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Belgrade School Shooting Has Online Ripple Effect in Balkans

Photo: Unsplash/Jr Korpa

A recent mass shooting at a school in Belgrade had a widespread impact online in the Balkans, sparking a series of copycat threats, misleading articles, fake video footage and insensitive reports in countries across the region.

After two recent mass shootings in Serbia, one at a school in Belgrade, there was a surge of attempted copycat attacks in the Balkan region, but also a series of digital violations including the spread of misinformation, breaches of privacy, fake footage and misleading claims.

Albania experienced several disturbing incidents of its own, including a fake gun scare at a school in Tirana and a fatal stabbing stemming from an online feud in Gramshi, highlighting the role of online platforms in escalating conflicts among Albanian youth.

In Montenegro, incidents such as a concerning Facebook post by a pupil in Zabljak and threats made on a school’s Viber group in Podgorica highlighted the delicate balance between freedom of expression and the responsibility for safety within society, while Croatia faced its own challenges following the Serbian mass shooting, with incidents including a ‘hit list’ made by a student from Bjelovar being circulated on TikTok and a gun photo being shared in a Zagreb school’s WhatsApp group.

Following the mass shootings in Serbia, threats were made on social media in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a young man was arrested after allegedly announcing online that he planned to replicate the violence.

In Kosovo, false information was spread online through the sharing of misleading articles and recycled misinformation, while a threatening message was posted on Instagram in North Macedonia.

False reports and videos in Serbia

The mass shooting by a teenager at the Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary School in Belgrade on May 3, in which eight students and a teacher were killed, sent shockwaves through society and was followed by online violations such as the circulation of fake footage, the invasion of victims’ relatives’ privacy and the proliferation of misinformation.

A man reacts as he walks past police officers blocking a street near the ‘Vladislav Ribnikar’ elementary school in Belgrade, Serbia, 03 May 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

The right to privacy of the families who were affected was violated by the tabloid website Republika, which on May 9 published a sensationalist report about the funeral proceedings, contravening Serbia’s journalistic code and inflicting further anguish on the grieving families.

False reports also began to circulate on media websites and social networks. Unfounded claims emerged that a wounded teacher had also succumbed to their injuries, that vaccinated citizens were ineligible as blood donors, and that N1 TV had demanded the release of the suspect.

Days after the shooting, a video claiming to depict the school massacre was circulated on social media. The footage was shared widely on TikTok on May 6, but closer scrutiny revealed that it was not from Belgrade but had been taken during a different school shooting in the United States.

On May 6, another video surfaced on TikTok, purporting to show students from the school that was targeted in Belgrade bullying the perpetrator. Accompanied by captions insinuating that the footage captured the moments preceding the massacre or depicted the treatment that the perpetrator endured at the school, the video gained widespread circulation.

However, it was soon discovered that the video was unrelated to the Belgrade incident and originated from a school in Russia several months earlier.

Violence in Albania echoes Serbian shooting

On May 10, Albanian media outlet published a video showing the mass shooting in Serbia. In the days following the shooting, there were also two violent incidents in Albania involving young men and weapons.

Police officers close off the crime scene at Cetinje, Montenegro, 12 August 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/BORIS PEJOVIC

The first incident happened in Farka in Tirana when a 20-year-old male entered a schoolyard and discharged shots into the air using a fake gun, inciting fear among students and staff. The motives behind the incident remain under investigation.

In the second incident, a 15-year-old Albanian lost his life in a stabbing near his school in Gramshi. The stabbing occurred as a direct result of an online feud between the attackers and the victim’s cousin.

Online threats made in Montenegro

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Serbia, there were also two online incidents in Montenegro that were reported to have been related to the crime in Belgrade.

The first incident unfolded in the town of Zabljak, where Montenegrin police questioned a 13-year-old pupil after he wrote a Facebook post that alarmed the authorities.

The pupil wrote: “I understand the shooter in the Serbian elementary school. I would do the same, but I don’t have access to guns.” The authorities took his statement seriously and initiated an investigation. However, charges were eventually dropped, with the prosecution urging local social workers and the school to intervene and address the situation.

In another case, Montenegrin police questioned a pupil from an elementary school in Podgorica after threats were made in the school’s Viber group. The school management reported that the pupil had sent a photo of a gun along with a list of students he intended to harm.

Prompt action was taken by the authorities, who questioned the pupil and his parents, and the plastic gun was handed over to the police. The outcome of the investigation has not yet been made public.

Illustration of TikTok logo displayed on a phone in Los Angeles, California, USA, 17 May 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/CAROLINE BREHMAN

Croatia faces school safety concerns

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Serbia, there were also two incidents involving school students in Croatia.

On May 12, a pupil in the city of Bjelovar who claimed to have drawn inspiration from the shooting in Belgrade compiled a ‘hit list’ containing the names of her classmates. The list allegedly surfaced on the popular social media platform TikTok before being removed after the student was detained by the police.

However, concerns remained as it is possible that screenshots of the list might still be circulating privately among other students. The student was expelled from the school the same day.

In another incident that occurred on May 18 at the Dragutin Domjanic Elementary School in Gajnice in Zagreb, an eighth-grade boy who had argued with a friend allegedly took a photo of a gun and bullets at his home and shared it in a WhatsApp group.

The school promptly contacted the police, who reportedly spoke with the boy. The parents sent a message saying that the boy was under supervision at home and that everyone was safe, while the school emphasised that students should continue attending classes as usual because the overall safety of the school was being maintained.

Copycat shooting threatened in Bosnia

In the wake of the mass shooting in Serbia, a young man in Bosnia and Herzegovina threatened a copycat incident in the city of Bihac. The young man posted a threatening message on Instagram, claiming to be preparing to stage a massacre at a school of economics. Police arrested him on charges of endangering security and terrorism. Reuters reported that he had a history of threats and bullying on social media and that charges against him were dropped last year because he was too young to be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, a threatening video was circulated on social media, made by a man from the town of Banovici who said he was going to commit a massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, linking it to the recent mass shooting in Serbia. Authorities from both countries worked together to identify the individual and prevent any potential violence.

Incidents in Kosovo and North Macedonia

In Kosovo, a misleading article entitled “SERIOUS: The Moment When a 14-Year-Old Kills His Classmates in Serbia is Published” was published by the website. The article claimed to feature a video depicting the Belgrade school shooting.

However, investigations by BIRN Kosovo’s Kryptometer team revealed that the video was not filmed in Serbia, as claimed, but in Mexico in 2017.

Meanwhile in North Macedonia, a student from the Slavcho Stojmenski high school in Shtip posted a threatening message on Instagram on May 11 and was subsequently detained by the police. The motives behind the student’s actions have not yet been made public.

Bosnia has been covered by Elma Selimovic and Aida Trepanić, Albania by Nensi Bogdani, North Macedonia by Bojan Stojkovski, Montenegro by Samir Kajosevic, Kosovo by Diedon Nixha, Croatia by Matej Augustin and Serbia by Bojan Perkov and Ninoslava Bogdanović of SHARE Foundation

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