Infodemics, a snap election, and a (lukewarm) Western welcome: North Macedonia’s identity at stake on Twitter Study II – Content of Disinformation

Ognjan Denkovski / 22 Jan, 2021

The study examines the (news) domains which shaped public discussions in the period surrounding the July 2020 election in North Macedonia using a data set of the most popular daily tweets in the period between February and August of 2020 and complements this analysis with an examination of the most popular hashtags. The findings show that computational disinformation methods were used to shape public discussions in the period surrounding the election and were primarily based on content aligned with the geo-political goals of foreign actors opposed to the country’s progress on its Euro-Atlantic integration path.

Disinformation campaigns often base their activity around social media posts or statements from political leaders whose messages are amplified or used for facilitating political attacks on opponents. This was also the case for the network identified in Study I of this research project – a network developed for the purpose of the 2020 election in North Macedonia, which focused its activity on amplifying posts from the centre-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) and Levica [‘The Left’], while also vilifying officials from the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). However, not all disinformation campaigns rely on the activity of organized, centrally controlled networks. Rather, many disinformation campaigns are the result of content published and shared by news outlets with dubious agendas, unclear ownership and a lack of transparent editorial policies. This content is then disseminated among organic groups of social media users susceptible to the views promoted by these outlets.

This study presents the second part of a research project analyzing the presence of foreign computational disinformation in North Macedonia in the period surrounding the 2020 election. The electoral period and the study are situated amidst several significant developments in North Macedonian foreign politics, including NATO membership and the expected start of EU membership negotiations – developments which challenge the goals of foreign actors opposed to the Euro-Atlantic integration of Western Balkan countries, most notably Russia. To conduct the analysis, we regularly collected the 100 most popular tweets aggregated by North Macedonia’s most visited news domain Time.mk. These tweets were collected every two hours of every day between early February and early August of 2020 – a total of 138,983 unique tweets shared by 5,604 unique users. We use this data to determine the most shared domains (specifically news outlets) in this period, as well as to determine which hashtags fueled discussions surrounding the election. We additionally link our findings to the outcomes of Study I of this research project, where we identified a large network of accounts created in the run-up to the 2020 election for the purpose of increasing the visibility of VMRO-DPMNE and Levica officials, largely as a means of amplifying content in opposition to the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration, while also vilifying SDSM officials.

Firstly, we show that posts from the accounts of VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski, as well as those from Levica leader Dimitar Apasiev, frequently made it among the top daily tweets in this period, despite their relatively low numbers of follower on Twitter. This finding suggests that the network identified in Study I of this research project was effective in promoting the tweets of these actors among organic Twitter communities in North Macedonia. Additionally, we show that outlets such as Infomax, an outlet with at least indirect links to Russian state-funded news, as well as outlets such as Freeglobe, DokazMakedonija and Kolozeg, all of which support VMRO-DPMNE and promote conspiratorial views based on global and domestic right-wing content, shaped the discussions of Twitter users in North Macedonia in this period. Finally, we demonstrate that the most popular, politically substantive hashtags in this period promote opposition to North Macedonia’s name-change as well as to the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

While the study did not identify direct foreign influence, the findings show that computational disinformation methods were used to shape public discussions primarily with content aligned with the geo-political goals of foreign actors opposed to the country’s progress on its Euro-Atlantic integration path.