Although the number of migrants in Serbia has only slightly increased since the beginning of the year, and the number of crimes perpetrated by migrants represents merely 0.06% of the total number of crimes committed, social networks are flooded with fake news, which raise panic over a fabricated issue.
While panic spreads, a protest against migrants settling was announced [held by the time of the publication of this translation] in Subotica, a city close to the Serbian-Hungarian border, and a few days ago the first “People’s Patrol” appeared in the streets of Belgrade, resolved to impose a curfew (?!) on migrants in response to alleged “frequent morbid attacks on Serbian women and girls”:
You are from now on prohibited to move outside the migrant centres from 10pm to 6am, and to circulate in groups of more than three people during the day. Your attacks on our citizens will not go unpunished.
Footage published by the “No Surrender of Kosovo and Metohija” people’s initiative shows their members telling confused migrants that they will no longer tolerate their problematic behaviour, because the members allegedly had many problems with the migrants in the previous days. The problems in question, of course, did not occur, as there were no recorded attacks on women by migrants during the last few days.
A few days prior to the incident a protest entitled “The big protest against settling of migrants in Subotica and Serbia” was announced to take place on Saturday, February 29th. The protest was organized by the “United Citizens of Subotica” Facebook group, which called on citizens of Subotica via a video that was later removed for hate speech. This Facebook group of over 4,500 members posts information on migrants’ movement and places of stay, fake news of a migrant invasion, alleged burglaries, thefts and attacks on women, which get quoted by numerous controversial media portals.
As if the people’s initiatives weren’t enough, a YouTube debut of Boško Obradović dedicated to the migrant crisis, appeared at the same time. The leader of the Serbian far-right party Dveri illustrates the Eurabia conspiracy theory about the islamisation of Europe by mixing black fluid (representing migrants) and water (representing white Serbia and Europe). Although at no point does he explicitly state that the colours of the liquids indicate skin colour, we are implicitly informed that the video is alluding to dangers of the changes of the population structure in Serbia and white Europe which will be brought about by the announced arrival of a large numbers of migrants. At the end of the day, Obradović is merely pouring fuel on the already smouldering fire of xenophobia (or initiating it?).
The Dveri party leaders’ media appearances, as well as collecting signatures against migrant settlements, are starting to resemble election campaign activities; albeit in the midst of an announced boycott in which Dveri is participating. It remains to be seen whether political points raised by the anti-migrant campaign will be capitalised in these elections, or the next ones, (which we can “look forward” to shortly, according to the public opinion).
Fake news workshops
Political parties and organizations have transformed political communication by actively using social networks. This space, quite convenient for micro-targeting potential voters, and at the same time a powerful tool for fast publishing of political views and agendas, with direct (real-time feedback), is of best use for populist politicians and the far right.
Currently, social networks in Serbia host numerous Facebook and Viber groups which distribute openly anti-immigrant and xenophobic content, disseminate distorted facts and misinformation originating from unreliable online media, full of headlines which blame migrants for attacks (mostly on women and children) and provide data on the whereabouts and activities of migrants in local communities.
Thus, paradoxically, it becomes completely irrelevant whether there is any real intolerance between the locals and migrants, because we are in fact dealing with an anti-migrant campaign aimed at actively raising panic and harassing the population. The aforementioned groups call on the state to stop housing and settling migrants, to strengthen the state border and organize permanent patrol along the border, to arrest migrants and escort them to closed reception centres under full supervision. The image created on social networks inevitably results in fear, and this misuse of fake news unnecessarily raises tensions which can quickly escalate.
Most frequently published news originate from online media pages such as Dnevna gazeta, Srpski dnevnik, Serbia today, Srbin.info, etc. For example, the Anonymous Serbia Facebook page published a photo collage consisting of 12 photos of women who had allegedly been attacked by migrants, saying at the same time that migrants had committed 40,000 criminal attacks in Germany in 2019 alone. Fake News Tracker later published a text showing that the post was not true: it concerned women (and one man) who were not victims of migrant attacks, and that all the attacks that initiated the making of the photos had happened prior to 2019.
Social media posts contribute to the impression that there are many migrants in Serbia (and that there will be many more), which is not true. According to the information provided by the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration in Serbia, there are currently just over 5,000 migrants, a quarter of who are children, which is, on average, same as last year. Also, the media speculate about 630,000 migrants that Austria plans to deport and return to Serbia, using an agreement between the two countries.
It was the leader of the far-right Dveri, Boško Obradović, who initiated public interest in this topic and insisted on it. The Serbian government, de facto, keeps silent on it, but the Austrian authorities don’t. According to an article published in Deutsche Welle, the Agreement allows Austria to ask Serbia to take in a migrant who is not eligible to stay in Austria, if it proves that they have traversed the Balkan route through Serbia. Nevertheless, Serbia is not obliged to take in the rejected asylum seekers from Austria, unless they are Serbian citizens.
Clicks, likes, and comments on posts predominantly based on fake news make xenophobic messages and tendentious tension rising more visible and help disseminate them, so that they easily reach a secondary audience who doesn’t have to actively seek such content, but still responds to it. Research shows that voters who follow right-wing content on social networks are less prone to trusting traditional media. We can come to that conclusion in Serbia, too, by reading the online claims that nobody reports on violence committed by migrants. The political right actively uses this anti-establishment narrative as a kind of censorship and only counts extra points based on it.
Facebook campaigns for the whole white world
Right-wingers at both European and global level actively use social networks as a space to send unfiltered personalized messages that brings them greater support. Social media anti-immigrant campaigns are already established as a part of broader political campaigns of right-wing political actors, who developed a set of tactics that get implemented in different local contexts.
Trump’s social media campaign, from which many right-wing populists have learned important lessons, spent about $ 20 million last year only on a campaign that often boiled down to xenophobic rhetoric raising fear based on fake news. Insisting on distrust of traditional media, the campaign that the Trump team runs on social media is based on a whole set of ways to target conservative voters – from xenophobic posts to quizzes, advertisements and the like. According to media reports, this campaign’s anti-immigration ads were particularly sinister. They instilled fear of migrants “arriving by caravan after caravan” and called on the citizens to vote simply for or against migrants’ deportation.
The rise of far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) can’t be understood without taking into account its activities on social networks. The Alternative emerged as a relevant political actor in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Support for AfD grew during 2015, when a large number of migrants arrived to Germany. In a social media campaign, which AfD used while claiming that they were denied access to traditional media, AfD accentuated their anti-immigrant policy, which helped them doubled their popularity.
Studies on AfD activity on social networks revealed that they deliberately produced such content which they could expect to become viral by going for a xenophobic provocative tone and constant criticism of political correctness. This was also made possible by bots that used fake accounts to share such content, whose additional role was to launch topics on the web and manipulate trends.
According to research on social networking activities, AfD had significantly more news on the migrant crisis than on economic issues in almost all channels. They continued to actively use anti-immigrant rhetoric even after joining the German parliament; thus, in their latest twitter posts one can find an invitation to finally close the European Union’s external borders and send migrants to their countries of origin. Such rhetoric has led to a rise of initiatives and protests against migrants organized by far-right Pegida, as well as to an increase in number of hate crimes against migrants in German cities. The Greek Golden Dawn also had an active approach to social networks in previous years, when it openly called for violence and occasionally uploaded footage of attacks on strangers on social networks.
Similar strategies were used by the Belgian far-right party Vlaams Belang, which advocated for deportation of immigrants, citing fabricated data on high crime rates. It’s worth mentioning reporting according to which the same party funded a campaign focused on animal welfare. The campaign attracted large public interest, in the aftermath of which the Animal Welfare Party (DierAnimal) web page called on their followers to vote for Vlaams Belang. [The Serbian far-right organization “Levijatan” uses the same tactic of framing it’s publicly visible activities as a struggle for animal welfare.]
Who instils the fear of the big bad immigrant?
Shaped in the image of the European populist parties, the political right uses anti-immigrant campaigns to mobilize the electorate in Serbia, too. Unrestricted by regulation that would detect fake news and prevent them from becoming viral, social networks provide right-wing populism with a free space to articulate and disseminate their political views, without having to squeeze them to fit politically correct envelopes.
One of the organizers of the aforementioned national patrol that intimidated migrants in downtown Belgrade last Friday night was asked to report to the police for questioning in relation with an unlawful act defined by a criminal law article criminalising the spread of racial, national and religious hatred and intolerance. At the same time, more cautiously stated, but still obviously anti-immigrant policy is being pursued by many right-wing organizations, including Dveri, Dosta je bilo and Levijatan. While the police are “gathering information”, Jovana Stojković, an advocate against the mandatory MMR vaccine, who met with Goran Davidovic “Fuhrer” (known to share the anti-migrant beliefs of his colleagues) at the beginning of the year, has also expressed support to one of the organisers of the patrols.
In addition to media appearances and the YouTube broadcast by their leader, Dveri started a promotional caravan “Oslobođenje” [Liberation] in the town of Čačak and are already collecting signatures against republic and local authorities’ migration policies, as well as against the possible settling of migrants.
Right-wingers from all over the world do not only supply local right-wingers with lessons on political marketing, but also with possibilities for political cooperation. The AfD supported Boško Obradović in the 2017 elections, while Obradović visited Jerg Moyten, leader of the AfD, in Stuttgart both in March 2017, and at the end of 2019. Obradović used that opportunity to state that Dveri and AfD shared views on a number of topics, most notably Christian European heritage, family values and the resolution of the migrant crisis. “Europe is definitely our Christian family home, one we can join forces ti take care of in the light of the complex challenges of the migrant crisis. These are the topics that we will continue to discuss not only with the Alternative for Germany, but also with other European colleagues belonging to conservative political options”, stated Obradović.
As the xenophobic campaign intensifies on social networks, in settlements near border crossings and where migrant reception centres are located, tension is gradually rising. A tendentiously constructed, malicious and inflated claim that those fleeing war-torn areas to save their own and the lives of their families represent danger to the lives and property of people in Serbia can very easily become a real threat – to the lives of migrants.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on Feb 25, 2020.