A pro-democracy group says it has uncovered an extensive online effort to suppress voter turnout for a critical referendum in Macedonia on changing its name to accelerate its bid to join NATO and the European Union.
The Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, whose members span the political spectrum and include such luminaries as former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, said the voter-suppression effort appeared aimed at defeating the referendum on September 30, which requires a 50 percent turnout to be valid.
The ballot will ask Macedonians to vote on an agreement its new Socialist government reached with Greece this year to change the country's name to North Macedonia. If voters agree to the name change, the referendum would eventually pave the way for Macedonia to join the EU and NATO.
Recent polls suggest that the online vote-suppression effort could have an effect on the referendum's outcome, with over 70 percent of voters currently supporting the name change, but just under 58 percent of voters saying they intend to vote.
"There is clearly a concerted effort to thwart the democratic rights of Macedonians and delegitimize the referendum vote," the commission said in a statement.
"Macedonians alone must decide what future they want for their country. We urge them to make their voice heard this Sunday. The local authorities, together with the international community, must take all necessary measures to ensure the integrity of Sunday's vote, and that no malign action will go unpunished."
The commission said it had been unable as yet to locate the origin of the apparent campaign to interfere in the Macedonian vote.
It said its social-media-monitoring tool had detected an increase in automated bots posting messages on Twitter over the past 50 days, and an increase in activity of new and existing automated accounts over the past week.
The bots involved in the campaign are sharing posts that support a boycott of the referendum sponsored by opposition parties and politicians in Macedonia, it said.
The commission said the level of political activity seen on Twitter over the Macedonian referendum surpassed what it observed in other recent elections where allegations of outside interference occurred, including the recent Mexican and Italian elections.
The commission said it had also found evidence of a covert financial campaign from individuals in Greece and Macedonia to support antireferendum groups.