Online bullying: Controlling the narrative in the Balkans
We have been home for most of this time and last year, and despite the rapid development of vaccines, we are still living with the COVID-19 pandemic.
It also meant that we were spending a lot of screen hours on smartphones. As a result, most social media platforms saw an increase in user numbers and overall engagement, with the biggest jump seen on TikTok. The video sharing app involved more than 100 million users worldwide during the pandemic and has become increasingly popular in South Eastern Europe.
But TikTok has been used not only to find cake recipes or makeup tutorials, but also to spread hate, threats, anti-LGBT messages, and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Some LGBT + activists have reported cases to both the relevant authorities and TikTok, but in most cases, no one has been held accountable for the abuse, according to our annual Digital Rights Tracker.
From August 2020 to August 2021, we recorded almost 800 cases of digital rights violations in eight countries of Central and South-Eastern Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.
Breaches have taken place not only on TikTok but also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and have also spread through Viber and WhatsApp.
Our report, ‘Online Bullying: Controlling the Balkan Narrative’, shows that vulnerable groups, including women, minority groups, LGBT +, Roma and Jewish communities, as well as minors and migrants, are particularly at risk. to online attacks.
Likewise, political and religious tensions, which continue to mark the cultural and political life of our societies, have also arisen, further polarizing society.
All of this suggests that what happens in virtual space is not that different from the “physical” world. Ongoing cultural tensions and controversies simply migrate from one place to another, and the mechanisms of prevention or protection are far from successful.
Not surprisingly, the two most common violations this year were “pressure from expression and activity on the Internet” and “manipulation and propaganda in the digital environment”.
In 449 cases freedom of expression was endangered, while in 309 people spread disinformation and propaganda. Information security breaches occurred in 138 cases, while privacy and personal data breaches occurred 109 times.
Journalists have most often been the target of online threats in Serbia and Hungary. In both countries, pro-government social media accounts have been implicated in smear campaigns against independent journalists.
Anti-vaccine movements have been particularly strong in Croatia and Romania. Ethnic division and denial of crimes were most common in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Political opponents, independent media and independent journalists have also been regularly targeted.
Members of the public were most often mistreated (535), followed by public figures (104), journalists (71), state institutions (66), state officials (60) and parties. political (57).
In Hungary, where pro-government media virtually wage war against government political opponents, political parties have been targeted in 27 out of 150 cases. In Serbia and Croatia, where independent journalism is routinely undermined, journalists have been targeted. assaulted in 30 and 14 cases respectively.
In the cases we verified, members of the public were both the party that suffered the most attacks (535) and attacked others (314), demonstrating that despite its flaws, the online domain remains. an environment free enough to express opinions and share criticism.
At the same time, there have been many attacks carried out by online media (189) and it has become a widespread trend in Hungary (62), Kosovo (49), Bosnia (27) and Croatia (24) . Unsurprisingly, unknown perpetrators (146) were found to be the most likely to carry out fraudulent online, technical and DDoS attacks.
Finally, activists and civil society organizations, targeted in 15 and 16 cases respectively, were not actively involved in a significant number of violations as perpetrators (4 and 6 cases).
Discrimination and hate speech flourish online
With 156 violations out of a total of 799 cases, incidents of hate speech and discrimination occupy a prominent place in the digital space of the eight countries monitored.
The LGBT + community has remained one of the groups most exposed to harassment online almost everywhere. Some public events such as the Zagreb and Sarajevo Pride Marches, the Croatia Pride March in June 2021 or the decision of the Croatian Constitutional Court allowing same-sex couples to welcome children have triggered episodes of discrimination and abuse. ‘online abuse.
National and ethnic minorities have also often been discriminated against in the digital space. The Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia has suffered numerous episodes of hate speech online due to the continuing tensions between the two countries. In this context, the attack on North Macedonian Eurovision candidate Vasil Garvalniev because of his dual Bulgarian-North Macedonian nationality was unfortunately foreseeable.
In Bosnia, ethnic tensions are endemic to the social fabric and the political system. The Albanian, Bosnian and Croatian minorities in Montenegro also suffer from episodes of ethnic hatred. Likewise, the Jewish minority in Romania is still struggling to fully integrate into the socio-cultural context of the country. Episodes of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, such as those directed against Maia Morgenstern, director of the Jewish State Theater in Bucharest, and Silviu Vexler, Jewish deputy in Romania, show that Romania has a lot to do in the fight against anti-Semitism.
Political and religious rivals are also strongly affected. In Kosovo, former President Hashim Thaci and current President Vjosa Osmani have been repeatedly attacked by political rivals. The pro-government media wage daily war against opponents of the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary.
Homophobia and transphobia persist
Religion, nationalism and far-right politics continue to fuel a significant number of cases in the region. In Bosnia, influential religious authorities, such as the former Salafi Imam Sanin Musa and Imam of the Ferhadija Mosque in Sarajevo, have contributed to the spread of fear and prejudice based on the sexual orientation and identity of kind.