Social Media Emerges as Haven of North Macedonia’s Right

Supporters of the movement 'boycotting' hold a banner during the protest against the changing the constitution and the country's name to the Republic of North Macedonia in front of the Parliament building in Skopje. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI

Social Media Emerges as Haven of North Macedonia’s Right

24. February 2022.11:20
24. February 2022.11:20
Shunned by many traditional media outlets, right-wing and far-right groups in North Macedonia are expanding their social media presence, but can they convert it into votes?

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Largely shunned by traditional media outlets, in particular those loyal to the Social Democrat-led government, Bojkotiram activists say the social media sphere is their saviour, with Reddit and Telegram also important tools of outreach.

“We live in a situation and on a territory where the trend is towards unification of party agendas and strategies that take the left or center left ideology as mainstream,” said Bojkotiram activist Sasho Pangovski.

“From this point of view, the choice of placing our beliefs and views on social networks was not only necessary but became also inevitable and logical.”

Skopje-based political scientist Ivo Bosilkov said the trend follows those seen in Western states, as right-wing movements – perhaps struggling to gain access to traditional media – seek to amplify their presence via social media.

“There is no doubt that the presence of radical right-wing organisations on social media intensifies the breakthrough of these ideologies in society,” Bosilkov told BIRN.

Echoes of far-right discourse elsewhere

From one of the Bojkotiram (Boyotting) live podcats on YouTube

Shortly before the 2018 referendum, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, DFRLab, looked at how the #bojkotiram campaign went “locally viral”, mainly via Twitter, and found parallels with far-right discourse in the United States and Europe.

“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,” DFRLab wrote.

“For instance, some tweets had hashtags related to the Q-anon movement, a conspiracy theory about surreptitious government control in the United States.”

Notoriously, social media played a central role in the organisation and coordination of the right-wing attack on the US Capitol in January 2021 ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration as president having defeated Republican incumbent Donald Trump.

“The rise of many such entities completes the transition of the radical right from what we call ‘fringe’ to mainstream politics, which is also happening in the West,” Bosilkov said.

But, he added, most of those targeted by such messages already hold similar viewpoints. Many on the right are averse to change.

“This is crucial, because the goal of all those radical right-wing entities is to consolidate in the election arena and take over the role of VMRO-DPMNE as bearer of the right-wing ideology,” Bosilkov told BIRN, in reference to the main right-wing party in North Macedonia, currently in opposition.“However, we see that individually, they are all stagnating.”

“When there are so many political entities claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the silent majority, it is difficult for the average right-winger to decide which one is the right choice,” he said.“And that is why it is safest for him to stick to what he knows – VMRO-DMPNE. That is the essence of conservatism – anaversion to change and evolution, even within the right.”

Posters of fugitive ex-PM

Supporters of the movement ‘boycotting’ protest against the changing the constitution and the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia rally in front of the Parliament building in Skopje. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI

Pangovski is one of the hosts of the Bojkotiram podcast on YouTube, which features debates and interviews with prominent right-wing figures such as Vancho Sehtanski, leader of the ultranationalist TMRO party, Ljupco Ristovski of the right-wing Integra party, and Janko Bachev from the fringe pro-Russian party United Macedonia.

Videos mock the Social Democrat-led government as a “puppet” of the EU and US for changing the country’s name in order to get Greece to drop its veto on Skopje’s further integration into NATO and the EU. The group’s favourite hashtags include #НикогашСеверна, or Never North,#СекогашМакедонија, ‘Always Macedonia,’ and #severdzistan.

Some podcast episodes feature well-known nationalist iconography such as the banned Vergina Sun symbol as well as posters of former VMRO-DPMNE prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled a corruption conviction in 2018 and received political asylum in Hungary.

Notably, hosts do not shy from interviewing figures from the left of the Macedonian political spectrum too.

“Paradoxically, our frequent guests are the ultra-leftists, the zealots and those groups with whom we openly, ideologically disagree,” said Pangovski.

“The quasi-right and the civil right have a real fear of appearing because of the banality of the arguments they put out there in public. In conclusion, the ultra-left takes much bigger risks.”

Free speech and hate speech

The opponents of the referendum celebrate the small response of the voters on the referendum on the country’s name change in front of the Parliament building in Skopje, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Photo: EPA-EFE/VALDRIN XHEMAJ

Pangovski insists he is all for free speech, noting that when he ran for election as mayor of the Skopje municipality of Gjorce Petrov in local elections in October last year, “I only got one opportunity to appear on television, on the state MRT, although all national TVs had a legal obligation to invite me to every debate, which they did not do and went unpunished for that.”

Bojkotiram ran in the elections in alliance with the ultranationalists of TMRO.

Communicologist Bojan Kordalov said that the rhetoric of such groups could be deemed as hate speech. Bojkotiram, for instance, has featured anti-LGBT content.

“The same rules [with regards hate speech] apply to social media, with the important note that social media is a mere tool or channel where content is not filled by itself but is done by each of us, people with names and last names,” Kordalov told BIRN.

“Social media has done a lot, especially over the past few years, to prevent any negative occurrences in the online space, including preserving our privacy. However, in this regard, they can always do more.”

Bojkotiram plans to expand its social media presence in the future, but Bosilkov is skeptical of its real political potential.

“These entities demand from their followers to engage and defeat the regime,” he said.“But this is incompatible with the profile of the average right-winger. He does not want to take part in the movement. He just wants someone from above to serve him his ideal society.”

“Regardless of their efforts, they will probably get likes on social media and give legitimacy to the radical right ideology. However, as organisations, they will not be able to articulate that ideology in the political arena of the country.”

Bojan Stojkovski

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