Rosana Aleksoska: Russian Influence Is Particularly Present At Important Periods and Events in North Macedonia
The NGO MOST recently published a study dedicated to the fight against false news and narratives. The study “Disinformation and information distortion in North Macedonia December 2021” focuses on the dominant narratives in 2020, with a special focus on articles published in the period from January 1 to May 10. A total of 2,658 articles from 211 portals and Facebook pages/groups were analyzed. The focus of this study is on disinformation and a range of local and international information operations affecting North Macedonia. “Vistinomer” talked to Rosana Aleksoska from MOST, one of the authors of the study, about how certain topics were targeted through disinformation campaigns, how disinformation narratives are created and how they are amplified, through a complex network of online actors and social networks
Author: Ana Anastasovska
What are the five general or 5D techniques of disinformation?
The Five Disinformation Techniques is a concept that originally included four elements: Dismiss, Distort, Distract, and Dismay. With the addition of the fifth element, Divide, the initial concept evolved into the 5D of misinformation.
Dismiss – if someone does not like criticism then instead of facts and arguments, they attack with insults. Women in politics, marginalized groups or smaller ethnic communities are often the targets of such insults.
Distort – this technique is used when someone does not like the facts, so they twisted it, and the result is a half-truth, which is more dangerous than a completely fabricated lie. An example is a distortion in the reporting of the incident between the British warship “HMS Defender” and the Russian navy that occurred in July 2021 in the Black Sea. Russian disinformation about the event was present in North Macedonia, and during the reporting of the event, a serious distortion was noticed in the online space. Namely, 70% of the articles about the event contained the Russian side of the story, while about 30% contained the British side. Nearly 60% of the articles used Russian sources, and only 19% used British sources. Despite this, some British sources were twisted or manipulated in favor of the Russian narrative.
Distract – it occurs to defocus the public from certain key events, or historical achievements. The disinformation about the harmfulness of the 5G network in our country was organized in the period around March 27, 2020, the day we became a member of NATO.
Dismay – in the sense that when a country pursues a policy and chooses a course that is supported by the majority of citizens, as North Macedonia has chosen Euro-Atlantic integration, and then dismay happens by third countries that do not like the chosen path.
Divide – it uses every opportunity to divide citizens on a party, ethnic and religious grounds, and this technique is also used to create divisions between different or neighboring countries.
Once one or more of these techniques are used, then amplification is used, in order for the disinformation to reach as many citizens as possible. Here, social networks have proven to be one of the tools for spreading disinformation, and a number of known and anonymous pro-Russian and anti-Western portals have been identified that use well-developed social media infrastructures to amplify disinformation. The study “Disinformation and information distortion in North Macedonia” published by FN in December 2021, analyzed the information on the assistance provided to deal with Covid-19 from various countries and international entities. It was noted that the articles related to the aid from China and Russia were largely amplified through the networks of actors on social media, which led to the number of articles about the aid from these countries and their interactions on Facebook being much higher than other countries and entities, which was not proportionate to their real contribution.
According to the 2021 Media Literacy Report, which assesses the potential for resistance to fake news in 25 European countries, North Macedonia is at the bottom – a position it has been held since 2017. What are the main sources of disinformation in North Macedonia and why is our country at the bottom of the list?
The reasons why North Macedonia is at the bottom are mentioned in the report itself, and one of them is education and, consequently, the high level of distrust in science. In addition to media literacy, it is worth mentioning the GLOBSEC research on the vulnerability of Central European and Western Balkan countries to the influences of Russia and China, in which Macedonian society is in the middle of the ladder with a vulnerability index of 40 out of 100. Part of the factors contributing to this situation is the fragmentation of society, political polarization, as well as ethnic and religious differences, which make such a vulnerable democratic society an easy target for harmful foreign influences. In terms of sources of disinformation, as I have already mentioned, our study identified several groups of pro-Russian and anti-Western portals with a well-developed Facebook disinformation infrastructure.
Is there a foreign influence in North Macedonia and how is it reflected?
Of course, there is. What we have noticed is that this influence extends to key periods and events for the country, especially when it comes to Euro-Atlantic integration. At every key event in this process, disinformation campaigns or information operations have been reported to distract attention from these historic achievements, attacking the West, discrediting various figures, including Western institutions. What is important to note is that this harmful foreign influence comes from authoritarian and liberal countries and it can be characterized as “sharp power”. This concept actually means that these authoritarian regimes in their countries suppress freedom of speech and violate human rights, while at the same time abusing open democratic societies to promote and impose illiberalism and authoritarianism. Authoritarian influence in the young and vulnerable democracies of the Western Balkans is characterized as “sharp” in the sense that it penetrates or perforates the information space, trying to influence citizens through manipulation and distortion of information. This process takes place through multiple agents of influence and information operations, both foreign and domestic, who are positioned at different levels and with different roles in this process. When we talk about disinformation narratives in North Macedonia, and in the Balkans, we should be aware that they polarize and divide.
The study places particular emphasis on anti-EU and anti-NATO propaganda in North Macedonia. How did you notice it and how is it placed in the Macedonian media?
As I said, one of the disinformation techniques is a distraction, which was especially noticeable in our country during key achievements or events related to Euro-Atlantic integration, so we witnessed two disinformation campaigns directed against the EU and NATO, respectively.
The first, ironically titled “Blanket for You”, was part of the anti-EU narrative “EU does not help North Macedonia/the Balkans” and aimed to downplay EU assistance to North Macedonia in dealing with Covid-19. Following the announcement of the then EU Ambassador, Samuel Žbogar, that North Macedonia would receive assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, which included, among other things, 1,000 blankets, an immediate anti-EU narrative emerged, and the campaign title was an ironic twist of the slogan “EU for you”. In fact, this can be interpreted as an attempt to cover up the information that North Macedonia in that period received 66 million Euros from the EU to deal with the coronavirus, given that all actors involved in the campaign ignored it and did not mention it at all. Can you imagine what the conditions and readiness of the systems would have been to deal with the pandemic had it not been for the long-term systematic assistance provided by the Western allies since the break-up of Yugoslavia to this day?
The second campaign was conducted around March 27, 2020, the day when North Macedonia became a member of NATO. It was aimed at distracting the public from this historic achievement which is a strategic goal of the country since its independence and has consistently high support from citizens. Unfortunately, this campaign was well organized and coordinated and implied that NATO is imposing the 5G network, in order to incite fear and panic among the citizens. In addition, anti-NATO narratives were seen in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the March 2020 disinformation that 70,000 US troops had arrived in Germany, aimed at discrediting the Defender Europe 2020 military exercise and perception was created that fear and panic reigned in Europe.
From these two examples it can be seen that the topics used for disinformation are most often emotional, something to which people react, such as their health, or the health of children, security, identity issues, interethnic relations, and so on.
Currently, the situation with Russia and Ukraine is top news. Is there a glorification of Russia in our country? What do the narratives in the public and media space reveal?
This question builds on the previous questions in some way and is relevant to the current context. As seen before, most of the narratives directed against the West, the US, the EU or NATO, at the same time, directly or indirectly, mean the promotion or glorification of Russia. A number of factors are (mis)used, such as the legacy of communism, Slavic origin and religion, the openness of democratic societies, etc.… So, disinformation and information operations are driven by what exists among some citizens. On the other hand, spreading disinformation and propaganda contributes to reinforcing such misconceptions. Russia has an interest in the region being part of its “sphere of influence” and cannot be reconciled with the fact that almost all of these countries have already become NATO members.
In this period, this strategy of Russia can be seen from the situation with Ukraine, where in addition to the hybrid war it has been waging against Ukraine since the occupation of Crimea in 2014, it has gone to a higher level and demands from a sovereign state not to run its foreign policy according to the interests of its citizens, but according to Russian interests. All this, including the suffering of Ukrainian citizens and the state, more than 14,000 Ukrainians have lost their lives, the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine has been violated, and is contrary to the basic principles of international relations that ensure peace and security. Russia’s glorification, among other things, is carried out through agents of influence and information operations, both foreign and domestic, who are interconnected and who spread disinformation and propaganda, and this is sometimes done very subtly.
One of the latest examples is the reactions to the appearance of the Minister of Defense, Slavjanka Petrovska in “Top Tema” because she stated that the ARM is considering scenarios for the deployment of our troops in Ukraine as part of NATO and that North Macedonia respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. What is surprising is that certain structures in society still behave as if North Macedonia is not a member of NATO, although it will be almost two years since its accession to NATO. NATO is above all an Alliance, which means that we have entered into a defence-security alliance with the other 29 member states and of course, we should take part in any defence operation that NATO is undertaking or plans to undertake.