1st February 2022
By Simeon Dukić
Launched by ISD at the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Strong Cities Network (SCN) is the first global network of local leaders dedicated to combating hate, polarisation and extremism in all its forms.
As part of the SCN’s programme of ongoing research, ISD analysts have mapped and analysed the online extremist landscape in Bangladesh, Kenya, the Maldives, North Macedonia and Central Asia. The purpose of this research is to inform comprehensive, evidence-based responses to these online harms. This Dispatch focuses on North Macedonia, and highlights a deeply divided digital Macedonian community.
Of the six former republics of Yugoslavia, North Macedonia was the only one to peacefully gain its independence as a country in 1991. However, its history since has been characterised by limited democratic governance, inter-ethnic armed tensions, and bilateral issues with its neighbouring countries, all of which have given rise to internal and external divisions.
Internally, irredentism and ethnic-based hate have led to a high level of animosity and distrust between the country’s various ethnic groups. Inter-ethnic grievances are widespread and being exploited online by extremist groups who are constructing and promoting narratives seemingly designed to polarise society across particular demographic characteristics and/or political issues.
Efforts to respond to online propaganda and recruitment efforts by extremist groups have been led by both government and non-governmental bodies. However, there has been no body of work which attempts to map the scale and nature of such content. A new report from the SCN seeks to contribute towards this gap. It provides an analysis of Macedonian and Albanian language content on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, online forums and media sources between 1 January 2019 – 15 July 2021, identifying the most prominent political, ethnic and religious narratives being used to spread hate online in the country.
Researchers collected a total of 1,290,554 posts in the Macedonian and Albanian languages, of which 2% (20,670 pieces) were found to be polarising, hateful and extremist in nature.
Politics and ethnic based hate underscore polarising Macedonian-language narratives
In North Macedonia, polarisation based on party affiliation and political identity proliferated in the following two significant events: The Colourful Revolution in 2016 and the Prespa Agreement in 2018. While the former saw thousands protest against – and bring down – the government led by the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party, the latter resulted in a change in the country’s constitutional name from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia, which many Macedonians saw as a threat to their identity. This led to enduring divisions between ethnic groups in the country, which are reflected online. The SCN’s research found that the most frequent form of hateful and polarising content came in the form of political narratives, with the majority revolving around the Colourful Revolution and Prespa Agreement.
Such narratives were largely constructed around a binary ‘patriot vs. traitor’ dichotomy, where Macedonians are considered the country’s true ‘patriots’, and other ethnic groups are ‘traitors’ to the country. The prominence of this divisive narrative online is reflective of the divergence between the country’s largely ethnically based political parties. Such binary and simplistic divisions make room for the emergence of far-right fringe movements, which pose a threat to both national and regional long-term stability.
Narratives propagating ethnic-based hate were also prominent. Ethnic tensions have been prevalent since North Macedonia’s independence, most visibly amongst the two biggest ethnic groups in the country – Macedonians and Albanians. Despite a lack of physical violence between the two since the 2001 insurgency, the SCN’s research revealed that animosity and antagonism still rife online.
Content frequently centred on the perceived threat of the ‘Albanisation’ of North Macedonia. These narratives were characterised by perceived discrimination against ethnic Macedonians and increased privileges for Albanians. Extreme segments within ethnic Macedonian communities considered Albanians to be the main threat to the country. Groups and individuals who were perceived to be working against the interests of the Macedonian people were also targeted, highlighting that the ‘patriot vs. traitor’ divide extends into the sphere of ethnic hate through the lens of ‘anti-Macedonianism’.
While the majority of politically and ethnically-based hateful and polarising content was found in Macedonian-language content, researchers found that Albanian-language content was dominated by extremist material.
Religiously motivated extremism
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the region experienced a revival in religiosity and spirituality. This phenomenon manifested itself in different ways. The lack of a strategic government response allowed malign religious groups to take hold across the region. North Macedonia was no exception to this trend, which was characterised by the emergence of Salafi-jihadist networks on one side and Christian ethno-nationalists on the other.
Explicitly extremist and hateful Salafi-jihadist content was disseminated through various online platforms such as Facebook, Telegram, Google Drive and Archive.org. On Telegram, for example, researchers identified two now inactive groups, Bejtul Muhaxhirin and Nasheedi im, which propagated ISIS-affiliated propaganda calling for jihad. Some of their content targeted Albanian imams and groups operating in North Macedonia.
Researchers found that Salafi-jihadist material posted by prominent imams associated with terrorist groups was easily accessible on Facebook and YouTube. Analysis suggested that a likely reason this content remained undetected by platforms, despite being readily accessible, was because it did not contain language which was explicitly violent. Nonetheless, through social, political and religious commentary which demarcated ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups in the country, this content builds toward a narrative of extremist Islam which has been observed as critical to recruitment efforts. Moreover, given the large follower bases, networks and extremist backgrounds of the imams, this content could provide a gateway to more extreme material.
Although most of the religiously inspired extremist content identified was connected to Salafi-jihadist groups, it is also important to note the online presence of the group called the Christian Brotherhood, which identifies itself as an apolitical, humanitarian, patriotic and religious organisation. In essence, however, it is an ethno-nationalist group that draws on the Christian Orthodox identity as one of its key ‘in-group’ identifiers.
Over the course of Macedonian-langauge analysis, researchers observed the group threatening opponents, launching political campaigns, promoting their ‘humanitarian’ campaigns and sharing COVID-19 misinformation. While researchers did not identify any content posted on these accounts that explicitly used Christian dogma to incite hatred and call for violence, its political agenda and use of religion to create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups resembled the tactics of extremist imams to blend religion and politics.
Countering the risks and threats associated with extremist and hateful content online requires a comprehensive and joint response by government ministries, the private sector, civil society organisations and researchers.
One of the first steps needed to achieve this in North Macedonia is to enhance the government’s understanding of the online extremist ecosystem. This could be achieved through ongoing monitoring and analysis of the evolving threat landscape and affiliated risks, which would in turn provide an evidentiary base to inform national counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism policies and programming.
Recognising that it is not always easy to develop in-house analysis capacities, the government should also endeavour to work more closely with technology companies. This would not only increase the government’s understanding of the online extremist ecosystem, but also help collate the evidence needed to sanction individuals and groups propagating extremism and hate in the country. Additionally, it could help inform platform moderation efforts by providing the specific language and cultural contexts of the Macedonian and Albanian language.
Greater promotion of digital citizenship skills to both children and adults should also be made priority. Critical thinking skills, which enable individuals to assess content they encounter online, has been proven as an effective approach to countering online harms. The SCN has piloted a digital citizenship module based on ISD’s Be Internet Citizens education programme in the municipality of Cair and YouThink, a programme focused on media literacy, is working with the national government to identify where critical thinking skills can be incorporated into the existing school curriculum. The government should also look towards developing the curriculum so that it reflects the need for digital resilience, civic engagement and inter-cultural co-existence, all of which contribute to increased resilience to online harms.
Lastly, and of equal importance, the government must identify and strengthen relations with civil society organisations, units of local self-government, religious organisations and youth groups to build robust and effective counter-narratives. There is a low level of trust in public institutions in North Macedonia, which means that resonant voices and messages from the non-governmental sector are critical to engage target audiences.
Simeon Dukić is a Senior Programme Manager in the Strong Cities Network at ISD. He leads programming work in the Balkans and Central Asia, with a specific focus on strengthening central-local coordination and cooperation in preventing and countering violent extremism in the Western Balkans.