Lessons on information integrity

Understanding information landscapes in the Western Balkans and Central Asia

June 27, 2024
Man looking at phone

While some forms of misinformation might seem harmless, others pose a serious threat to the overall well-being of people and societies everywhere.

Photo: UNDP Kyrgyzstan information integrity campaign

Imagine yourself on your smartphone, scrolling through your news website, social media, or other app that you use every day. What can you see? 

Perhaps it’s a friend’s latest post about their meal in a nice restaurant, a news piece related to a war far away, or a comment bashing a female candidate running for local elections.

All are claiming to have the ultimate truth. But how can you determine which to believe?

Many of us face this scenario multiple times a day. What we see can distort, mislead, and erode our trust. 

Information pollution is the information we come across, especially online, that is false, misleading, or deceptive. While some forms of information pollution might seem harmless, others pose a serious threat to the overall well-being of people and societies everywhere.

In response, UNDP is mapping the information pollution landscape in the Western Balkans and Central Asia and tackling the most pressing issues together with local partners.

Here are the lessons we've learned so far.

A group of people looking at a computer

UNDP is mapping the information pollution landscape in the Western Balkans and Central Asia and tackling the most pressing issues with local partners.

Photo: UNDP Kosovo
  1.  We need to understand each information landscape

The quest for accurate and reliable information is ongoing. 

Information pollution can distort what is true and what is not, reinforcing existing biases, amplifying echo chambers, and enabling the spread of polarizing rhetoric and disinformation. Information pollution intersects with complex issues such as identity, digitalization and social cohesion, and the responses need to be right for the context.

Analysis of information pollution patterns in the local offline and online media landscapes can provide vital data for evidence-based decision-making to counter it. 

In North Macedonia, social media listening was used to analyze disinformation, especially targeting women. Between Challenges and Solutions - Guide to Media Integrity in North Macedonia was developed through interviews and focus group discussions with media and journalism organizations, media experts, civil society, and regulatory bodies. The guide aims to empower journalists and other media professionals in impartiality, exploring the key challenges and opportunities for media integrity, looking at phenomena such as regulatory measures, the influence of business on media, the working conditions of journalists, and media self-regulation. 

While producing accurate and reliable information is vital, getting it out there is just as important. 

In Kyrgyzstan, the first-ever analytical framework was developed to analyze the landscape of hate speech and information pollution. The key findings were packaged in a training manual, “From Hate Speech to Non-Violent Communication” which is also available as a two-hour online course. An online campaign spread the positive messages further, reaching 766,000 nationwide views.

Online campaign against hate speech

In Kyrgyzstan an online campaign is an important part of the country's fight against hate speech.

Photo: UNDP Kyrgyzstan
2. We must address online gender-based violence

Kristina Janković is one of the young voices against gender-based violence online in Montenegro. She believes that gender-based discrimination and sexism are not talked about enough, even though misogynist and sexist speech are very common.

"It is necessary to speak in a language understandable to people who are not aware of these issues. It is necessary to speak the language of young people. When talking about sexism, we can't only engage girls and women or only those who say they want to participate. Sexism concerns us all, and we should all deal with this topic."

Portrait of Kristina Janković

Kristina Janković is one of the young voices working against online gender-based violence in Montenegro.

Photo: UNDP Montenegro

She has participated in local dialogues organized by UNDP in partnership with SOS Phone Podgorica in Montenegro, which examined the causes and manifestations of hate speech, misogyny, and sexism. The dialogues, organized in 10 towns, gathered nearly 200 citizens, civil society, school staff, and community leaders and resulted in numerous recommendations on how to counter the rise of sexism, hate speech, and violence through partnerships, strengthening legislation and policy, and supporting educational and media institutions. 

Gender-based violence, whether online or offline, creates barriers to equality and can promote violence and harassment. Addressing it is crucial for fostering a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

In Kosovo*, new research provides evidence on how gendered disinformation and online violence against women create a hostile environment that discourages women from participating in civic life. The study found that online violence and harassment, marked by sexist and misogynist comments, are more prevalent for women and LGBTQI+ persons. Women were targeted by disinformation more than men and experienced higher levels of online harassment. The implications for civic engagement and the advancement of women’s political participation are chilling. 

3. We can use innovative ways to raise awareness

As the evolving online landscape offers new ways to create and spread disinformation and harmful content, we also need to use innovative ways to tackle it. From arts to chatbots, finding new ways to help people spot false and misleading information is vital.

Youth participants at the Media Literacy Bootcamps

Youth participants at the Media Literacy Bootcamps organized by UNDP Kosovo.

Photos: UNDP Kosovo

Building the capacities of young people and supporting them to develop their own solutions can create creative and impactful results. In Kosovo, 81 young people from different communities in 26 municipalities participated in Media Literacy Bootcamps to counter disinformation and address gendered hate speech. The youth participants developed 11 solutions to counter mis- and disinformation, including gendered disinformation. Four of these got financial support and mentorship to make their ideas into reality.

A group formed on the bootcamps called the “Actors” received a grant to develop a stage play, “Kažem ti da je tako (“I told you so”), which was performed in the House of Culture in Gračanica. The play takes place in a courtroom where two journalists are on trial for spreading fake news. High schoolers played the characters, and the play aimed to raise awareness while making the audience laugh. 

Digital tools can provide ways to reach wider population and raise awareness. Check out these digital solutions in North Macedonia and Kyrgyzstan!

Akyikatchy 115, Kyrgyzstan
Chatbot in Telegram developed together with the Ombudsman’s Institute informs about hate speech and how to counter it.

JasnoQarte, North Macedonia

Digital platforms available in Macedonian and Albanian languages publish fact-checked, verified news stories.

4. We are better together

Our information ecosystems are very complex, and the issues we're seeing can't be solved if everyone works separately. Acting together against information pollution ensures that different groups bring their expertise and perspectives to the challenges and can create a well-organized response together. 

In Montenegro, UNDP supported the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights in reporting on gender equality and improving the legal framework. More than 30 recommendations were made for laws related to media, protection of equality, prohibition of discrimination, and national strategies on youth and gender equality, in line with the latest international standards and practices. The National Authority for Human Resources Administration has also developed an official training programme for civil servants, focusing on preventing sexism and sexist hate speech. Judges and prosecutors from nine courts were also trained on the topics. 

Training sessions in Montenegro

Dragana Unković-Maljević (left) participates in anti hate speech training session.

Photos: UNDP Montenegro

Dragana Unković-Maljević, participant in the training-of-trainers for sexist hate speech organized with the Human Resources Administration said that gender-based hate speech is often normalized and uncritically accepted, due to the lack of understanding of sexism.

"Trainings like this are important for us to recognize and learn how to explain hate speech to someone else in the future. Gender equality is one of the crucial topics we need to discuss and educate ourselves about, especially those of us who will have the opportunity to transmit knowledge in our institutions. The ultimate goal is to raise awareness among as many people as possible about hate speech and to transmit European standards to improve penal policy in Montenegro." 

In Kyrgystan, UNDP has built capacity of the Institute of the Ombudsman, which observes constitutional human and civil rights and freedoms. The institute is now monitoring hate speech in the country and submitting its analysis and recommendations as part of its annual report to the parliament. 

Spreading awareness of disinformation

In North Macedonia new partnerships are key in spreading awareness of disinformation.

Photo: UNDP North Macedonia

In North Macedonia, new partnerships with the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption, the Council of Media Ethics, the Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers of the Republic of North Macedonia, and the Association of Journalists are key in spreading awareness of disinformation. This is especially important in the light of the elections this year. 

Finally, involving young people in fact-checking and awareness-raising is bearing fruit in Kosovo. Young journalists' internship programme trains youth to expose disinformation through fact-checking and writing articles for local media outlets.

“My efforts aim to strengthen the focus of social engagement, technology integration, and a comprehensive approach to fight information pollution.”
Idol Demi, young journalist from Kosovo
Young journalists and Media Literacy Bootcamp

Young journalists and Media Literacy Bootcamp winners came together to share experiences on tackling gendered disinformation.

Photo: UNDP Kosovo

Looking ahead

Like people in North Macedonia, around two billion people in 72 countries are expected to cast their votes this year. The free flow of information and robust exchange of ideas, opinions, and beliefs are critical for inclusive and credible elections. 

Information pollution poses many risks. One very concerning impact is the erosion of public trust in democratic processes and institutions, and the potential contribution to democratic backsliding, human rights violations, and social and political polarization. 

UNDP is working to foster an information environment where people can get the information to make informed decisions. Information pollution should not hinder our participation and contribution to building a better future for all.

The projects were funded through the Funding Windows, UNDP’s thematic funding mechanism. The projects mentioned under the Governance, Peacebuilding, Crisis and Resilience Window are supported by Luxembourg and the Republic of Korea. 

*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).