Russian state-funded media outlet pushing one-sided narratives but getting low traction ahead of September 30 referendum
With one week left ahead of the nationwide referendum to determine the name of the country, Macedonia’s information environment is becoming clouded with distorted and polarizing narratives by some Russian media outlets, especially from Sputnik — a state-funded online outlet.
@DFRLab analyzed recent coverage by Sputnik on the Macedonia referendum and found exclusively one-sided, polarizing, or misleading content.
Sputnik’s anti-referendum rhetoric
@DFRLab ran two basic Google searches to look for the recent articles published by Sputnik in the past month which include Macedonia and NATO keywords.
In the image, the red boxes show the headlines that disapproved of the Prespa Agreement between Greece and Macedonia, which precipitated the Sept. 30 referendum, and hostile toward the referendum. The blue underlined texts are basic introductory lines that provide an indication or summary of the editorial tone of the articles. For instance, one article read:
In all polls, Macedonians have overwhelmingly rejected the government’s agreement with Greece to rename their country and therefore erase their Macedonian ethnic and national identity, but particularly for the purposes of membership in NATO and the European Union under US diktat. The polls reveal that between 80 percent and 90 percent of Macedonians will boycott the referendum.
Regardless of Sputnik’s claims, International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights survey states that there are “increasing levels of optimism and support for joining the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ahead of the referendum.” The survey report stated:
A combined 57 percent “completely support” (37 percent) or “somewhat support” (20 percent) the proposal for Macedonia to join the EU and NATO under the new name “Republic of North Macedonia.” The same proportion (57 percent) believe that the benefits of accession justify the acceptance of the new name. Half of the respondents (49 percent) intend to vote in favor of resolving the name dispute, compared to 22 percent who intend to vote against the proposed change.
The source of Sputnik’s polling data was not clear. Further, the conclusion reached via unsourced polling data supported a deceptive and disparaging narrative, which was directly contradicted by more polling data with transparent and thorough methodology.
Recent pieces by Sputnik, as measured on September 19, included a high ratio of dislikes and low engagement rates. A “dislike” on an article could be an indicator of reader opinion toward the journalism or the outlet, but it is more likely an indicator of the reader’s initial reaction to the headline.
While measuring only dislikes wasn’t a definitive indicator of reader sentiment, Sputnik’s coverage of the Macedonia referendum did not yet garner outsized engagement.
One article — “Macedonia on Edge Amid Fears of Manipulation in Looming EU, NATO Membership Vote” — achieved only 137 total engagements across social media platforms.
Another article — “Macedonia: The Name That Broke The Russian-Greek Bond?” — garnered only 191 total engagements across various social media platforms.
One other article — “Macedonia’s Accession to NATO to Be Mistake With Consequences — Russian EU Envoy” — achieved only two likes and six dislikes.
Even with the high disapproval ratings on many of the Sputnik’s articles, their coverage has been highly critical of the EU and NATO in the Balkans.
Sputnik’s coverage about the Macedonia has increased, and the Balkans are a concern for Russia in terms of geopolitical shift, with growing concern that the region might become increasingly integrated into NATO and EU.
The naming referendum did not alarm Sputnik to amplify their coverage, in fact, the coverage increased in the year 2015, not only for Macedonia, but also for the Balkans more broadly.
Data prepared by the Embassy of Kosovo in France monitored the amplification in Sputnik’s coverage of the Balkans. The dataset included the languages French, English, German, and Serbian.
A quick glance shows that Sputnik increased its output about the Balkans by almost 100 percent after the year 2015. More than 600 articles on Macedonia were produced by the year 2017. The point here is not the numbers, but how Russian state-owned media is increasing its attention on the Balkans after the alignment of European Union and NATO in some parts of the region.
Last year, Montenegro joined NATO, and Sputnik’s coverage amped up to almost five times of that in the year 2015. The same applied to Kosovo, but with about four times the coverage, but this increased coverage wasn’t new for Kosovo.
Petrit Selimi, former Foreign Minister of Kosovo, said:
“Russian disinformation campaign has been very active for almost a decade.”
Sputnik’s polarizing commentators
The provider of “alternative news content,” has a style of choosing commentators who oppose the West and NATO alliance in the European Union. For instance, the recent article titled, ‘Way the Referendum Over Macedonia Naming Formulated Is ‘Scam in Itself’ — Author.’ Sputnik manages to include the author’s name after several paragraphs down in the article, name, Nikola Mirkovic. He is the author of a book called, ‘The Martyrdom of Kosovo.’
In the article, Mirkovic stated:
“The way the referendum is formulated is scam in itself.”
However, Mirkovic’s opinion is written as fact but without any critical analysis or evidence to support.
Another commentator Navid Nasr, an independent geopolitical analyst usually critical of the United States, was featured in the article, “Politics Dominate Over Realism: Population of Balkans Oppose NATO — Analyst.” As opposed to what’s stated in the headline the article talks about commentator’s view on the Serbian population, mainly on how the people oppose NATO.
Sputnik’s decision to take up only “anti-NATO” commentators, blurs the idea of journalism, as it is in no way close to what we know as neutral or objective reporting. It is, in fact, polarizing and opposing reporting.
Even though Sputnik’s coverage of the Balkans has increased in the past year , the Russian government-funded outlet’s coverage on Macedonia’s naming referendum has failed to garner an significant uptick in online engagement. The coverage from Sputnik has also failed to find engagement with factual engagement. The content on Sputnik has featuring overwhelming aim to discredit international institutions like NATO and EU.
Due to the diffuse and fragmented nature of Macedonia’s media landscape, Sputnik’s coverage cannot be considered a complete analysis of approval or disapproval of the editorial tone of the outlet, which serves as an extension of the Russian state. However, the analysis is another case study in one-sided or misleading coverage from the state-funded online outlet.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor the lead-up to the referendum in Macedonia.
Kanishk Karan is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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