratives that we’ve seen over the ten years is a false narrative that Crimea has always been Russian, media outlets are continuously spreading it and it’s a false narrative and it’s meant to justify a hostile action and mollify the citizens of Russia, they’re constantly fed a false narrative as to why their country is at war”, Reising Reinke has pointed out.

Vujovic discussed the upcoming changes to a set of media laws, including a mechanism to combat disinformation by fining founders of media outlets that spread disinformation. It is anticipated that the otherwise substantive Media Pluralism Fund will only be made accessible to registered media organizations that are part of the self-regulation mechanism and have not had their broadcasting privileges revoked in the preceding six months due to propagation of hate speech. The fines will also be applied to media whose founder has been convicted of using hate speech or disseminating false information. It has been established that the public sector cannot advertise in non-registered media,” according to Vujovic.

Milatovic and Vujovic support the establishing of the Committee for Monitoring Foreign Interference

President Milatovic voiced his support for the CDT’s initiative to establish a Committee for Monitoring Foreign Interference within the Montenegrin Parliament. “I think that this convocation of the parliament does not have the right to not establish a specially designated committee that would follow suit of such European Parliament committee,” said Milatovic. Minister Vujovic was also in favor of this initiative. “Especially because of how deep the political polarization is, and so there would be discussions in parliament regarding what constitutes an interference,” she added.