Written by: Ivan Čađenović, journalist

“Taken into account that Facebook administrators have targeted our Facebook pages because of the news we transmit concerning the current Ukrainian crisis, we notify readers that from now on, we will be issuing news about the situation in Ukraine exclusively on our Telegram group.”

It is a quote from the “appeal” conveyed to its readers by the Montenegrin portal IN4S, which is perceived in research by non-governmental organizations as one of the leading channels for spreading hate speech, disinformation, and fake news in Montenegro. The text was published under the title “Due to Facebook bans and reductions, read us on Telegram.”

Facebook, for instance, partners with fact-checking organizations to identify factually incorrect content and reduce its reach. Internet search engine “Google” responded similarly. Apps such as Telegram do not have these types of content controls.

If not present on Facebook and Google, any informative site is almost non-existent on the Internet. Due to that, they use alternative platforms to spread misinformation, fake news, and propaganda content. That’s why the IN4S portal turned to Telegram, as did many world portals, with a similar mission. Only IN4S is much more active on that platform after the Russian aggression against Ukraine, more precisely since March 1. A social media expert from Croatia Barbara Slade Jagodić spoke about this global phenomenon for Slobodna Dalmacija.

‘The main battlefield in information war has become the Telegram application.” According to security experts, it is a space where Russians and pro-Russian separatists even arrange combat activities. This is not surprising because they own the application and boast that it is encrypted, ‘explained Slade Jagodić.

Still, the IN4S portal is not the only Montenegrin platform that has found its refuge on Telegram. Many groups that spread disinformation and hate speech have switched from popular social networks to Telegram. One is the popular Instagram page “Bunt Crna Gora,” which also calls itself a portal. Although they have collected almost 18.5 thousand followers on Instagram, they have 64.5 thousand followers on their Telegram channel called “Rebellion is a state of mind.” Among other information, they often transmit fake news from the less followed portal IN4S (8.5 thousand followers) and general information from that platform, whose ideological spectrum they belong to. It is how they announced the news from the IN4S portal that convicted war criminals Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić will soon be exchanged for officers of the NATO Alliance captured in the Ukrainian war. More than a thousand of Bunt’s followers reacted positively to this news. Whereas on the Telegram channel of the IN4S portal, less than 150 followers responded in total.

However, the Bosnian portal Detektor.ba assessed that it was disinformation. They contacted their family and lawyers, who had no information about a possible exchange. On the other hand, IN4S referred to unofficial sources.

Other Montenegrin Telegram channels spread disputed content – RIA Novosti in Serbian (4.1 thousand followers), Srpska čast (4.8 thousand followers), Montenegro Srpska Sparta (3.8 thousand followers), Montenegro Srpska Sparta (3, 8 thousand followers), Kosovo – the Serbian holy land (2.9 thousand followers)… Some of them celebrate and glorify fascist leaders from the Četnik movement, such as Draža Mihailović. Furthermore, war criminals from the 1990s, like Ratko Mladić, are glorified Also, they are publishing photos and glorifying Serbian volunteers in the Russian aggression against Ukraine, while some also sell t-shirts with the tricolor letter “z,” a symbol of Russian aggression.

A researcher from the Digital Forensic Center (DFC), Milan Jovanović, says that faced with the limitation of the reach on the social network “Facebook,” pro-Russian media and activists at the global level, including in our country, searched for an alternative platform to promote their idea – in this case, Telegram.

“As I see it, there are both ideological and practical reasons that can explain the situation. Ideologically – the platform was established by the Russian Pavel Durov, whom we know as the founder of the Russian counterpart of Facebook – the VKontakte network. A practical reason – Telegram is recognized for its flexible policy of sanctioning hate speech and misinformation, which allows right-wing groups to promote themselves,” explains Jovanović.

Jovanović states that according to the same model, represented in Russian and pro-Russian media in Montenegro and the region, disinformation, unverified information, and pro-Russian propaganda content related to the war in Ukraine are distributed daily on Telegram channels. DFC has detected a network of Telegram channels in Serbian and Russian that transmit such announcements to each other and whose members predominantly come from Montenegro and Serbia.

“Besides justifying the invasion, one can often find anti-Western and pro-Church narratives, with systematic targeting of dissenters. There is a well-known case when the Telegram group of ultra-rightists from Serbia, New Age Četnici targeted TBOK because of their criticism of meme pages in Montenegro. At the invitation of the admin, members of that group organized and targeted the TBOK Facebook page with the aim of discrediting and intimidation. The DFC noted and reacted to this case at that time”, reminds Jovanović.

Political scientist Balša Lubarda, who earned his doctorate on right-wing movements in Europe, claims that the “perception of vulnerability” and “the role of the victim” play a significant role. It often affects the number of supporters of such movements. If someone is “banned,” he receives firmer and more substantial support from his supporter.

Lubarda claims that it is challenging to solve this in the online sphere because internet platforms, the most famous social networks, react late to such phenomena. He does not even see a permanent solution in Montenegro.

“Legislation is quite deficient even at this moment. A new law on the media is planned, that is, a set of laws on the media that, I hope, will address this. But it is no longer a question of law but of implementation. “How can you ensure that you de-platformed an actor who spreads hatred, that is, remove the platform for spreading hate speech, without that actor getting even more support because he is allegedly threatened?” asked Lubarda.

Lubarda asserts that it wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t live in a high-tension society, where this story about vulnerability passes by.

This article was brought to you with financial support from the National Endowment for Democracy. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and publishers of the Media Institute of Montenegro and does not necessarily reflect the views of the donors.