Filip Stojanovski is the Director for Partnership and Resource Development of Metamorphosis Foundation. Since 1995 he has been active in the civil society of North Macedonia through volunteer projects in the area of consumer protection and e-publishing, and through professional involvement as an IT expert and contributor to media on digital rights issues. From October 2012 to April 2017 he served as the Chief of Party of the Media Fact-Checking Service. This was the first project of its kind in the region, and among the first in the world, that systematically tackled the issue of role of media in the political discourse, using specially designed methodology based on the ethical standards of journalism, which had since served as model by several other projects in the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro) and Middle East (Egypt). Since January 2018 Stojanovski is serving as Project Manager of EU-supported Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – Crithink project. As representative of civil society he served as a member of the Task Force for National Strategy for Information Society Development in 2005 and in 2018 he was appointed by the Parliament as a member of the Council for Civic Oversight of the state surveillance services. He holds a BSc Degree in Computer Science from Graceland University (USA) and Masters in e-business management from Université Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne (France).

Filip Stojanovski spoke* to Greek News Agenda about fake news the period prior and following the signing of Prespes Agreement noting that “in an attempt to appear more ‘patriotic’, many mainstream media in North Macedonia tried to mimic or ironize the perceived Greek denial of the country’s name, by refusing to use the word “Greece,” and instead used the term “the Southern Neighbor… An ordinary citizen of North Macedonia, would receive conflicting information about Greece”

1) One of the ways to understand a country’s public opinion is through media. Can fake news create a distorted image of a country’s public opinion? Could you mention a case of how the media in your country created a fake image of the Greek people?

It seems to me that in the last three decades, willful ignorance is the main source of media manipulation across Balkan borders. It’s kind of a paradox that we have technological means to be more connected than ever in history, while engrained editorial policies have imposed a virtual self-isolation of each country’s media sphere.

Very often the cross-border media coverage is slanted only towards news about ‘high politics’ and some disasters in the neighborhood, failing to convey all other aspects of life. News about culture, economy, social situation, sports, human interest stories are almost absent, unless they have some aspect that can be exploited for domestic political purpose (to show how bad these ‘others’ are). This lack of factual knowledge paves the way for dehumanization of the neighbors that is done by nationalist political actors, and amplified by unprofessional media.

Under repressive regimes, when the majority of the media is controlled by the government, those media become tools to “manufacture” public opinion, rather than to reflect it. The actual opinions of citizens are not voiced, and remain hidden under a veil of propaganda. Thus, for the period of state capture between 2011 and 2016—with the exception of several outlets that defied the prevailing spiral of silence—analysis of media production in North Macedonia would provide mostly positions and editorial policies that had been published with approval of the ruling parties. As late activist Roberto Belichanec (1971-2012) would often say, we had “plurality of media outlets but not pluralism of opinions.”

In an attempt to appear more “patriotic”, many mainstream media in North Macedonia tried to mimic or ironize the perceived Greek denial of the country’s name, by refusing to use the word “Greece,” and instead used the term “the Southern Neighbor.” Over time this became quite widespread, even though it incited ridicule by some citizens in everyday talk.

Another practice was misinterpreting events in Greece. Very often, threatening statements by extreme right wing forces in Greek society would be presented as position representative of all Greeks. Media close to right-wing populists would also prefer news about incidents of violence, or relentlessly repeat stories about historical injustices. In this vein, the government spent huge amounts of money on so-called “documentaries about Macedonian struggle,” produced through the Public Broadcasting Service, and advocating the ideological dogmas of the ruling party. They were given for free to private TV stations to fill in the quota for domestic production.

In effect, an ordinary citizen of North Macedonia, would receive conflicting information about Greece. The negative effects of the embargo and the veto in NATO and EU were felt by all, and this was reinforced by nationalist propaganda. Then there was the (mostly pleasant) real-life experience of repeated vacationing on the Greek coastline, which in most cases was not used as opportunity to establish contact and friendly rapport with the real ordinary Greeks. The lack of language skills and apprehension of being subjected to harassment would result in a tendency to avoid conversations with the hosts on any topics that could be considered controversial. Very few tourist spending a weekend in Thessaloniki would use the trip for more than coffee or food by the sea or shopping – for instance to partake in the famous film festival or the Comicon. I believe we have similar situations from the other side, with tourists crossing from Greece to North Macedonia to gamble or shop, but not to get more knowledge about the people or society.

BeFunky collage

photos by Creative Commons

2) “Greece agreed on the name issue in return of no further pension cuts”, “Dead protester the day the Prespes Agreement was signed”, “Soros is funding Greece’s former Minister of Exterior”. Allthis fake news was broadly circulated prior and following the signing of the Agreement. In most cases, the primary reason for fake news was nationalism. How do things stand in your country?

Nationalism as we know is a tool, a technique for politicians to gain access to (more) power. The people of North Macedonia had been subjected to open nationalist indoctrination since the breakup of Yugoslavia, and it took many forms. In the late 1980s and 1990s the blueprint was the pro-Milošević propaganda originating in Serbia, which influenced the domestic political parties and media.

Some of the still present anti-NATO and anti-EU narratives also have roots in this era, especially those sowing discord between different ethnic and religious communities, and inciting xenophobia towards neighbors and others. Over time the propaganda developed a cycle with different domestic or foreign „enemy of the day” used for ‘appropriate’ political context.

In our experience, such toxic nationalism leads to the demise of rule of law. When a government supports the notion that a group in society is entitled to privileged treatment, it leads directly to impunity for corruption and criminal behavior, such as hate speech (which is a crime in North Macedonia). End result of allowing hate speech to fester is war, either external conflict with “accursed” foreigners or civil war against the “internal enemies.” As a country we faced this prospect twice in recent years, in 2015 with the staged clash in Kumanovo, and in 2017 with the attack on the parliament.

In North Macedonia, Prespa Agreement has historical significance because it resulted from real change in approach bya major political party which came into power thanks to support by a multi-ethnic citizen movement that far exceeded its usual voter base. It was based on widespread demand for justice and desire for normal life in our European home.

This example of compromise solution is considered as major threat by nationalists, because it undermines the basis of the „us versus them“ worldview. Such “divide and rule” methods has proven very profitable for instigators, but on the long run devastate social cohesion. Many of the positions taken by the opponents of Prespa Agreement in Greece were mirrored in North Macedonia, with misinterpretations about its contents and logical fallacies about its supposed effects.

Even though the government published online the original text of the agreement and its translations, the right-wing populist campaign and the media supporting that agenda refused to inform the citizens about it, feeding them with misinformation and speculations by politicians and their surrogates. In this case, transparency had limited effect due to information dominance of the entrenched nationalist interests, but was a very good start because the educated segment of society could see for themselves the real contents.

However, the general public received a flood of untruths, from misinterpretations about the nature and the outcome of the consultative referendum, and false claims that legislative changes resulting from the Prespa Agreement are unconstitutional or an act of treason. In this context, various malicious actors cast a wider web of fabrications about meaning of NATO and EU membership. For instance, lies about radioactive pollution from future NATO exercises in the country. Some of the fabrications were tailored to appeal to religious people, like the outrageous claims that getting into EU would result in forcing their children to become LGBTI.

3) You are director for partnership and resource development of Metamorphosis Foundation. Can you tell us a few words about the work of Metamorphosis?

Metamorphosis was formed by a group of digital rights enthusiasts in 1999 and first served as an e-publishing center and think-tank helping NGOs and municipalities use the digital technologies for the advancement of democracy and prosperity. In 2004 we became a foundation has been helping build capacities of civil society, media and institutions, as well as instigating policy changes enabling information society development.

Due to the unfortunate circumstances of backsliding from democracy during the previous decade, the focus of our work in North Macedonia has been on upholding human rights in the digital sphere, in particular freedom of expression and privacy, and promoting good governance and fighting corruption through watchdog journalism and fact-checking. We have invested a lot of efforts in helping online media regain their role as a pillar of democracy, and engaging the citizens in this fight, by educating them and helping them use social networks and other technologies to voice their opinions.

As means towards these ends we’ve founded two independent media outlets: (in 2012) which has become the leading Albanian-language online news outlet in North Macedonia and the News Agency in 2014, which operates in several languages. Addressing the need for political fact-checking Metamorphosis established the in 2011, and the first Media Fact-Checking Service in our region in 2012.

On a regional level we also work in this direction, for instance by co-establishing the regional Openness Index with several leading pro-accountability organizations from the Western Balkans joined as the ACTION SEE network. As members of international networks like EDRI, the IFEX, APC, and International Fact-Checking Network – IFCN, as well as partner of Global Voices we work on aligning our target areas with the global trends.

4) Has there been a shift in North Macedonia’s public opinion prior and following the Prespes Agreement?

The fact that over six thousand citizens or 95% of participants voted yes on the consultative referendum in September was a strong indicator of the approval of that political act. The attempt by opponents of the agreement to portray those who didn’t vote as opponents failed, especially because the non-participation in electoral processes due to emigration or apathy has been a problem for more than a decade, and still is.

With increased bilateral contacts there has been some more media coverage of the actual situation, and more people are able to see that as societies we have many more similarities than differences. For instance, has been running a project for debunking cross border disinformation and fact-based context explanations in several Balkan languages, including Greek, as basis for increased understanding.

The positive trend includes increased public discussion about the damaging effects of disinformation on democracy, by political leaders and media professionals. This could lead to policy changes that would tackle the underlying causes affecting the role of the media.

5) How can we protect ourselves from fake news? How important is fact checking?

At Metamorphosis we view fact-checking as integral part of the ability to apply critical thinking. It should be an essential part of everyday life and of practicing journalism. However, it has been somewhat absent in both areas, firstly due to lack of critical thinking and media literacy within the education system, and lack of resources or will by decision makers in the media.

However, ascertaining the facts is an essential factor, but not enough if it’s on its own. Political manipulators have been applying lessons from commercial marketing, and much of the nationalist propaganda is based on manipulation of emotions, not just facts. That’s why it’s important to increase media literacy not only for the youth, by mainstreaming it within the schools and university curriculums, but also for the more senior generations.

We have to take into account cultural factors too – introspection and acknowledging one’s mistakes are not widespread features in the Balkans. This plays a major role on social networks, where people feel personally offended when reproved for sharing false claims. Such issues can only be tackled by fostering a culture of conversation.

One way to do it is to increase the educative role of the media, making them part of the solution instead of the problem.

When we started with media-fact checking in 2012 we hoped individual outlets would establish fact-checking departments within their newsrooms. This has not happened yet, as most professional media in North Macedonia struggle with issues of basic survival, partly due to the devastating impact of the former regime on the media market. And that is on top of the general challenges faced by media worldwide, resulting from the changing digital environment.

Democracy can’t survive without the truth. If it’s polluted by lies, it turns intoan autocracy or something worse. We simply need the truth to make good decisions.

In my opinion, the first step is acknowledging that all of us, as mortal human beings, are not infallible. We can make mistakes, we can get our facts wrong and should be modest enough to allow others to help us find the truth through proven empirical methods. This is the basis of science, and the same notion is the basis of both good journalism and democratic citizenship.

*Interview by Christina Fiorentzi

Read also: Misinformation and the Prespes Agreement, Sissy Alonistiotou: “Media literacy is a fundamental tool for combating bias and hate speech”, Nikos Smyrnaios on the Internet oligopoly and its political implications