Digital Communications Advisor to the Prime Minister of North Macedonia
The use of information and communication technologies can be very helpful when it comes to attaining traditional diplomacy goals. The information shared on social media rapidly spreads across the globe, carrying messages, images or videos from one country to attract sympathies of citizens in another country. In the modern world of today, digital communications have allowed governments to significantly increase transparency of their institutions by regularly providing information to citizens and enhanced their openness, maintaining the citizens’ high level of trust in the authorities.
The same technologies, unfortunately, can also be used to undermine confidence of citizens in their governments, launch personal attacks on and discredit political leadership, change the political and societal discourse, engage in election interference, spread fear and panic among the population, etc. This could be achieved by spreading disinformation targeting citizens—establishing purposeful circulation of fake stories that resemble items of news, disseminated on the Internet—and with the assistance of other media, which feature construed, manipulated and misleading contents, underlined by false context or correlations, satire and parody, deepfake videos and the like. This is often carried out by various centers of power with a particular interest that implies material or political gains for those commissioning such stories.
A CASE IN POINT: GRETA THUNBERG PRANK
At the end of November 2019, Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev had a scheduled phone call with Greta Thunberg, a globally-renowned young climate activist. Such an event was not unusual, knowing that the priorities of the Government of North Macedonia and its PM also include environmental protection and that, earlier that year, the Government had published the “Clean Air Plan”, anticipating urgent measures that were expected to yield tangible results in the long term, but also including medium- and short-term actions for cleaner air in the most polluted areas across the state.
The first time we saw Greta Thunberg was in late January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the PM’s team participated in a panel discussion with Thunberg as a keynote speaker. She opened her address with the words “Our house is on fire!” and said that we, as a civilization, have less than eight years to save the planet, drawing attention to the alarming situation in respect to global pollution. Later that year, in September, we had another encounter with Thunberg at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where she had arrived after her fortnight-long, carbon-free journey from Sweden on a yacht, equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines generating electric power.
Looking forward to the telephone conversation with Greta, chaperoned by her father Svante, the Prime Minister’s team was aware that a meeting of such a profile could elevate our environmental efforts to the international level.
The initiative for a meeting with young Thunberg came from her team and was arranged by our foreign diplomatic mission. Identity and contact information were checked upon the initial establishment of contact, with an additional verification by Prime Minister’s Cabinet prior to the meeting. The e-mail addresses of Greta and her father had been linked to a branded website that hosts content on activities of this young environmentalist, while the telephone numbers pertained to the area code of the Thunbergs’ country of residence and activity. Moreover, the communication team conducted due diligence in respect to the initiative raised and had found that Greta regularly engages in discussions with political leaders across the world to send messages about the need to protect the environment and save the planet.
Hence, everything was in order for the meeting to take place.
Telephone communication was established at exactly 4 p.m. Initially, they had conversed in a relaxed atmosphere until PM Zaev sensed odd undertones in questions raised by the young girl, posing as Greta Thunberg, prompting him to suspect the identity of the person on the other side of the line. After the call, which lasted for about ten minutes, the Prime Minister promptly shared concerns about his interlocutor’s credibility with the team of his advisors. At that moment, an inquiry was initiated to verify whether the person with whom the PM communicated was in fact Greta Thunberg or not. Shortly afterward, the inquiry led to Greta’s family, which confirmed that they had not taken part in such a meeting. As a result, a joint conclusion was reached: it is a matter of fraud targeting Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev and stealing the identity of activist Greta Thunberg. Her parents, having learnt about this event, expressed serious concerns and disconcertment, saying they would duly inform the authorities in their country about the event.
Once we were certain that we were dealing with a prank call, but unknowledgeable about who had perpetrated and commissioned it and for what purpose, a prompt decision was taken to inform the public and provide a transparent account of what had taken place, thereby intercepting and deconstructing this attack. Namely, at the International Conference e-Society titled “Open Institutions and Accountability”, this event was exposed by Marjan Zabrchanec, National Coordinator for Strategic Communications of the North Macedonia’s Government, during the panel discussion dedicated to combating disinformation, saying that we had uncovered and prevented a hybrid attack by imposters, presenting themselves as Greta Thunberg.
From the very start, this incident was characterised as a hybrid attack, having in mind that the imposters had used different tools to breach security protocols of the Government and arrange a false meeting, which would be released several months later as an audio recording, attached to video animation, for greater effect as a communication product.
Eight months later, such predictions became reality. Just as we had thought that they might have abandoned the idea of releasing the audio recording because their attack had been depreciated, the perpetrators publicly released the recording a week before the parliamentary Election Day in North Macedonia, i.e. five days prior to the pre-election silence, marking the end of electoral campaigns. Its public release revealed the pranksters’ identity, as they uploaded the recording on their YouTube channel. Hence, it became known that Russian pranksters Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, also known as Vovan and Lexus, were behind this hybrid attack.
The fact that they had waited eight months to release the recording before the parliamentary elections is a clear indicator of the purpose of the attack: to plunge PM Zoran Zaev’s ratings, discredit him and influence the election outcome.
Judging from the number of times the video was shared on social media on the day of its release, it became evident that some people had impatiently been expecting its emergence, ready to spread the video as widely as possible, hoping that it would inflict major damage and that people would discuss it at length and make jokes about it. Such an outcome would discourage the PM’s possible voters to go to polling stations and vote due to the burden of shame and disillusionment with their political favourites. Inevitably, this audio bomb would have had such a devastating effect had it not been defused eight months earlier. It emerged on all media outlets but failed in its attempt to surprise anybody and create a major buzz. All news stories, aired in mainstream media, featured clips from the audio recording attached to a video animation but also included a report on the video, released eight months earlier, with Marjan Zabrchanec’s statement that the authorities had uncovered and prevented a hybrid attack, launched by imposters, assuming the identity of young Greta Thunberg.
Hence, the snowball effect was stopped in its tracks. The decision to take the route of proactive transparency and unveil the case, thereby undermining someone’s plan, resulted in the video’s failure to achieve its desired goal eight months later. In particular, the PM’s party won another election and formed the government.
Four months later, in November 2020, when the prank by Russian comedians posing as Greta Thunberg started to fall into oblivion, another video, similar to the one related to PM Zaev, emerged on the Internet. Again, the same hybrid attack tool was used in the attack, featuring pranksters Vovan and Lexus, stealing Greta Thunberg’s identity and using the same video animation, but this time around their victim was Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. A truly pitiful effort!
In the end, connoisseurs of this topic raised a question concerning tools for the proliferation of disinformation: can such tools be bought on the black market by anybody seeking to cause political damage—immorally, nonetheless—right before the elections?
PROPOSED PLAN FOR DECISIVE ACTION AGAINST SPREAD OF DISINFORMATION AND ATTACKS ON DEMOCRACY
Disinformation and other tools, used to change political and societal discourse and undermine the citizens’ trust in institutions, were not unknown before the incident involving Thunberg’s stolen identity. Back in 2018, citizens of what is now North Macedonia voted in the referendum for the final resolution of the name dispute with Greece, whose solution implied changing the country’s name from Macedonia to North Macedonia. The resolution of the name dispute was among the preconditions for the country’s integration in NATO, which officially took place in 2020, and the start of accession negotiations with the European Union, which is still underway. All these important developments in the state had been accompanied by strong disinformation campaigns, aimed at hindering the success of the referendum and preventing North Macedonia from becoming a NATO member country.
In 2019, overwhelmed by the events related to disinformation, PM Zaev held a press conference, at which he personally announced the start of decisive action against disinformation and presented the platform where institutions, the media and the civil society will jointly discuss and propose measures to address fake news and misinformation. More specifically, the platform was launched as a “Proposed Plan for Decisive Action against Spread of Disinformation and Attacks on Democracy”. Initially, this plan included 18 points of action and its name was purposefully marked as “proposed”—the document was not completed and is not intended to ever be completed, whereby the selection of measures is not final, but open to amendments. In particular, the plan was designed as a skeleton construction that is to serve as a starting point for specific action in the future and is intended to systemically counteract the spread of disinformation. The fight against disinformation is only possible with a set of different activities, measures and projects, while the list of tools needs to be continuously extended, having in mind that methods used to circulate disinformation constantly change and new forms are designed. The proposed plan was presented as an open document, subject to contributions and interventions from civil society organizations, the media and media workers, i.e. all societal actors that will submit proposals for additional activities, which could be helpful in addressing disinformation, while the Government has committed itself to pay special attention and provide strong support to such activities.
The proposed Plan for Decisive Action against Spread of Disinformation, presented in 2019, was designed in accordance with the baseline measures, proposed by the European Commission and the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on Quality Journalism. It was also composed of the knowledge gathered from the committee membership of representatives from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, the NATO Communications and Information Agency, ideas that have emerged as part of the cooperation with the United States Embassy in North Macedonia, the United States Agency for International Development, the European Digital Diplomacy Exchange (a network initiated and moderated by the Centre for European Perspective—CEP and supported by the US Department of State), as well as the Government of United Kingdom professionalization of the communications unit of the Government of North Macedonia, etc.
This document enlists several items, featured in the proposed plan, and it should be noted that some activities have already been implemented, while the implementation of others is underway. The suggested measures are the following:
- to revise existing and create new internal security protocols for communication within institutions and with external entities, in order to reduce the possibility of sensitive information being leaked to the public;
- to introduce a security protocol on digital communications for all civil servants, including safe use of the Internet, service e-mails, service mobile phones, etc.;
- to enhance the internal IT structure of the Government and ministries and to perform checks of the network traffic operation system, in order to ensure timely prevention of malware and external attacks on the infrastructure;
- to establish a protocol for crisis communications between the central government communication unit and ministries, which will ensure prompt and accurate counteraction of disinformation spread on social media;
- the Government will continue its efforts for active transparency, in order to bring its work closer to the citizens and increase their trust in the institutions—in 2019, as part of this commitment, the Government of North Macedonia developed the first national Transparency Strategy;
- to conduct an internal communication campaign for state administration employees on the existence and harmful effects of disinformation;
- to initiate a public interest educational campaign for citizens on the existence and harmful effects of disinformation on the society as a whole;
- to open discussion with the media, aimed at developing a model of support for media content production on combating disinformation and for educational programming and training intended for media workers, with the objective of sensitizing this profession to the need to fight disinformation;
- to design a national media literacy strategy, including activities performed by institutions, the media and the civil society, and to integrate media literacy in educational programs at the Ministries of Education and Science. The Government will support the civil society and continue to be its active partner in implementing media literacy programs and training, and it will organize media literacy education programs for state administration employees;
- on its website, the Government will publish official responses to inquiries made by the media and citizens, in order to prevent misrepresentation of the government’s official views and positions;
- to pursue active cooperation with all social media platforms that are frequently used for fast dissemination of disinformation;
- to encourage discussion among the media, media associations and the civil society, aimed at self-regulation and establishing media standards for internet portals, pursuant to the recommendations of the European Commission and the Council of Europe;
- to cooperate with all fact-checking organizations and projects, ensuring that all relevant institutions provide timely and rapid response to their fact-checking inquiries. Additionally, the Government will encourage fact-checking organizations to create a registry of detected and debunked disinformation cases and a list of sources/entities disseminating disinformation.
COOPERATION IS CRUCIAL
Finally, allow me to underline that if we truly wish to design an efficient set of measures that would yield results in the field of combating disinformation, it is important for all countries to cooperate and exchange information on the efficiency of individual measures, implemented by different governments. On closer examination, even the content of disinformation disseminated in different countries seems to be replicated, as witnessed in the case of disinformation spread related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joint work and cooperation at the international level allow easier and faster dismantlement of fake news and minimize the devastating effect of disinformation, mitigating damage that could be inflicted on the society. Moreover, cooperation and fast communication with social media platforms are equally important in the fight against disinformation. Major breakthroughs have been made in that regard, but it should be noted that not all social networks adopt the same approach to cooperation with civil society organizations and governments.
This year, our Government included the fight against disinformation among its top ten priorities, elaborated in the document called ‘Action 2021’, and will continue to work on this action plan and to combat disinformation. Under the leadership of PM Zaev, we attribute great importance to transparency and international cooperation and will therefore join and initiate various cooperation arrangements on the exchange of experience in fighting disinformation. At the same time, it is equally important to learn from experience of other countries, which would allow us to continuously introduce new tools in the fight against disinformation and attacks on democracy.