Election Campaigns: a time of increased Internet content filtering

Can we inform ourselves objectively on social networks?

The Internet is not free, social networks even less so. Numerous examples from the past show that informing via social networks can be endangered during an election campaign.

Who filters social media content and to what end? Whose interest is behind the blocking of certain content, the excessive visibility of others, creating trends, closing social media accounts? These are just some of the questions we are looking to answer.

Political influence in social networks

Expert monitoring in Serbia lists numerous examples of situations in which the dynamics on the political scene (in relation to election campaigns) created additional incentives for endangering the digital rights of citizens.

According to a report published by the Share Foundation, the very beginning of the election campaign in 2014 was marked by a spectacle in Feketić, northern Serbia, which was accompanied by cases of endangering the digital rights of citizens. After pictures and recordings of the then Prime Minister and current President of the Republic of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić rescuing a boy from a snowdrift in Feketić flooded the media, including the Internet, a video parody of “Superman in Feketić” appeared, which was soon deleted from YouTube.

Similar examples of blocking information on the Internet and social media occurred the same year, during the floods. Examples testify that live transmissions of the opposition pre-election rallies have also been blocked on several occasions. 

From April to September 2019, the Share Foundation recorded 54 cases of violations of digital rights in Serbia. The most common violations belong to the category of exerting pressure with the aim to restrict free expression and activities on the Internet, blocking media accounts and research media content, including Twitter accounts. The most numerous violations related to publishing threatening content and endangering security, throwing insults and unfounded accusations.

Screenshot “SNS organized the first online pre-election rally in Serbia”; source: Aleksandar Čupić / Youtube

In the mentioned report, experts state that manipulation and propaganda in the digital environment was not negligible. To support that, they point to the cases in which Internet content of public importance was subjected to changes and deleting, but also the ones that included creation of fake accounts and paid promotion of fake content.

A 2016 survey shows that in just one day, President Vučić appeared in more than forty news headlines on ten online media outlets that were included in the analysis: “A flood of media statements, conferences, interviews and ‘live performances’ dictate the pace of his constant presence in our lives”.

A research done by Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI) has similar findings. BIRODI monitored reporting on political actors during last year’s election campaign. According to its results, Vučić and SNS continue to dominate the media in the aspect of presence. 

In addition to the violation of citizens’ digital rights, and in addition to manipulation in the media field, it is important to mention the practice of astroturfing, which Mašina has written about earlier. It involves a huge number of comments, tweets and interactions on social networks in which bots and trolls simulate the presence of public opinion: “Researchers from the Oxford Program on democracy and technology call actors who have connections to the government or political parties, and whose aim is to steer public opinion via social media, cyber troops. In Oxford team’s reports Serbia is listed as one of the countries cyber troops have been detected in”.

What to expect this year? 

What awaits us in this year’s election campaign remains to be seen, although the campaign has already begun informally and the news are changing at a rapid pace, according to the daily political dynamics and crises.

As N1 reports, BIRODI monitored prime-time news programs on televisions with national frequency from December 2020 to April 2021. The research has shown that the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, occupied more media space than the entire Serbian Government, including the Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić, by 38%, and that he was mostly portrayed in a positively. 

It remains to be seen whether the Internet will suffer greater content filtering in the future. Bearing in mind that the police visited activists, but also journalists and media editors to “warn them about posting on social networks” prior to the roadblocks that were organized throughout Serbia in protest of the adoption of the Law on Referendum and Law on Expropriation, it seems that the trend of filtering will continue.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Dec 10, 2021.


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