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How Disinformation Harmed the Referendum in Macedonia

Online campaigns calling for a boycott of the referendum and fake news sites have compounded the country’s media literacy problem. From The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

by Asya Metodieva 3 October 2018

Last Sunday Macedonia held a referendum meant 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 (#Бојкотирам) emerged on Twitter and Facebook with the goal to boycott the vote. On Twitter, it has quickly generated more than 24,000 mentions, as well as about 20,000 were retweets. Similarly, about 40 new profiles appeared every day on Facebook in the weeks before the referendum, spreading the message of the boycott. Hundreds of new websites were also calling for a boycott and using disinformation as a weapon. An article published by Macedonian news site claimed that, depending on the result of the vote, Google might eliminate Macedonia from its list of recognized languages. For a short time before of the vote, Macedonia’s information landscape was saturated with distorted and polarizing narratives, following a 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 at all. By using manipulative or untrue messages, #Boycott managed to inject false messages into the general referendum campaign, and to 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 the deal with Greece and the referendum.


Macedonian and EU flags. Image via My Country Europe/Facebook.


On 8 September, 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. Both far-right and far-left nationalist websites 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 a very heterogeneous group of people. It is not true that everybody opposing the referendum shared pro-Russian attitudes, nor that the boycott campaign was entirely organic, or the outcome of domestic politics alone. Nenad Markovikj, a professor of political science, believes voters would be divided on this issue even if big external powers like Russia and the West were out of the picture, because the issue of identity is very sensitive for Macedonians. Nonetheless, he argues “You can intelligently assume that somebody behind the curtain is cooking and facilitating these messages.”


The Russian hand in Macedonia has been invisible. However, the influx of news websites and fake social media 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 with close ties to the Kremlin living in Greece, was actively funding politicians and protestors opposing the name changeWhile visiting Skopje, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that there was "no doubt" that Moscow was funding pro-Russian groups to influence the outcome of the referendum. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told the public “if there is any evidence of interference by using fake news, I will publicly share that.” Despite this promise, it is unlikely that anyone could trace all the troll farms employed by the Boycott camp.


Security and media experts argue that the campaign in Macedonia is part of a broader Russian strategy against the West in the Balkans. A 2017 Report from OCCRP testifies to a comprehensive anti-NATO disinformation campaign in the Western Balkans meant 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 the 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 the Russian army and weaponry have regularly been published on Sputnik and other Russian outlets.


Russia does not hide its disagreement towards Macedonia’s accession to NATO, so attempts to prevent the referendum from suceeding seem to follow a solid Russian logic. Nonetheless, Kremlin’s geopolitical battle and its enormous disinformation efforts raise more fundamental questions. The aggressive anti-NATO messages that became a fundament of the #Boycott campaign prevented voters from engaging with objective and fact-based content, discouraged citizens from participating in the democratic process, created fears, and lowered the turnout.


A recent survey about media literacy ranked Macedonia 35th out of 35 states. 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 in the whole region. We should say it out loud: Disinformation campaigns are toxic, no matter who is paying them.

Asya Metodieva is a GMF contributor. The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.


This article was initially published on the website of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. TOL has done some editing to fit its style. Reprinted with permission. 

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