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Croatian Civil War raging on Facebook

Photo: Facebook

The Balkans, the mountainous region of Europe known for its guerrilla warriors who have successfully fought against the Ottomans and German armies, nowadays is experiencing a new type of guerrilla warfare. A long time had passed since highlanders attacked Turkish cavalry couriers and the Partisans captured German aircraft, but with the development of new technologies, clashes between rival political factions moved to the Internet, and the transmission of information is still not safe.

During the past few weeks thousands, if not tens of thousands of social network users, were blocked. Tens of pages, with an audience totaling over a million followers, were permanently deleted. Everything is being discussed in the Croatian Parliament, complaints are being made to the Prime Minister, and various conspiracy theories are being developed. What is really going on?

Night of the Long Horns

As an article published by a Croatian tabloid website 'Index' confirmed, it all started here. In early November, the Balkans Post published an article concerning the usage of Islamophobic bestiality slur ('goat-f****') and a member of our staff personally contacted the Facebook Help Center and requested the inclusion of the term on the blacklist. They responded positively and all slur-related derivatives were included in the list of unwanted derogatory terms that violate Facebook's community standards. The Help Center further informed us that once it gets into the system and the scanning is done, the vast majority of already published public posts will be deleted and users who posted it will get penalized with temporary blocks.

A week after the goat-related slur was blacklisted, the Facebook algorithm indeed purged the vast amount of inappropriate content and the results were striking as hundreds of users were blocked, including some prominent activists and public personalities. By far the worst affected groups were those belonging to the New Atheist movement, but the radical nationalists have also suffered a serious blow, as well as Serbian hooligans and anti-Albanian extremists. The impact on social networking in the Balkans was so strong that purge received media coverage in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.

Internet War escalation

By the end of November, the social networking in the Balkans seemed calm and stable, but then the situation suddenly escalated. On 29 November, the verdict issued at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia against a group of Bosnian Croats for crimes committed during the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s has inflamed the rage of Croatian nationalist and right-wing groups in Croatia and Bosnia who have since shown their discontent with the verdict both publicly and online, and targeted critical organizations and media outlets that lay in their path.

One of the defendants, former General Slobodan Praljak, hoping his sentence would be reduced after a five-year appeals process, proceeded to take cyanide in front of the sitting court once he realized that the original verdict for war crimes was being upheld. He died just hours later in The Hague, where the court dealing with crimes committed during the conflict in Yugoslavia is based. Praljak's demise unleashed a nationalist frenzy in Croatia and beyond, with supporters of Praljak and the wider activities of the Bosnian Croat armed forces organizing public rallies and Catholic masses in their honor.

The Facebook site had also been flooded with thousands of supporting posts. These groups claim that the verdict was unjust and that it unfairly targeted ethnic Croats. Praljak has since become a "martyr" for the Croat cause, and some Croatian nationalists compared his theatrical suicide with the Trial of Socrates, or even with the Roman Trial of Jesus Christ. However, in the eyes of other Croats and the rest of the world, including the Facebook staff, he is only a convicted war criminal and a suicide, basically no different than Nazis like Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering.

Taking into account the experience of the massive content blocking for using the goat-related slur was still fresh, many ordinary individuals tried to apply the same reporting procedure for posts which celebrated Praljak, and the results were more than successful. Again, thousands of users were blocked, including some prominent public personalities like far-right TV star Velimir Bujanec, conservative activist Željka Markić, member of parliament Hrvoje Zekanović, and so on. All of them have tens of thousands of Facebook followers. This temporary blocks usually lasted from a few days to one month, and can be really frustrating for frequent users since the blockade deprives them of public commenting, private messaging and even liking, basically any activity which shows they're alive.

Facebook pages of the right-wing tabloid press have suffered far worse experience. After several of their posts were removed, Facebook has detected them as problematic as a whole, and simply deleted them. Among the most popular deleted pages were 'Priznajem, Hrvat sam' (I admit, I'm a Croat, with over 200,000 likes), 'Dnevno.hr' (130,000 likes), 'Direktno' (120,000 likes), 'Hrvatsko iseljeništvo' (Croatian diaspora, 45,000 likes), and 'Kamenjar' (40,000 likes). For many years, all of them managed to reach vast audiences and even spent a lot of money on sponsored content, but now all effort faded away. By losing their pages, they also lost audiences and it will seriously affect their website traffic, marketing, and even jobs.

The right-wing groups have tried to strike back. Since Facebook usually responds automatically after receiving a larger number of reports, without the proper verification of content in question, these groups reported a whole series of leftist and antifascist pages, mostly those which talked about Praljak as a convicted war criminal. They first shut down the Antifa Šibenik page. This was followed by shutting down of the 'Antfašistički Vjesnik,' the 'Antifa Zagreb' and 'Lupiga' Facebook pages, led by an organizations mainly based in the Zagreb.

It appears that this attack was a coordinated effort by supporters of 'Urbana Desnica' (The Urban Right), an extreme right organization promoting 'Identitarian' views and featuring pro- or crypto-fascist symbols, and 'Generacija Obnove' (The Generation of Renewal), a minor alt-right party led by Bosnian Croats living in Croatia. Still, these successes were only temporary. All of mentioned antifascist pages realized that the posts that were being reported by these individuals were the ones that displayed right-wing iconography, such as graffiti of swastikas and symbols related to the Croatian WWII Nazi puppet state. They filed complaints to the Facebook Help Center and their pages were restored. The right-wing pages couldn't do the same since in their case nothing was taken out of context.

Complaint to Prime Minister and discussion in Parliament

The NGO group 'U Ime Obitelji' (In the Name of the Family), led by conservative activist Željka Markić, whose Facebook profile has also been blocked due to her support for Praljak, sent a letter to Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Justice Minister Dražen Bošnjaković and Interior Minister Davor Božinović, calling on them to ensure that the censorship in Croatia implemented by Facebook is stopped:

"We have received complaints from numerous intellectuals, dignitaries, the media, and Croatian citizens who have expressed a legitimate view that the Hague verdict is unfair and that it is not based on facts, which is the position of the Croatian government and Parliament as well. The posts which have been censored do not violate the rules of this social network, such as a ban on hate speech, violence, nudity, unauthorised sales, etc. The reason for censorship lies in the fact that, over the past few days, many posts have been published with historical and legal facts about the extremely positive role played by Croatia in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes actions of General Slobodan Praljak."

IT expert Marko Rakar said the demand was senseless and ridiculous:

"Certain groups have decided to send mass reports of violation of Facebook rules, in order to eliminate their rivals. This is the first time that something like this has happened in Croatia. A network with more than a billion users must rely on automatic mechanisms. Still, I believe that everything will normalize in a few days. The demand by 'U Ime Obitelji' is crazy. It is difficult to even talk about the mental framework of people who can give such a proposal. It is ridiculous."

Hrvoje Zekanović, a member of parliament (Sabor) of the HRAST party, which is part of the parliamentary majority, on 6 December delivered a warning speech in the Sabor:

"I will speak here about a very big problem because unfortunately, in the last seven days, nobody spoke about it in the Croatian Parliament. It is about endangering national security by preventing and controlling information. Many of you have heard and many have experienced that since 29 November, after a tragic event in The Hague when General Praljak took his life, hundreds of thousands of posts, tens of thousands of profiles, primarily on Facebook but also on other social networks, were blocked. Perhaps millions of posts were deleted.

It is one, I will say, a well-planned, coordinated attack on one form of public opinion, expressed in the Constitution. You have to know another thing, today in Croatia a lot of citizens get information over social networks, not through television, radio, or newspapers. So in this way we have a serious threat to national security. In this way, I call on the responsible institutions to examine who stands behind everything. It's not about a harmless individual or just a boys game, it's a group of people who are organized and paid, with a well-known goal. They may be in Croatia and perhaps out of Croatia, I would not guess where.

In the national security strategy, it is very explicit that this is a form of a hybrid war that poses a threat to the constitutional order of the Republic of Croatia. I, as a lawyer, and many other colleagues, had the same problem. My profile is currently blocked, and sites of major Croatian portals like 'Priznajem.hr' and 'Narod.hr' have disappeared. I think this is a great security issue that needs to be addressed urgently."

Conspiracy theories

The massive content blocking on Facebook has been the subject of various conspiracy theories. Who are those, as Zekanović calls them, "a group of well organized and paid people"? After the first series of blocking due to the goat-related slurs, the right-wing groups have blamed the 'Yugoslav Communists' for everything, while the left-wing groups have found the 'Croatian Catholic Talibans' responsible. The most interesting conspiracy theory was given by the New Atheists, as they claimed that an article about the Islamophobic slur and its Medieval antisemitic roots was actually written by an antisemite and reporting to Facebook was only a perfidious game directed against atheism. Ironically, these are the same people who claim all believers are by default 'simple-minded' while they are the 'bearers of reason and wisdom.'

Ridiculous claims by far-right groups

Later, after the second series of blocking due to celebrating Praljak, a Croatian nationalist news portal 'Poskok' based in Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed that "Facebook has given the authority to a handful of people from Sarajevo" (i.e. Bosnian Muslims), so now "they're conducting their own fascist anti-Croatian policy." By far the most bizarre and widespread conspiracy theory which emerged was about Saša Cvetojević being responsible for all blocks. This Croatian businessman, with 'Serbian'-sounding name and surname, allegedly has pro-Yugoslav views and is a managing Facebook director for Croatia and the Balkans.

Claim appeared in an article written by alt-right journalist Marcel Holjevac, and was spread by 'Hrvatsko iseljeništvo' (Croatian diaspora) Facebook community page. In addition to all the above allegations, they also shared a photo featuring Cvetojević and Zuckerberg, and even started the anti-censorship petition intended for the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg. However, a widely shared photo is fake, Cvetojević does not work for Facebook, nor is there any regional office for the Balkans. All these ridiculous claims are actually based on a prank article published by the Bug Magazine on 1 April 2016, as a joke for April Fools' Day.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.