Disinformation online leads to negative consequences offline

Published: 20 March 2020

Now that everybody can see the data, we can actually prove what is happening,“  Sofija Todorovic, Project Coordinator at BIRN.

We all know digital freedom violations take place. However, as a lot of data is often missing, evidence can be hard to provide. With funding from Civitates, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), a network of non-governmental organizations promoting freedom of speech, human rights and democratic values in Southern and Eastern Europe started to cooperate with SHARE Foundation in Serbia. Together they systematically monitor digital rights and file cases in five countries;  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.

Sofija Todorovic is Project Coordinator at BIRN, working on reporting democracy.

How about online attacks, do these take place often?
Incidents in the online space take place all the time. Disinformation that is spread online leads to many negative consequences in the offline world. At the beginning of March for instance, we had fake news about the gay pride in Serbia; that it would take place in a small city called Leskovac. After the information was spread on the internet, a group of minors was protesting against this, which led to two journalists reporting on the incidents, getting injured. The young people also attacked police officers and were spreading hate messages about gay people.

Before that, as from the beginning of the year, different attacks on women took place and a video discriminating migrants was widely spread as well. Since a few weeks we have fake news worldwide spreading around on the internet about the coronavirus.

Usually when this type of news appears, it’s not possible to see who is the owner of the website or online medium that is spreading the message, so it’s up to the police to find out. In Serbia elections will take place in April and we believe that misuse of the freedom of expression will grow in the run up to these elections.

Together with SHARE Foundation, which has been conducting monitoring of digital rights and freedoms in Serbia since 2014, we document cases. We have developed standardized rules for categorizing cases of violations of digital rights and freedoms which can be adapted and applied to any country.

People have the manner to separate the offline and online world, but as technology develops, I think this is deeply wrong. Online attacks severely damage people: they fear trauma, lose money or are otherwise hit. The consequences of online attacks are real.

Can you give me an example of such a standardized rule?
We have very clearly formulated categories, each with a short description that is applicable to every country. There are no strict and too concrete guidelines though as we have to keep it as open as possible to share monitoring.

The methodology is based on the cases that were collected, but it also relies on the current legislation that we have in this regard. We tried to group the online violations and I think we succeeded to create something really valuable. For now this is functioning really well and it’s very important to keep to the categories for a good track record.

Can you tell me more about how the monitoring takes place?
15 people were trained to do monitoring during a training that took place in Montenegro. Now, we have monitors in 6 countries. Whenever they file a case, staff of BIRN double checks how this is being done. This is necessary as we have several so-called borderline cases, which could be submitted in different categories. For instance, one can see that a certain post on social media is hate speech, but not so explicit. In these cases, we usually wait to see what will happen in future, how the ‘discussion’ develops. Sometimes we also monitor cases that were submitted by our monitors but which cannot be seen (yet) as a violation as such. If we publish these it would violate the freedom of expression of people. The double check is to shrink the space for mistakes. Then we go through all cases again every two months, and if our perception changes, we categorize the case differently; this is especially important for those borderline cases.

We have recently published the database with all filed violations online, it’s searchable in local languages and as such accessible to people in the countries we work in. The platform with the database also provides a form where any visitor can report an incident.

What will you do next?
We will publish a report which will show the clear trends that were noted in the 5 countries we work in. We have almost 800 cases in our database which are very well explained and are useful for human rights activists. Many of them talk about their accounts being blocked and about the attacks that they face in the online world. Now that everybody can see the data, we can actually prove that this is happening.

What are you most proud of in this project?
There are several things. First of all, that we are pioneers in this monitoring process. Nobody did something like we do now in these five countries, except for SHARE in Serbia. Now that we have joined forces we can do more and better.

Our database also means some sort of acknowledgment for those who have been victims of online attacks, because it shows that someone paid attention and is noting these violations in a very systematic way.

I think online violation of human rights deserves more care as it often affects real life. With our database we can show a fair picture to serve as an inspiration for lawyers and legal experts to improve the legal framework. I strongly believe in the importance of what we do.

What is your dream with regard to digital rights?
We all enjoy the online space and we all want to enjoy it safely. It should be a safe and more respectful place for everybody. Online space gave us a freedom that was hardly imaginable 50 years ago, and I strongly believe that by protecting people and core human values in the online space we will be taking that freedom to the next level.