Fighting Disinformation in North Macedonia
Disinformation comes in waves. Sometimes you are flooded in it, other times it makes itself scarce. When the media landscape is flooded with news, the disinformation also becomes plentiful. And the other way around.
The strength of a disinformation wave depends on the type of the news flooding the shores of public discourse. If a news event or aspect of current affairs that is targeted with disinformation has an end date, so will the disinformation about it. If the topic is open-ended, disinformation will follow it for quite some time.
A prime example is the persistence of covid-19 and vaccine disinformation, which has been exacerbated by the existing networks of indoctrinated individuals (like the anti-vax movement) just waiting to come out from the shadows and spread their narratives and fake stories.
Similar movements are seizing the day peddling fake medicines and cures. All of a sudden all kinds of pills and remedies have appeared accompanied by claims of healing covid-19 and other illnesses. The selling point for these “medicines” are that they cure various diseases caused or exacerbated by covid-19 or by covid vaccines. These vaccines do not cause any illnesses, of course, but why gripe over details?
And then came the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Strangely, many of the same internet and social media properties spreading covid disinformation also spread pro-Kremlin disinformation. These individuals are geniuses, it seems. Their field of expertise is unimaginably wide. No matter the subject, they are ready, willing and capable to lie about it.
At the beginning there was a lot of confusion. You could see the peddlers of disinformation switching to a testing mode, trying to discover what would work on their victims’ tortured minds and what wouldn’t. You could also see they were scraping from the bottom of the disinformation barrel: they used scenes from video games and claimed it was footage of a dog fight between Ukrainian and Russian combat aircraft. Many of these accounts were rehashing pictures and videos from 2014 or even from the 1990s Yugoslav wars and presenting them as scenes from the current war, often claiming the image or video depicted Ukrainian soldiers doing something bad.
Many of the same social media properties spreading covid disinformation also spread pro-Kremlin disinformation.
But as time passed the production of pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation shifted gear and sped up. The quality improved and you could feel there was some logic behind the specific disinformation; you could see they were using at least a little bit of truth as bait to gain confidence from readers before they poison the content with a ton of lies on top.
As Russian battlefield losses mounted the inspiration for lies diminished. It’s hard to lie with any confidence when the whole world sees you losing territory for months. You can see that the Kremlin’s efforts to find or invent Nazis in Ukraine, for example, preferably among Ukrainian leadership, has lost steam and became an impossible task.
Kremlin propagandists think that social media users leave their brains at the kitchen table before going to the living room and opening their devices to catch up on the latest news and stumbling upon their latest lies.
For example, they claimed that a teen girl right-wing extremist who was in the news in 2014 was Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky’s niece. She isn’t. And it wasn’t hard for the fact checkers in Ukraine and abroad to check the claim. This was similar to the imaginary Nazi insignia on one of the beads of a bracelet seen around the wrist of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Nazi insignia that no one else was able to see, except the Kremlin propagandists’ “eagle eyes.”
Networks of disinformation
One can also notice attempts of (rather basic and crude) “market segmentation” in the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts and the targeting of specific countries, reinforced by already existing pro-Kremlin networks.
For years now, the Kremlin has been getting close to various fringe groups and movements. While they work to gain influence over extreme left-wing, neo-Stalinist or communist groups, they are also happy to cozy up to nationalists, traditionalists, the ultra-religious, autocrats, anti-LGBT activists, biker gangs and even militias, depending on local situations.
In many of these groups the Kremlin has created or tried to create their own networks and associations, such as Russian-domestic friendship associations. They often try to organize a few local Russians alongside the group, even if it’s just a couple because a couple Russians alongside some pro-Russian locals does the trick for them — especially if they are internet proficient and ready to amplify the Kremlin’s propaganda in the local context and in the local language.
While the Kremlin works to gain influence over extreme left-wing or neo-Stalinist groups, they’re happy to cozy up to nationalists, the ultra-religious, anti-LGBT activists, or biker gangs.
When the networks are not enough, they use the official social media accounts of local Russian embassies. If international attention is required, the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in London can do the trick, but if they want the disinformation to fly under the radar and not to be picked up by international media, then the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in а smaller non-English-speaking country is called upon.
But when they want to sow fear, rage and division among their enemies, because it suits their political goals, they search for points of contention and disagreements among them. Then they try to amplify and widen such disagreements. They simply side with one of the parties against the other one, stoking anger and suspicion that the side receiving Kremlin support is actually working hand-in-hand with the Kremlin.
This is exactly what they did when trying to exploit Macedonian-Bulgarian disagreement over history and language, which led to a Bulgarian veto over the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations. They used the Twitter account of their embassy in Skopje to side with North Macedonia, thus enraging Bulgaria in an attempt to widen the gap between the two neighboring countries.
With the row between North Macedonia and Bulgaria now in high gear, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth, and with North Macedonia’s accession negotiations starting to look barely reachable, it seems things have gone the way the Kremlin wanted, which leaves greater potential for future Russian meddling and influence-peddling in the Balkans.
Fighting malign influences, what can be done?
At the Metamorphosis Foundation, where I work as a fact-checking editor, we are trying to discover, analyze and unmask foreign undemocratic and malign influences, especially those attempting to undermine the long-pursued strategic orientation of North Macedonia as a future fully integrated Euro-Atlantic partner, dependable member of NATO and one-day EU member.
This is not important only for North Macedonia, but for all the other Western Balkan countries, which all face some degree of malign influence from Russia and attempts to hold them back from the European path.
With an established base of Russian influence in the country, Serbia is especially vulnerable to the Kremlin’s malign activities. This same influence is also deeply established in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as among Serbs in the north of Kosovo.
Cracks in public opinion regarding Russia’s aggression against Ukraine can be spotted in North Macedonia. The fact that North Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since 2005 and hasn’t moved forward at all, despite the change of the country’s name as requested by Greece, has pushed some Macedonians over the edge, making them lose their confidence in the West and to look elsewhere regarding their country’s prosperity and security.
Our long term efforts to strengthen the public’s confidence in Euro-Atlantic institutions and keep the malign propaganda at bay in North Macedonia and the region are being implemented with the help of our international partners and in close cooperation with our partners from all over Western Balkans.
We are monitoring and analyzing public sources of disinformation, using public interest journalism, as well as our fact-checking experience to stop foreign malign and undemocratic influences by fighting disinformation and unmasking manipulation, preventing the spread of fear, anger, manufactured disputes and everything else coming out from the propaganda textbooks of the bad actors.
This is part of our fight to preserve and strengthen democracy in our region and lessen the opportunities for bad actors to spread propaganda and disinformation.
Vladimir Petreski is a long-time journalist and editor. For more than 10 years he has been working as a fact-checking editor and media projects coordinator at the Metamorphosis Foundation in Skopje, North Macedonia. He is editor-in-chief of the fact-checking, public accountability and transparency website Truthmeter.mk.