Eurothink-Center for European Strategies, together with the NGO Infocenter, organized two online sessions on the topic: “Demystifying Disinformation and Hate Speech: The Case of North Macedonia and Bulgaria”. These online sessions are part of the project: “Demystifying (Non)Neighborly Relations on the Road to the EU: The case of North Macedonia and Bulgaria”, supported by the Canadian Embassy in Belgrade, through the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).
In the first session entitled “Review of Disinformation and Hate Speech in North Macedonia and Bulgaria” : Mr. Dimitar Nikolovski, Executive Director of EUROTINK – Center for European Studies, Mr. Bojan Kordalov, communicator, Mr. Dimitar Atanasov, Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Mrs. Biljana Bejkova, NGO-Info Center and Mr. Veni Markovski, former member of two expert groups for dealing with disinformation of the European Commission.
The second session included an open discussion on further activities of the civil society in the direction of improving the relations between the two countries. Representatives from the civil society, students, activists, and young European ambassadors participated in both sessions.
Biljana Bejkova discussed the findings of the recent research conducted by the NGO Infocenter, on the topic “Propaganda narratives in the media about the relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria and the military conflict in Ukraine” supported by the Embassy of the United States of America in North Macedonia. She made an overview of the main narratives present in the Macedonian media related to Bulgaria and the ways of their dissemination. One of the insights from the research is that the media that focus on negative narratives increase and accelerate their spread, and thus manage to achieve the effect of a kind of vocal media minority, which manages to significantly dictate the trends in media reporting, and with to influence the atmosphere and key narratives in the public about this topic.
Communicator Bojan Kordalov believes that the biggest problem in the relations between the two countries is the hunting for political points before every election, as well as the lack of visionary approach of the politicians in the past decades. “We need a complete regional approach, because the problems we are facing affect all Balkan countries without exception. Let’s take as an example corruption, the emigration of young people, the depopulation of rural areas, hate speech and disinformation.” Kordalov gave several suggestions for strengthening the fight against disinformation and hate speech: greater involvement of young people, shifting the focus to non-sensationalist reports, positive news about mutual cooperation, more work with traditional media.
Dimitar Atanasov spoke about the role of social media in spreading propaganda and disinformation. At the same time, he emphasized the role of politicians who can also be called out as sources of hate speech and stressed that in order for the states to recover from “attacks” with hate speech, it is necessary to strengthen the overall democratic processes. He also discussed the role of the science of history as a factor in current political developments and emphasized the importance of implementing scientific standards in the treatment of the science of history and standards related to European values.
Veni Markovski stressed the need to distinguish between disinformation, wrong information and hate speech, although, he emphasized, all three are present when talking about the relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. As a striking example he gave the treatment of the deportation of Jews in World War II: “The deportation of Jews in World War II, for example, is an event that is remembered and commemorated in diametrically opposite ways in both countries. In Bulgaria they concentrate on the fact that they saved the Bulgarian Jews, while in North Macedonia the emphasis is placed on the guilt of Bulgaria for the deportation. Furthermore, in North Macedonia they only talk about Bulgarian fascism, and Bulgarian anti-fascism is forgotten. Fascism is not even talked about in Bulgaria.” Markovski concluded that “we have to concentrate on hate speech and misinformation in ourselves, much more than in the Other. Let everyone do their own homework.”
The second session of the conference consisted of an open discussion on the possible future directions of the civil society’s fight against disinformation and hate speech, in the direction of improving relations between the two countries. It was moderated by Eric Menton, an independent consultant dedicated to developing civil society activities on relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Some of the proposals offered were the following: to make some kind of constructive consortium of actors from both sides of civil society and academia, to make pressure and initiatives for the EU to get directly involved in the dispute, to encourage changes in media policies, to encourage building relations between ordinary citizens. In doing so, three trajectories were discussed: setting the future agenda (facing the future), dealing with the past, dealing with current challenges (prejudices, misinformation).