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Macedonia's 'Fake News' Exports Now For Domestic Consumption


Macedonian protesters wave flags in front of the parliament building in Skopje during a demonstration earlier this year against a proposed change in the name of the country. Some analysts fear a "fake news" campaign could affect the outcome of an upcoming referendum on the issue.

In Macedonia's shadowy "fake news" industry, it seems that what goes around comes around.

As 1.8 million eligible voters in that Balkan state mull their options in a September 30 referendum on changing the country's name to end a long dispute with Greece, the country that found itself accused of helping flood U.S. voters with bogus stories in the 2016 presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power is itself awash in a social-media influence campaign.

"Boycott the referendum." "Don't destroy Macedonia." "Zaev is a traitor." Those are just some of the messages analysts say are circulating on fake social-media profiles in a bid by opponents of the "yes" vote encouraged by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev that could open the door to NATO and European Union membership.

"The boycott campaign is not coordinated by a dominant political party, but it is being advanced by multiple actors without central control, making such fake news sites promoting them more important. In addition, the issue is highly polarizing, and thus invites such 'reporting,'" Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, told RFE/RL.

Western officials have repeatedly warned of Russian efforts to discourage EU and NATO ambitions within the former Eastern Bloc, including through Internet trolling and other tools of "hybrid warfare."

But no smoking cyberguns have emerged to implicate Moscow in the current Macedonian debate.

Sensitive Topic

The name dispute between Macedonia and Greece dates back to 1991, when Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia.

Greece says the name Macedonia implies territorial and cultural claims on the northern Greek region of the same name. Greece, an EU and NATO member, has cited the dispute to veto Macedonia's bids to join the two organizations.

Athens and Skopje recently hammered out a tentative compromise to end decades of squabbling if Macedonia adopts the name Republic of North Macedonia.

"A clear majority of [Macedonian] citizens want EU and NATO membership," Bieber said. "The agreement is the only way to get there."

Understanding The Macedonia Name Dispute
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Not many Macedonians are happy about the name change, but most say they accept it because of the bounty it is expected bring through deeper Euro-Atlantic integration.

The topic is so sensitive that the referendum question doesn't even mention the new name.

That has provided even more fodder for opponents eager to exploit social media to sway public opinion, just as dubious "news sites" and anonymous social media accounts did in the run-up to the U.S. elections in 2016 when Macedonia achieved cult status for the dozens of rumor-mongering websites registered there.

As with the U.S. election campaign, some suspect Russia is at the heart of the disinformation drive.

Prime Minister Zaev has said that he has seen no evidence of Russian interference.

Mattis Urges Macedonians To Vote
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But U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said ahead of a visit to Macedonia on September 17 that Russia was attempting to use its money and influence to build opposition to this weekend's referendum.

"No doubt that they have transferred money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns," Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Skopje. Mattis said it was unclear how effective Moscow's alleged efforts to defeat the referendum had been.

But Marko Trosanovski, a communications and marketing expert from the Institute for Democracy think tank, warned this month that the scope of the misinformation "war" aimed at manipulating opinion was intensifying.

"The purpose of these messages is to sow fear and tug on emotional heartstrings, making the audience easy prey to any manipulation," Trosanovski said.

During the U.S. election campaign, many younger Macedonians, apparently driven by financial gain more than any political ideology, were instrumental in disseminating misinformation.

Typically, they would set up websites and trawl the Internet for especially divisive articles, which they would then reproduce as well as sharing the link on Facebook groups.

The reward was clicks on the pseudo-news websites they had set up, which were monetized through the traffic generated for the ads on those websites. Given that the average monthly wage in Macedonia is under $400, even small websites could provide a healthy income.

Media Literacy

Macedonian media reports claim that about 40 new profiles are being created on Facebook every day with the sole aim of encouraging people to boycott the referendum.

Those sites include Kolozeg.info and Infomax.mk, along with Facebook profiles linking to groups urging a boycott using the hashtag #bojkotiram.

Macedonian law requires more than 50 percent participation among the country's 1.8 million voters to make a referendum valid, so a campaign aimed at suppressing turnout could be the most effective way to scupper the vote, which even President George Ivanov says he won't participate in.

"Even with the adoption of the harmful Greek treaty and [relevant] constitutional amendments, membership in NATO and the European Union will not come automatically," Ivanov said in a speech to Macedonia's diaspora in the U.S. city of Detroit on September 22.

Such websites appeared to find a large and eager audience in the United States, and look to have just as accepting a market at home.

A recent survey by the Open Society Institute in Sofia suggested Macedonians may be more susceptible to such manipulation than their European neighbors.

The report said Macedonia ranked last among 35 European nations in media literacy, meaning it was the most-susceptible country to "fake news" in the survey.

"The Balkan countries are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of fake news and post-truth, with controlled media, deficiencies in education and lower trust in society," the report said.

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