Crisis Reporting Resource

Online Disinformation Surges in Balkans Amid Israel-Hamas Conflict

This article was originally published by BalkanInsight and was reproduced with permission. Any reprint permissions are subject to the original publisher.

Bloodshed in the Middle East is spurring disinformation in the Balkans, while journalists in Turkey and Romania deal with online harassment.

In the Balkans in October, disinformation surged amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, while journalists in Turkey and Romania faced online harassment and disinformation campaigns.

Concurrently, a distressing trend targeted women and the elderly with online scams in Serbia and Croatia. Finally, Albania and Montenegro experienced digital rights violations, including the distribution of explicit content and privacy breaches.

Disinformation sweeps Balkans over Israel-Hamas conflict

Throughout October, a pattern of disinformation unfolded across the Balkan region, driven by the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. As each country in the region grappled with its own set of challenges, false narratives and misleading content spread rapidly through social media channels.

In Croatia, October 10 saw the spread of a baseless claim that Israel had deliberately bombed the Orthodox Church of St Porphyrius in Gaza, an assertion later debunked by several fact-checking websites, including AP and AFP. The church itself confirmed its undamaged state. Eight days later, a Croatian Facebook user posted a video snippet of US President Joe Biden’s speech in Tel Aviv, falsely contending that he had declared his birthplace as Israel. The official transcript clarified that Biden had made no such statement.

In Hungary, on October 16, a misleading video circulated on Hungarian-language Facebook pages portraying what was claimed to be the Hamas attack on Israel. In fact, the footage came from celebrations at a football match in Algeria, AFP and Reuters revealed. Ten days earlier, another video created confusion, allegedly showing Hamas paragliders landing in Israel. AFP fact-checkers found that the video was recorded in the vicinity of a Cairo football field, in front of a military academy.

North Macedonia encountered its own disinformation challenges. On October 17, a Facebook user shared heart-wrenching photographs of child victims of war alongside an image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, falsely asserting they were casualties of the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Fact-checkers identified that these photos were from the earlier conflict in Syria. On October 15, another Macedonian Facebook user propagated a conspiracy theory that unwarrantedly blamed the Jewish population for a so-called “great reset”, aimed at world domination. On October 18, an online media portal exacerbated the misinformation by sharing a video from 2021, suggesting it was a recent incident of Egyptian humanitarian aid vehicles halted at the Gaza border.

Kosovo also witnessed two instances of digital deception, both connected to the Israel-Hamas Conflict. In the first case, a manipulated image circulated on October 20, suggesting that Atletico Madrid fans displayed a Palestinian flag in a stadium. Closer examination revealed that this image was digitally fabricated using AI technology. The second incident occurred on October 14, when a Facebook page named “Bota Islame” disseminated a misleading video. This video, from 2017, was falsely presented as a recent statement by the Emir of Qatar regarding the conflict in Gaza. The purpose of this disinformation was to create a deceptive narrative about Qatar’s response to the Israel-Hamas Conflict.

Journalists targeted online in Romania and Turkey

In both Turkey and Romania, the complex interplay of digital rights and the Israel-Palestine conflict poses significant challenges to journalists, prompting discussions about online freedom, disinformation, and responsible discourse.

In Turkey, as the Israeli-Hamas conflict escalated, Turkish journalist Nevsin Mengü found herself in the crosshairs of disinformation campaigns. Fabricated WhatsApp messages were widely shared on social media, falsely attributed to Mengü and linked to the conflict. In response, Mengü said she would initiate legal proceedings to combat this misinformation and defend her professional reputation.

Another case in Romania raised concerns about the limits of free expression in the context of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Prominent media figure Ion Cristoiu had his YouTube channel temporarily suspended after discussing the conflict and being accused of promoting hate speech and violence.

Google eventually reinstated his channel on October 31, following inquiries by journalists at Libertatea. YouTube representatives found that: “After examination, we determined that the video does not violate the community rules.”

Women and elderly targeted and tricked online

In October, a number of scams unfolded in Serbia and Croatia, with a shared and troubling theme; women and the elderly were disproportionately targeted by a variety of online exploitation and fraudulent schemes. In Albania, an elderly woman also fell victim to an online privacy violation.

In Serbia, multiple cases of senior citizens and women falling victim to various cybercrimes occurred.

On October 3, a case in Serbia exemplified the digital rights challenges facing its elderly citizens. The government had promised pensioners discounts upon presenting pensioner cards. However, significant delays in distribution of the cards have left many seniors without these benefits, rendering them vulnerable to fraudulent activities. Privacy concerns, as highlighted by Jovan Tamburić, President of the Union of Retired Military Personnel of Serbia, also loom large due to the unnecessary collection of personal data through these cards.

In two separate incidents, Serbian women became ensnared in online scams. The first incident unfolded on October 2, when a woman became a victim of an online shopping scam through Instagram. In another case, on October 22, another Serbian woman, searching for a soulmate, unwittingly engaged with a counterfeit account posing as a Turkish actor. Over time, she transferred over 13,000 euros to this fraudulent account before realizing the deception.

In Croatia, similar trends emerged. A 64-year-old fell victim to computer fraud on October 1, losing nearly 200 euros after unknown fraudsters used her stolen bank card for online purchases. A 50-year-old resident in Slavonski Brod reported a fraud incident to the police on October 10. On October 9, a fake broker contacted the victim, falsely claiming an increase in funds in their account. The victim unwittingly provided their bank card details, resulting in the withdrawal of over 3,000 euros. Police are investigating this case.

Two additional cases featured a 68-year-old pensioner and a 66-year-old individual on October 9 and 5 respectively. In the first incident, the pensioner lost 250 euros after responding to a social media ad offering three-wheeled scooters for disabled individuals. When she transferred the money to the provided bank account, she realized it was associated with a sports betting company, prompting her to report the incident to the police. In the second case, a 66-year-old individual from Split lost over 20,000 euros by investing in cryptocurrencies through a virtual wallet. The victim was convinced by an unknown person who added his mobile number to a group chat on a messaging app that cryptocurrency mining investments were lucrative. After transferring the money to the virtual wallet, he discovered that the funds had vanished, resulting in a loss of more than 20,000 euros. A criminal investigation is being conducted by the police.

On October 10, a distressing incident came to light in Albania. In Divjaka, an 82-year-old woman fell victim to a brutal attack by burglars attempting to rob her home. The JOQ media outlet shared harrowing images of the victim, her face covered in blood, along with her full name and place of residence. The media also reported that the victim’s daughter had issued a stark warning, vowing that unless justice prevailed, they would pursue a blood feud against the identified assailants.

Pattern of privacy violations and threats in Albania and Montenegro

In the realm of online violations in Albania, a recurring pattern is the publication of sensitive content, including videos of violence and abuse, revealing private lives, or disclosing personal information, often accompanied by threats and security endangerment.

On October 6, an alarming case exposed a paedophile group who had been utilizing the messaging app Telegram to disseminate explicit materials featuring children who had fallen prey to sexual abuse within. The circulation of these images not only victimized these children further but also posed a grave threat to their safety and well-being. Another video shared online, seemingly depicting an incident of classroom violence, raised questions of authenticity; both the public and authorities were uncertain about the situation’s exact nature.

On October 1, an online media platform exposed the identity of a mother involved in a sexual abuse case in a small Albanian town. The publication included her age, name, and surname, indirectly leading to the potential identification of the victim in such a close-knit community. The media also stated that this woman deceived a man through social networks and took money from him.

Montenegro has recently revealed a similar pattern through a video that gained widespread attention last October 6. The video features a minor who appears visibly frightened, displaying evident facial bruises and a blood-stained T-shirt as he offers an apology to his aggressors. The footage strongly suggests that the boy had just endured a severe episode of physical violence.

Bosnia has been covered by Elma Selimovic, Aida Trepanić and Azem Kurtic, Croatia by Matej Augustin, Hungary by Ákos Keller-Alánt, Kosovo by Diedon Nixha, Montenegro by Djurdja Radulovic, North Macedonia by Bojan Stojkovski and Goce Trpkovski, Romania by Adina Florea, Serbia by Tijana Uzelac and Kalina Simic, Turkey by Hamdi Fırat Büyük.