Western brands’ adverts fund Russian disinformation in Southeast Europe

Western brands’ adverts fund Russian disinformation in Southeast Europe
A mural in northern Kosovo saying "Kosovo is Serbia - Crimea is Russia". Researchers say there was a flood of pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives in the Balkans after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. / Clare Nuttall
By bne IntelliNews December 6, 2023

Major North American and European brands are unintentionally supporting media outlets spreading disinformation on critical geopolitical issues, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in Southeast Europe, says a report by the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI) and the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA). 

The report identifies significant advertising revenues from prominent brands from France, Germany, the UK, the US and other countries flowing to media outlets in Serbia and Bulgaria (the two countries highlighted in the report). These outlets are found to disseminate pro-Kremlin disinformation, including denying the Bucha massacre, portraying Nato as an 'apocalyptic group of anti-Russian crusaders’ and criticising the European Union.

"Advertising from major international brands plays a significant role in sustaining media in Southeast Europe and the Balkans. Unfortunately, some of these outlets regularly promote disinformation,” commented Peter Horrocks, board member of BFMI. 

Brands named in the report include retailers Lidl and Delhaize Group, multinational Procter & Gamble, soft drinks producer Coca-Cola, electronics company Bosch and online retail giant Amazon. The report also identifies advertising technology providers Google and Criteo as facilitating the connection between brands and online news portals disseminating disinformation in the Balkans.

The report warned of the tangible threats to stability and democracy from disinformation, especially considering the contribution it makes to escalating tension and violence within multi-ethnic communities in the Balkans, as evidenced in Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina. 

“The severity of this situation has been further exacerbated by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has seen a flood of pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives enter the information environment of the Balkans,” the report said. 

Antoinette Nikolova, director of BFMI, commented on the serious consequences of allowing such disinformation to continue. “The surge of disinformation in the Balkans is stoking ethnic conflict, eroding democracy, and driving the region away from the EU and into Putin’s hands,” she said. 

“Global brands, and the middlemen involved in the advertising process, have an important responsibility to ensure their investments do not contribute to the further erosion of media freedom and stability in the Balkans.”

This analysis reveals particular concerns about Serbia, an EU accession candidate and, as detailed by the European Parliament, a hub for Russian disinformation in the region.  

The report points to disinformation within the mainstream media of Serbia, where two prominent pro-government TV stations, TV Pink and TV Happy, consistently promote the baseless assertion that "Russia was compelled" to engage in a "special military operation" in Ukraine. The two stations together attract more than half of the total advertising spending in the country. In 2022, 64% of advertising expenditures in the country originated from global brands.

Commenting on the situation in Serbia, Rasa Nedeljkov, programme director at CRTA, said: “The anti-West, pro-Russia and pro-government propaganda machine in Serbia is largely funded and, therefore, legitimised by Western companies. North American and European nations, as well as the EU, must take action now to stop this ­– otherwise they will continue to foster the Russian playbook in Serbia that pushes our society away from democracy and European values straight into authoritarian rule.”

Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, an EU member state, disinformation narratives are identified as less prevalent in broadcast media but extensively disseminated through online digital platforms. This includes several of the nation's widely visited news websites, which the report says consistently endorse pro-Kremlin disinformation. These narratives claim that Nato is leveraging Ukraine in a conflict against Russia, suggest Bulgaria will be compelled to participate in the conflict, and propagate the unfounded idea that Ukrainian refugees are taking advantage of host countries.