Nazi accusations becoming a theme in effort to boycott Macedonia’s name referendum
Ahead of Macedonia’s naming referendum on September 30, Nazi imagery and accusations have been inserted into the political dialogue online. Content spread by the mostly anonymous campaign to boycott the referendum falsely claimed the local politicians and foreign officials who support the referendum are also Nazi supporters or fascists.
Due to significant engagement, the influence of Nazi graphics on the voting public should not be underestimated in the referendum, which will determine whether Macedonians accept a proposal to change the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia”, end a dispute with neighboring Greece, and open a path to further integration with the European Union and NATO.
A few of the posts featuring fascist insinuation gained thousands of engagements, a notable amount in a country of just two million. The following examples cannot be considered mainstream messaging, but it appeared to play to a minority of some scale.
The Boycott the Referendum Facebook page was established on June 27 and had about 15,000 likes and followers as of September 25. The group’s Twitter account was created on July 3, and gained only 75 followers by the same date. These creation dates are similar to the four other exclusively boycott dedicated and named social media accounts and pages established in July or August of 2018. Their audience for the aformentioned set of assets ranges from 4,000–10,000 page likes or followers.
On the Boycott the Referendum Facebook page, some of the posts — including Nazi themed images — had over 1,000 likes and hundreds of shares. Many of the images with Nazi symbolism did not have high engagement on this page, likely because people were hesitant to like or share content containing these visuals.
The two pieces of content that featured Nazi imagery and insinuation that achieved the highest online engagement were ranked 11 and 17 out of 154 posts on the Boycott the Referendum Facebook page.
Other boycott pages were more reluctant to use Nazi themed images as widely as Boycott Referendum.
The page Бојкотирам — Bojkotiram (Boycott) shared only one: an image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed as a Nazi. The page Bojkotiram, shared another Nazi themed image with 4,000 engagements, higher than any other Nazi themed post found by @DFRLab.
In a country of two million out of which only 1.3 million consider Macedonian their native language, the level of engagement remains significant. While the false claims of fascism are not likely to tip the outcome of the referendum, the content will remain potent if the referendum results do not reach consensus — or a simply majority — thus taking the issue to a prolonged process in Macedonian Parliament. Outside of the referendum, the content can be taken as an indicator for increasing polarization in the extreme using false information.
Content and Reaction
In response to the content, the head of Macedonia’s State Security Administration Goran Nikolovski’s said:
We are able to see an organized appearance on the social networks moving toward lowering the number of voters on the referendum, making the referendum unsuccessful (…) through use of fake news and half-truths.
The Nazi-themed images and accompanying posts likely had at least two different creators, based on content style. Both styles attempted to connect the referendum itself to fascism without offering any factual evidence. Both also implied that the current social-democratic Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was a fascist, along with a number of foreign dignitaries supporting the referendum.
One of the visuals showed a swastika, torn by a call for a boycott, implying that somehow the referendum is fascist. This Image was the highest ranked Nazi themed post on the Boycott the Referendum page with over 2,800 likes and 231 shares. It ranked 11 out of 154 posts most engagement of the Boycott Referendum Facebook page.
Another painted a Nazi swastika flag alongside the NATO flag flying next to a Macedonian Government building. A slogan on the wall next to a buoycotter waving a Macedonian flag read “Слобода или Смрт” (Freedom of Death). The slogan was used by historic revolutionaries, associated with the current minority VMRO political party, who fought the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century.
The next post had a map of Macedonia made from a wired fence with a sign containing the word “Referendum” and a Nazi swastika inside the Cyrilic letter “Ф”(f). The accompanying post read:
Do not vote on the referendum. Boycotting is the only democratic and honest position. The unsuccessful referendum means an end to the fascist rule.
Another post contained a photoshopped montage with a picture of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, shown in a Nazi uniform with an added Hitler-like mustache and the accompanying text:
Boycott the Genocide of the Macedonian people!
This was posted just two days before Merkel’s visit to Macedonia on September 6. It was the second most popular among the Nazi-themed posts on the Boycott the Referendum page and ranked 15 out of 154 total posts on the page.
Macedonia’s social-democratic Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, was also presented as fascist. He was drawn wearing an armband with NATO-styled swastika. Behind him, rows of prisoners marched under a gate with the writing “NATO — Work Will Set You Free”, a clear allusion of the Auschwitz concentration camp gate which read “Arbeit Macht Frei”. The post read:
Do not allow fascism to subversively sneak in and rule over our lives and our fatherland. Boycott!
A Facebook post from September 19 contained pictures of various European and American officials, who voiced support for the “Yes” campaign. Many of them personally traveled to Macedonia to state their support. In the boycott post, their images are set in front of splashes of white, blue, and red (the Russian flag) with an accompanying text “Keep Calm and Blame Russia”. the accompanying post read:
Boycott the Fascists! Boycott the Referendum!
Context and History
Referring to Western officials or institutions as fascist has remained a trend in the Balkans over the last two decades. During the 1999 in Serbia during the aerial campaign of the Western allies against Serbia and Montenegro. Western allies attacked the Serbian security apparatus to protect Albanians living as the overwhelming majority in Kosovo, which was then a Serbian province.
The then Serbian Government under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic would routinely publish press releases like this one:
Fascists from the NATO Alliance are murdering all those wanting to go back to peaceful lives.
Calling political enemies “Nazis,” as well the whole West a “fascist occupier” appeared on the Macedonian media scene by the most radical anti-Western and pro-Kremlin supporters during the last four or five years of the former VMRO-DPMNE party government up until May 2017.
It has been a regular occurrence in the columns of the pro-VMRO opinion writer Mirka Velinovska to call the West and the democratic forces inside the country fascists and use terms such as “fascist Euro-American militant conspiracy” or to make statements like:
We, the people of Macedonia, ethnic Macedonians first of all, are ashamed of the domestic associates of the Euro-Atlantic fascist-CIA occupier.
The above statement was included in an 2017 opinion piece titled “Ilinden under a Fascist Occupation.” Ilinden — August 2 — St. Elijah Day is the most important Macedonian national holiday.
In 2015 she received a medal by the order of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, for her “contribution in preserving the historical memory of the WWII and for her fight against the falsification of the history and anti-fascist education of the young generations.”
There is no evidence to suggest that these images have anything to do with the Russian state. Nikolovski from the State Security Administration stated during his interview that the Russian influence during the referendum was an “ongoing investigation.”
At least one of the artists who created many of these images is local, but refused to give comment on his work when approached by @DFRLab. Still, their use was certainly motivated by pro-Kremlin propaganda, made evident by accusations of fascism directed at NATO and EU.
The main focus of Sunday’s naming referendum is voter turnout.
For the referendum to be successful, 50 percent of voters plus one, which translates to 900,000 voters, need to go to the polls and vote. The referendum is the first step in a prolonged that will transition to Macedonian Parliament after Sunday. Turnout will set the tone for a highly polarized debate between the current government supporting a “Yes” vote and the VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, which has not officially taken a stance on the referendum but many members have supported the boycott campaign.
The posts insinuating Nazism or fascism were outright false and misleading. As the debate continues past the referendum, they carry the potential for further engagement and increasing extremes within Macedonia’s national political dialogue.
Vladimir Petreski is Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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