Imagine walking into a bookstore to buy a history of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Srebrenica genocide and the first title you spot reads: Srebrenica Is A Lie. And that book isn't a blip. The next six or seven titles on the same shelf are similar. What would you think?
Shift from a bricks-and-mortar store to the Internet and it's much the same. And that's worrying since today when people seek out information, they often don't pick up a book but turn to Google, or YouTube, or other social media sources.
In Bosnia, young people between the ages of 18 and 30 rely on information gleaned from online and social media networks, according to a survey last year by Mediacentar Sarajevo, an NGO that supports and helps develop independent media in Bosnia. But what if much of that accessed information is misleading at best, outright false at worst?
Typing "Srebrenica is…" into the world's most popular search engine will result in shocking findings in a number of languages. The results include a large number of what are termed "autocomplete" listings containing "Srebrenica is a lie," or some other iteration of that.
When RFE/RL's Balkan Service contacted Google and pointed this out, the company took action to remove content denying the Srebrenica genocide. However, this appears only to apply to Google's English-language search results. Srebrenica genocide searches in other languages turn up the same disinformation as before.
On July 11, 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed by Bosnian Serb forces near the eastern town of Srebrenica -- the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.
What I can say is that people who want to investigate Srebrenica, and come from a region that denies genocide, prefer to find untruths, to make it easier for themselves and then stop their research there."-- Memorial Center spokeswoman Almasa Salihovic
The massacre in Srebrenica has been deemed genocide by verdicts from both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Both wartime Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic and former political leader Radovan Karadzic were sentenced to life in prison by the UN war crimes court in the Netherlands for their roles in the Srebrenica genocide.
Serbian officials deny that Serbian forces committed genocide. For the government in Serbia, this is a "terrible crime," as President Aleksandar Vucic put it in a speech at the UN Security Council last June. In central Belgrade, a mural to Mladic adorns the facade of a building, underscoring the fact that for many Serbs he remains a hero.
For those today in Srebrenica, located in the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska region of Bosnia, the fact that this type of genocide denial dominates the Internet is not surprising.
"When I saw it written, 'Srebrenica is a lie,' I was not surprised, because, unfortunately, even today a lot of people deny the genocide, saying that it is all a lie, that it did not happen," Azemina Suljic, a high school student in Srebrenica, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
In 2021, Valentin Inzko, the then-outgoing head of Bosnia's Office of the High Representative, outlawed genocide denial, a law that was heavily criticized by Bosnian Serb leaders.
Google, owned by parent company Alphabet, has said it processes 63,000 queries every second, or 5.6 billion "googles" every day, including those from student Suljic, who said, although she thinks most of the information gleaned from the search engine is not 100 percent accurate, it is still a frequent source of information for her.
"Mostly for school when I'm doing a paper on a particular topic," she said.
Tijana Stefanovic from Gornji Milanovac in central Serbia also relies on Google to seek out information.
"I check the Internet first," Stefanovic told RFE/RL, noting that she also uses other online sources.
Plugging "Srebrenica is…" into not only Google, but also YouTube, gives similar results, with "Srebrenica is a lie" among the first results to appear.
"I wasn't surprised, but I also didn't expect it to be the first search result. It's probably the most searched topic in our country, so it's at the top," said Stefanovic.
How Does Google's Search Engine Work?
When a request is typed into Google, the search engine computes many factors, including the "language of query," "the location a query is coming from," and "your past searches."
All those factors influence what ultimately appears on the computer screen, explained Filip Milosevic from the Share Foundation, an NGO advocating and promoting online rights and freedoms.
"To decide what to display, the systems analyze frequent and popular queries, but also take into account other factors, such as the language and location of the user doing the search to make predictions more relevant and save as much time as possible," Milosevic told RFE/RL.
"Such systems that work on the basis of algorithms cannot be perfect and neutral due to the very nature of the data they process, which is created by people, which is not neutral by nature," Milosevic said.
Because of that, he said, it often happens that search engines "return results that are biased, discriminatory, offensive, or even imply facts that have not been verified or known."
However, because algorithms are the creation of humans, there is culpability, Chirag Shah, a professor at the University of Washington and founding director of the InfoSeeking Lab and co-founder of the Center for Responsible Artificial Intelligence, told RFE/RL.
"They are not deterministic, which means the creators of a given algorithm are not going to be able to explicitly program exactly how that algorithm should behave. Machine learning, by definition, is creating systems that program themselves," Shah said. "In that sense, the original creators of the algorithm may be distanced from the eventual execution of the algorithm by several orders. So, yes, these algorithms do have human influence and are driven by our notion of ethics, but it's very hard to create a one-to-one mapping of human values and algorithmic outputs."
As Google explained to RFE/RL in an e-mailed response: "When the community flags to us predictions that for any reason seem inappropriate to them, we evaluate and take action."
"Any user can flag an inappropriate prediction directly in the autocomplete box itself or turn off or remove certain autocomplete predictions or report issues with their predictions," Google said. "In the case of the phrase 'Srebrenica is a lie,' we've taken action and removed this autocomplete prediction."
"Google trains artificial intelligence systems, but also hires teams of people who would recognize violations of the company's policies and the rights of various social groups and remove them from the platform," according to Milosevic.
The Internet And Reality
The Srebrenica Memorial Center said the Google search results are not surprising because most people "in Serbia and the Republika Srpska entity believe that no genocide was committed in Srebrenica, that only legitimate military targets were killed there."
"What I can say is that people who want to investigate Srebrenica, and come from a region that denies genocide, prefer to find untruths, to make it easier for themselves and then stop their research there," Memorial Center spokeswoman Almasa Salihovic told RFE/RL. "The fact is that people in these areas often prefer to believe myths and unverified statements rather than facts and assessments."
A report by the Memorial Center recorded 234 acts of genocide denial had appeared in Bosnian media between May 2020 and May 2021.
"More than two decades after the genocide, perhaps more than ever, we are facing the fact that all generations and categories of people in Republika Srpska and Serbia are trying to say as loudly as possible that genocide was not committed in Srebrenica, and it is certainly true that these people were never interested in the truth. Srebrenica has never been investigated more deeply," Salihovic said. "The truth is much harder to accept than a lie."
The findings from the Memorial Center jibe with Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia (YIHR), a regional NGO with branches throughout the Balkans, which has been observing and warning about genocide denial for years now.
"The denial of the established facts is of such a scale that now the algorithms place them at the top of the search results," said the program director of YIHR, Sofija Todorovic. What we experience in the real world and what we "Google," Todorovic said, "are not much different."
Not only denials but calls for a "new Srebrenica" have appeared.
At the beginning of 2022, in Priboj, a town on the border between Serbia and Bosnia where both Serbs and Bosniaks live, a song was sung, in the presence of Serb police officers, calling for a repeat of Srebrenica and the rape and killing of Bosniaks.
The Belgrade mural of Mladic, who led Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia's 1992-95 war and was convicted by a United Nations tribunal of war crimes, including the killings in Srebrenica, was defaced by protesters in November 2021. However, despite calls to have it removed, the mural remains.
Recently, a video was uploaded onto social media showing young children singing a song by folk singer Mirko Pajcin, better known under the pseudonym Baja Mali Knindza. The song -- I Don't Love You, Alija -- glorifies war crimes against the Bosniak population during the war.
"[They] have been working on denying the genocide in Srebrenica for years, both in the political sphere and through the educational system in Serbia, while the legal consequences of denying the specific genocide committed in Srebrenica simply do not exist," Teodorovic said.