The situation with the disinformation in North Macedonia in the two weeks before and after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
During the month before February, in the period before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a number of media outlets in North Macedonia were confused about how seriously the announcements of aggression of the Russian Federation against its southwestern neighbor should be taken. Those media outlets that already had preconceived notions about NATO and Russia were reporting according to previously outlined editorial policies. However, in a large number of media outlets, the way the events were covered showed that there was confusion about how to treat the conflicting information from both sides, that some lacked editorial policy, all as a result of not knowing how seriously it should be taken into account the announcements and predictions of Western intelligence and politicians about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
News of the impending invasion was reported by the media, but so were the denials of the Russian side. This trend lasted until the beginning of the invasion. However, anti-NATO and pro-Russian forces in the country, as soon as information began to spread about the accumulation of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, hurried to call on N. Macedonia to stay away from a possible future conflict, appealing to Macedonian soldiers not to take part in a possible future war, even though no one has asked the country or its armed forces to do so. But as such views spread, these forces attacked and criticized North Macedonia’s recent membership in NATO, questioning its benefits.
DISINFORMATION NARRATES IN AN AMBASSADOR TONE
The most vocal and active supporter of the Kremlin’s policies in the country, which in the period immediately before and after the invasion of Ukraine spread Russian narratives based on unequivocal disinformation, was the Russian ambassador to Macedonia, Sergey Baznikin. Unlike the recent past, especially during the last decade, when the Kremlin used disinformation networks and resources in the country, which it has been building since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this time it was decided to address such disinformation narratives to give an ambassadorial tone, that is, to capitalize on the previous efforts to spread disinformation, to strengthen their influence by giving them official support and it would be shown that the Kremlin is unequivocally behind such narratives.
His speeches were central disinformation points, and the quasi-argument contained in them was then used by Kremlin and Putin supporters on social media. In a Facebook video strategically posted just a day before the invasion, Baznikin repeatedly said Russia “has no aggressive intentions towards any other country,” adding: “We are not threatening anyone. Our priority is not confrontation, but providing security and the conditions for a peaceful, prosperous development of the country in peaceful conditions”. Only 24 hours later, the invasion of Ukraine took place, turning Bazdnikin’s statement into a mere spin.
Moreover, in his column in the newspaper “Nova Makedonija”, with which the Russian embassy and other Russian interests in the country regularly place their messages, Baznikin, this time two days after the invasion, speaks quite differently, trying to blame the invasion on NATO allies, most notably the United States and Ukraine, saying Ukraine had “become hostage to the United States’ desire to maintain its hegemonic role in international relations at all costs and is using the Kyiv authorities as a tool to drag Russia into war, isolating it and eliminating it as one of the leading countries in the world”. None of this is true, of course, because the United States and Ukraine have not invaded anyone, unlike Russia. But on social media, such twisted narratives, in which the victim is presented as the aggressor and the aggressor as the victim, were used to create a completely different picture of events in Ukraine.
The twisted narratives, along with the confusion in the media, but also the conscious spread of the Kremlin’s views, led to various disinformation and inaccurate information. For example, Stevče Jakimovski, leader of the GROM parliamentary party and mayor of one of the largest municipalities in the country, in a TV interview decided to ridicule Ukrainian President Zelensky with the words: “When you elect a comedian for a president, one morning you will have grenades for breakfast. Instead of sitting down to negotiate, to find a solution, to find a way to calm the situation, they rattle with the weapons…” Again we see a situation of blaming the victim, while at the same time disinformation is spread and it is avoided to say that Zelensky is, in fact, an economist, in addition to his acting career.
Moreover, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who is hiding in Hungary under the protection of Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, was reportedly invited to leave for Russia by Putin himself, a claim that Gruevski denied to Truthmeter via Facebook. Also, the first leader of VMRO-DPMNE and also former Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, was said that gave a statement that “Macedonian troops in Ukraine must put strong pressure on Russia”, which he denied for Truthmeter, adding that for weeks he had not made any statement about the situation in and around Ukraine. Not to mention the fact that there are no Macedonian troops in Ukraine at all. This disinformation is also a result of the conscious spread of pro-Kremlin propaganda, but it is also part of the “fog of the war”, i.e. the initial confusion about the treatment and interpretation of information in the period before and in the first week of the invasion.
This situation, full of ambiguity about the invasion, continued even after the speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose speech on the day of the invasion was widely transmitted, along with all the untruths, manipulations and spins, but with a very low level of critical reviews putting his claims in the right context, as well as without any significant effort to break his spins. On the contrary, Putin’s speech was used for further manipulations, inventing and adding things he had not said. Unlike the media in N. Macedonia, the world media immediately debunked the disinformation contained in the speech of the Russian president.
The “fog of the war” was used to spread inaccurate information that, for example, Turkey, which, although a member of NATO, has a neutral attitude towards the invasion, so such an attitude can be afforded by N. Macedonia as well, disinformation expressed by Janko Bacev, the leader of the small pro-Russian party in the country – “United Macedonia”, whose name is similar to that of Putin’s party called “United Russia.”
Nevertheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the main topic in the Macedonian media, and numerous news items were constantly published about it. They were mostly informative, they followed the events, as well as the consequences of the invasion, human casualties, the refugee crisis, statements were made by the competent government ministers, but also statements by relevant persons regarding the consequences that this war would have on N. Macedonia and the region, especially after the imposition of sanctions on Russia.
The rhetoric of some media, especially the national televisions, was in principle neutral, often with detailed coverage of the Russian invasion, statements from people leaving their homes and the like. But, all this, according to the examples we have, did not contribute enough to the citizens in N. Macedonia to gain a complete picture of what is happening and to form an opinion on a military invasion, which could have long-term consequences for the whole world.
The mainstream media in N. Macedonia during February tried to cover all aspects of the topic related to the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including all the statements of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Putin’s speeches, as well as to capture the developments on Ukrainian territory.
OLD FOOTAGE AND VIDEOS
However, some media outlets have fallen under the influence of disinformation that has spread both globally and regionally, especially when it comes to using old footage and videos, and even movie clips, to show that they are part of the Russian invasion. So, the web portal “Kurir” published a video on February 25, in which it is claimed that Russian fighter jets are flying over Kyiv, which later turned out to be falsely related to the crisis in Ukraine and is part of a Russian plane show from 2020.
Another website posted the headline, “Putin warns Pendarovski, Vucic and Balkan leaders not to interfere? If anyone tries to bother us, they will suffer huge consequences,” which was also assessed as untrue by fact-checkers, who registered that Putin did not mention the Macedonian and Serbian presidents at all. Disinformation was spread about the Ukrainian President Zelensky, i.e. in some Macedonian portals, it was reported that he gave the order to the soldiers “to destroy everything that comes their way”, which was found to be incorrect because in Zelensky’s rhetoric there is no such thing. Disinformation also spread that Zelensky, one day after the invasion, was preparing to flee to London, which again turned out to be untrue after checking the facts, which he himself confirmed through his video blogs recorded in the center of Kyiv.
Macedonian portals on February 24 published articles with the headline that thousands of Russian soldiers were parachuting down to Harakiv, posting a video that was shared on social networks. The fact-checking revealed that it was a video at least 8 to 10 years old. Other media outlets shared a video of the skies over Ukraine being literally filled with Russian planes flying in all directions, something that later turned out to be 3D animation.
Some of the Macedonian media, and especially the web portals, often know how to make these mistakes out of ignorance and it search for clicks, without precisely checking what they publish. However, some media outlets are doing this tendentiously with the intention of spreading Russian influence, while spreading such misinformation on social networks as well. There is a use of narratives such as “why they did not protest the US invasion of Iraq and are now affected by the footage from Ukraine”, but also accusations against all those who follow the media such as CNN, BBC, etc., where it is allegedly not shown the second side of events. All these instances show that there is division in the country and a striking Russian influence, which goes so far as to justify the war. So, the MP Borislav Krmov from the political party “Levica”, posted on his Facebook profile the day when the Russian invasion began, quoting the British playwright, William Shakespeare, which, among other things, said: “Let there be war I say.”
Several web portals, whose ownership is unknown, were some of those that spread the Russian propaganda the most. Such is the web portal MKD Press – (mkdpress.site), for which no data has been published, which according to the Media Register at the Media Ethics Council should contain every portal: to have stated a credible impressium (editor, editorial office, contact data and address), to have a registered legal entity in the country and to transparently declare the ownership, the published texts to be signed by the author, etc. The above medium is not registered in N. Macedonia, i.e. it does not have the .mk domain, which means that its ownership is unknown. It is similar to the web portal Kolovrt – Always on the side of truth (kolovrt.com), which regularly publishes pro-Russian news, often full of disinformation, and is also not registered in N. Macedonia. If you look at the news published on these web portals, you can easily see that they contain significantly less news about the consequences of the invasion and the current situation in Ukraine, as well as the loss of human life, than about the restrictions on Russia, texts that are against NATO, articles that Macedonia will suffer huge consequences as it sided with the US and the EU, comparing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with military intervention, military presence and/or military support given by the US in Syria’s civil wars/conflicts, Libya, Yemen, the recognition of Kosovo and the like.
Janko Bacev, the leader of the “United Macedonia” political party, also continuously adheres to these narratives. His last announcement was at a press conference where he demanded the expulsion of the Ukrainian ambassador, due to the call for recruitment of fighters. On his Facebook profile, Bacev alluded from the beginning that N. Macedonia should stay away from the developments, sharing quotes from Russian President Vladimir Putin and his statement: “Any attempt to interfere will lead to consequences you have never seen.” In the renowned weekly and web portal “Focus”, Bacev was quoted, with the headline – “I justify the Russian intervention, let’s maintain good relations with Kyiv and Moscow!”
A new movement, called “Rodina,” which declares itself a political party, is also active on social networks with more than 12,000 Facebook members and regularly broadcasts shows, where a small number of like-minded people, rotate in discussion panels, debatе the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rodina’s website explicitly states that they stand for: “Not for NATO, not for the EU. Cooperation with international organizations only on the principles of equality and respect. Withdrawal from NATO military missions and a policy of peace.”
SUBTLE DIVISION OF GUILT
The daily newspaper “Nova Makedonija” publishes columns about the Russian invasion of Ukraine almost on a daily basis, but at the same time, the columnists in their narratives rarely condemn the invasion, but subtly and often directly blame both sides equally, and N. Macedonia would be to blame if it helped Ukraine in any way and joined the European countries. Thus, the university professor Biljana Vankovska in her column, published on February 28, wrote:
Whether you are for Tito or Stalin has been replaced by whether you are for NATO / Ukraine or Putin. That false dilemma in the binary mind (either-or) is embedded in the foundations of the moral collapse of humanity. They cannot understand that one must be equally against the two warring parties. Especially when we are on the verge of a nuclear holocaust and the EU is acting like an arsonist, not a Nobel Peace Prize winner. By supplying weapons, Ukraine is becoming a de facto battleground between NATO and Russia, let us not be fooled.
Hence, the information that is spread in some media, and then with even stronger rhetoric is spread on social networks, where they are far more viral and have a much greater impact on the formation of opinions, clearly dividing the views among citizens.
The media, politicians and columnists who openly support the invasion of Ukraine are explained above. For example, the web portal Off.net.mk reports that “two adults and a child were killed in the Russian bombing of the hospital, and at least seventeen others, including pregnant women, were injured”, to write at the end of the text that “the Russians insist that Ukrainian fighters have entered the hospital and set up combat positions in it,” alluding to the fact that the responsibility for this attack does not lie solely with Russia, as Ukraine has set up combat positions in the hospital (for which there is no evidence offered).
In this way, and through the publication of columns, the creation of new Facebook pages and groups, as well as Twitter accounts, pro-Russian media outlets are propagandizing, trying to relativize the Russian invasion at the end or between the lines, conveying the responsibility on Ukraine. Thus, this runs the narrative that Russia is not trying to destroy the international order, but that NATO and America are doing it, further that the “US regime” is the one who creates the crises, and through comparisons (the wars that took place in the past), attempts are being made to make anyone who sympathizes with the victims and refugees from Ukraine feel bad because “they have not sympathized with the victims and refugees from other parts of the world, in the past and now.”
Very little time and attention are paid to the reasons for the spread of disinformation, but also to the fact that hate speech and negative rhetoric in favor of Russia are spreading on social networks.
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