Last Sunday Macedonia held a referendum vote to change its name, end a 27-year dispute with Greece, and open the doors to its EU and NATO integration. Weeks before the vote, social media platforms became not only channels for sharing political attitudes, but also venues for deliberate polarization and misleading content. The hashtag #Boycott first appeared on Twitter and Facebook with the goal to boycott the vote. On Twitter, it has quickly generated more than 24,000 mentions, as about 20,000 were retweets. Similarly, about 40 new Facebook profiles appeared every day in the weeks before the referendum spreading repetitively the message of the boycott. Hundreds of new websites were also calling for boycott by using the weapon of disinformation. This article shared online claimed that Google may eliminate Macedonia from its list of recognized languages, depending on the vote. For a short time ahead of the vote, Macedonia’s information landscape was saturated with distorted and polarizing narratives, following the well-known recipe from recent election campaigns in other countries.
These disinformation efforts made many Macedonians boycott the referendum and discouraged the voter turnout. While 92 percent of the voters said “yes” to the name deal with Greece as a condition to NATO and EU accession, about two-thirds of the eligible population did not go to the ballot box. By using manipulative or untrue messages, the #Boycott managed to inject false sentiments into the general referendum campaign, build fake outrage and anger, skewing public opinion.
The structure of the #Boycott campaign involved all tools of computational propaganda: political bots, organized trolling, disinformation, and hate speech, in addition to proxy-political actors. While the largest opposition party was not officially boycotting the referendum, the pro-Russia and anti-NATO party “United Macedonia” was a key supporter of the boycott. The anti-referendum campaign heavily relied on pre-existing online media infrastructure inherited from the previous government’s propaganda machinery. The #Boycott campaign was particularly active following visits of Western politicians who came to Macedonia to express their support for deal with Greece and the referendum. On September 8, the Independence Day of Macedonia, while Angela Merkel was visiting Skopje, the #Boycott anti-referendum tweets reached a peak of 3900. Similarly, a wave of boycott messages flooded the far-right Macedonian cyberspace after the visit of the Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg. Extreme nationalist diaspora portals claimed that the referendum was illegal and should be boycotted. There was a noticeable increase in the usage of the Pepe the Frog meme, a hate symbol employed by far-right groups across the US and, more recently Europe. The message was tailored to attack the prospects of EU and NATO accession.
Was it Russia again?
At first glance, it is not an easy task to trace the role of external political powers in the #Boycott campaign, as it managed to unify very heterogeneous group of people. Neither is true that all the people opposing the referendum share pro-Russian attitudes, nor was the boycott campaign entirely organic and the outcome of only domestic politics. Nenad Markovikj, a professor of political science, believes the division between voters on this issue would exist even big external powers like Russia and the West are out of the picture, because the issue of identity is very sensitive for people in Macedonia. Nonetheless, he argues that “You can intelligently assume the somebody behind the curtain is cooking and facilitating these messages.”
The Russian hand in Macedonia has been invisible. However, the influx of news portals and social media fake profiles feeding the pro-Russian agenda in the region testifies to its existence. In July 2018, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that Ivan Savvidi, a Russian billionaire living in Greece with close ties to the Kremlin, was actively funding politicians and protestors opposing the name change. While visiting Skopje, The U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that there is "no doubt" that Moscow is funding pro-Russian groups to influence a referendum. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told the public that “if there is any evidence of interference by using fake news, I will publicly share them.” Despite this promise, it is unlikely to trace all “like” or “dislike” farms employed by the Boycott camp.
Security and media experts argue that the campaign in Macedonia is a part of a broader Russian strategy of confronting the West in the Balkans. A 2017 Report from OCCRP testifies to a comprehensive anti-NATO disinformation campaign in the Western Balkans as a key tool to prevent countries in the region from joining the Alliance. Further data from national intelligence and security agencies has revealed the involvement of spies and diplomats, as well as the usage of asymmetrical tools such as computational propaganda and covert support for extremist political groups pushing pro-Russian agenda in the region.
Although pro-Russian sentiments have never been particularly trendy in Macedonia, narratives in favor of the Kremlin have become more visible in the Macedonian online space after 2015. One of the popular narratives within the #Boycott campaign suggests that NATO has been unjust to the country despite its efforts to become a member of the alliance. Meanwhile, articles praising Russian army and weaponry have regularly appeared on Sputnik and other Russian outlets.
Russia does not hide its disagreement with Macedonia’s accession to NATO, so attempts to prevent the referendum from success seem to follow a solid Russian logic. Nonetheless, the geopolitical battle expressed through enormous disinformation efforts from the Kremlin raises more fundamental questions. The aggressive anti-NATO messages that became a fundament of the #Boycott campaign prevented voters from engagement with objective and fact-based content, discouraged citizens from participation in the democratic process, created fears, and depressed the turnout. A recent survey ranked Macedonia last among 35 states in media literacy. This shows the country’s high vulnerability to disinformation. The danger of having a media environment polluted with manipulative messages instead of real political arguments may have long-term consequences for the fragile democratic process not only in Macedonia, but the whole region. We should say it out loud: Disinformation campaigns are toxic. No matter who is paying them.