Western companies support pro-Russian disinformation in Balkans, experts warn

‘Check My Ads’ CEO Claire Atkin emphasised that businesses often remain unaware that their ads end up on disinformation channels.

Media Event

Media experts gathered at the European Parliament have revealed a concerning trend where pro-Russian disinformation in the Balkans gains credibility through advertising bought by well-known Western companies. The conference focused on the media situation in Bulgaria and Serbia, was organised by the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI) and hosted by Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovatchev.

Claire Atkin, the CEO of ‘Check My Ads,’ a technology watchdog specialising in the advertising industry, pointed out that businesses purchasing ads through specialised agencies often remain oblivious to their content appearing on channels spreading pro-Russian disinformation.

According to the Belgrade-based Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), Serbian media predominantly portray the EU negatively and exhibit a favourable bias towards Russia and China. The companies, mostly belonging to the ‘political West’ such as Coca-Cola or Lidl, are advertising themselves on channels and in the media that portray the EU negatively.

Antoinette Nikolova, director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI), highlighted that Bulgaria faces analogous challenges, especially susceptible to Russian propaganda. She criticised the effectiveness of the Bulgarian media regulator, the Council for Electronic Media (CEM).

Western advertisers dominate over 70% of the Bulgarian advertising market. The issue of psychological operations (PSYOPS) was also raised, with Atkin mentioning instances of Russian PSYOPS masquerading as Americans. She highlighted the challenge of combating disinformation on platforms like Facebook, asserting that they can inadvertently amplify it.

Why does it matter?

This issue extends beyond the Balkans, as even in seemingly European pro-Western countries like Slovakia, disinformation and Russia-friendly narratives are quietly gaining ground through the media. Western companies, unwittingly funding these campaigns, inadvertently undermine democracy and amplify falsehoods. Moreover, the inefficiency of media regulators, exemplified by Bulgaria’s Council for Electronic Media (CEM), raises concerns about the tech regulatory landscape in these nations. These challenges bear profound geostrategic implications, potentially influencing regional politics and alliances.