#ElectionWatch: Boycott Campaign in Macedonia Features Familiar Characters

Far-right social media activity trying to drive down voter turnout ahead of Macedonian naming referendum

(Source: @DFRLab)

Macedonia will hold a naming referendum on September 30, which will decide by ballot an initiative to rename the country the Republic of North Macedonia. The issue does raise the question of what is in a name, but it could also resolve a long dispute between Macedonia and Greece, which has kept Macedonia from ascending into the European Union and NATO.

Leading up to the approaching referendum date, an online campaign called #Бојкотира (translates to #boycott) is steadily growing on Twitter and Facebook. The aim of this far-right campaign is boycotting the referendum.

@DFRLab investigated how the campaign took shape on Twitter.

Key figures of the traffic on #Бојкотира from machine scan. (Source: Sysomos)

The boycott hashtag garnered around 23,800 mentions, of which 19,300 were retweets, meaning retweets constituted 80.9 percent of the total content. This suggests the message was heavily amplified but lacked much original messaging on Twitter.

A visualization showing how the retweet, mention, and reply network around the #Бојкотира hashtag shows the most influential accounts (in darker orange-red colors) that made the online campaign locally viral.

Accounts that retweeted, mentioned and quoted #Бојкотира on Twitter. The accounts mentioned pushed the campaign the most and had a large network of supporters who retweeted the hashtag. (Source: Graphistry / Data: Dropbox.com)

According to trendsmap.com, the campaign is one of the top trending hashtags in Macedonia, with about 3,900 tweets on September 8.

Screenshot of top trending hashtags in Macedonia. (Source: Trendsmap.com)

The activity online coordinated with activity in the real world. One of the reasons behind the spike in online trending of #бојкотирам could be the fact September 8 is Macedonia’s Independence Day. Some of these tweets were in reference to the Independence Day.

A demonstration against the referendum was also held on September 8, which could be one of the reasons behind the spike in online trending of the hashtag. A few hundred demonstrators showed up at the event. Irrespective to how many people actually turned out at the event, the referendum boycott efforts on online platforms is well organized and picking up the attention slowly.

Screenshot of an event posted by the Facebook page Бојкотирам. The event translation reads as “Celebration of the Birthday of the Republic of Macedonia!” Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Facebook / bojkotiram)

The event was held on the same day as Angela Merkel’s meeting with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, in which she expressed her support for the ‘Yes’ vote in referendum, which would open opportunities to EU and NATO.

Just two days before Merkel’s visit, on September 5, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Skopje to discuss the progress in NATO accession talks, he stated:

“NATO’s door is open, but only the people of this country can decide to walk through it. So your future is in your hands.”

However, the boycott hashtag sustained online traction and trending status nationwide in Macedonia during Stoltenberg’s visit.

A signal of coordination, messages to boycott the referendum were posted on far-right Macedonian websites. Extreme nationalist diaspora web site mn.mk, claimed that the referendum was illegal and should be boycotted.

The screenshot of the translation of the webpage mn.mk, having a list of curated hashtags against the referendum. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Facebook / mn.mk)

The website also had hashtags posted related to boycotting referendum.

Another website called bojkotiramfeed.com compiled lists of tweets against the referendum. The website allows users to easily retweet and share the content on social media pages.

Screenshot of a website which has curated a list of tweets to retweet against the referendum. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: bojkotiramfeed.com)

Looking at the way the online movement spread and sustained engagement, it bore similarities — in style and narratives — to far-right conversations in the United States and Europe. For instance, some tweets had hashtags related to the Q-anon movement, a conspiracy theory about surreptitious government control in the United States.

One tweet shared widely in Macedonia read:

“Boycotting meme factory special operations command is on duty. The games can start.”
Screenshot of a tweet with Qanon related hashtags. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Twitter / C4i7Z)
Another screenshot of a tweet with Qanon related hashtags. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Twitter / C4i7Z)

The blue box in the above right screenshot translates to “#Pepe3Macedonian”, the hashtag isn’t prolific on Twitter, but there has been an increase in Pepe the Frog meme, an anthropomorphic frog character, used by far-right users in the United States, which is now being used in the boycott campaign in Macedonia.

Pepe the Frog meme used as a part of the boycott protest on Twitter. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Twitter/ aimforthesky1)
Pepe the Frog meme with MAGA-type red color hat used as a part of the boycott protest on Twitter. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Twitter / aimforthesky1)

The usage of Pepe meme is becoming common in far-right movements in European countries and around the world after gaining popularity in the United States. In Macedonia, Pepe and other right-ideological memes are uncommon to the general audience, except a few far-right groups.

Pepe’s identity is mostly used as a hate symbol in the West, after 4chan and 8chan far-right and “alt-right” users started using the character as their symbol. The term alt-right refers to the offshoot of conservatism, mixed with racism, white-nationalism, and populism.

But in Macedonia it seems that the usage of Pepe meme is narrowly tailored, used against the accession referendum into European Union and NATO.

It’s not just Pepe, the movement #Бојкотира has also featured another unfamiliar meme, Steve Bannon with a sunglasses sticker.

Steve Bannon’s meme used with the hashtag #БОЈКОТИРАМ. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Twitter /LOshGZE)
Another Steve Bannon meme used with the hashtag #БОЈКОТИРАМ. Archived on September 8, 2018. (Source: Twitter / LOshGZE)

Using a Bannon image like the one above with a message might be a representation of political leaning when used in the United States, but in Macedonia it’s a sign of a growing culture of the far-right movement in the European online climate. The usage of Bannon’s image comes after he recently opened a foundation called The Movement, based in Brussels and which aims to advise and support populist forces across Europe.

A screenshot of translated text of The Foundation registration papers. (Source: www.ejustice.just.fgov.be)

Although, the Bannon meme may not have anything to do with his foundation’s role in Macedonia, it remains a strong indicator for the online influence of his work and advocacy among nationalist or populist communities in the European region.

Conclusion

Throughout events in Macedonia ahead of naming referendum on September 30, including a demonstration to boycott the vote and visits by the Prime Minister of Germany and Secretary General of NATO encouraging a “yes” vote, the boycott hashtag sustained trending status and significant online engagement.

Although it remains unclear if the online campaign will drive behavior change among Macedonian voters, the effort to boycott the vote cannot be discounted. Not only does the hashtag discourage participation in Macedonia’s democratic process, the content shared alongside the hashtag trends toward disengaging its audience from objective or fact-based content.

The effort from far right websites to boycott the vote entirely, as opposed to campaigning for Macedonians to vote “no”, is a significant indicator of motive, as a high turnout is likely to trend toward the country’s integration into the European Union and NATO.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor disinformation and the wider online information environment ahead of Macedonia’s naming referendum.


Kanishk Karan is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab)

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