Interview - © Microgen/Shutterstock

© Microgen/Shutterstock

According to a recent study, public discourse in North Macedonia is saturated with toxic narratives: these are spread not only by political parties and characters, but also by the media, often incapable of carrying out their role as a filter and guarantor towards the public

04/03/2024 -  Aleksandar Samardjiev Tetovo

The Institute for Communication Studies (ICS) in Skopje produced its first report on "Measuring Politically Harmful Narratives", where it analysed the scope and spread of harmful narratives in the public political communication of political parties and politicians in North Macedonia as well as the media coverage of such narratives.

The research monitored the websites and Facebook pages of ten political parties and leaders of parties with at least two deputies in the 2020-2024 parliamentary term, 11 online media and 9 television stations.

The analysis shows that political actors in Macedonia often accuse their opponents of corruption, non-transparency/non-accountability, lack of professionalism and abuse of official duty, but make no attempt to support these claims. Unverified allegations are used against political opponents, developing harmful populist narratives and undermining trust in the institutions. Biased data selection often leads to wrong conclusions and incites socio-political divisions in the public.

"Both on the Internet and on Facebook, these harmful narratives are mostly based on unverified claims of corruption, less often on labelling and ridicule, divisive language, partial coverage and claims of interference by foreign entities in domestic politics", the ICS points out.

The main theme for the monitored period in September and October 2023 is internal politics, with a focus on attacks on political opponents and criticism of the government and other institutions as well as local governments. In particular, harmful narratives are currently revolving around the amendments to the Criminal Code, the case of the Oncology Clinic , Macedonian-Bulgarian relations vis-à-vis the proposed constitutional amendments and EU integrations, the Law on Games of Chance and the Law on Amnesty as well as the current situation in education, economy and inflation, corruption, especially in the judiciary, and the next elections in the country.

In the second part of the research, devoted to the media, the ICS says that the lack of professional ethics and verification of statements promoting accusations without evidence, populism, intolerance, misinformation, and even hatred towards certain groups only encourages political actors who see the media as a free platform to promote their harmful narratives.

"One-sided coverage by some of the media is a serious problem that points to unprofessional, unbalanced and biased reporting", states the ICS.

Only in October 2023, a total of 136 posts with a harmful narrative were identified, including 87 on political parties' websites and other posts on 49 Facebook profiles of parties and government members.

89.7% of those 136 posts contained unverified or hardly verifiable findings used to accuse political opponents. Unsupported claims of corruption, non-transparency/non-accountability, lack of professionalism and abuse of official duty were recorded in 77% of the posts.

48.3% of the posts explicitly or implicitly, directly or indirectly promoted one's ideologies as something that benefits “the people”, while portraying political opponents as serving a small elite.

According to the study, an additional concern regards the trend of using official government channels of communication for party propaganda, i.e. publishing party-related content on the Facebook profiles of the prime minister and government ministers, directly violating the principles of professionalism and impartiality in the communication of government representatives as well as the government's Code of Ethics for public servants.

The Code of Ethics requires public servants to perform their role in a politically neutral manner, avoid expressing their political beliefs while performing their function and not to carry out political activities that may affect the citizens' confidence in their impartiality.

"The monitored contents point to the poor quality of public discourse by political actors in Macedonian society”, reads the summary of the research. “Holders of public offices, as well as candidates for public offices, need to behave appropriately in their public appearances, to be responsible, transparent, not to spread misinformation and to refrain from populist discourse. By not doing so, they contribute to the spread of harmful narratives in society and deny the public's right to be accurately, timely and clearly informed about important topics and to have an appropriate quality public debate on issues of public interest".

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