The struggle for power is dominated by narratives of enemies and divisions

Political parties use all tools and channels in an attempt to get as many votes as possible. The most "suffering" are the party announcements that are published sometimes ten times a day, and which often contain bare accusations unsupported by facts with offensive vocabulary towards the political opponent.

Instead of inspiration, divisions and a "black and white world". Instead of words of encouragement, mutual accusations, instead of praise for a job well done, criticism very often without basis and twisting of facts... We have been living in this reality for a long time. Citizens are disillusioned, and the harmful narratives spread through the media and social networks continue and tend to intensify in the months ahead of dual elections and possible upheavals in the country. Political parties use all tools and channels in an attempt to get as many votes as possible. The most "suffering" are the party announcements that are published sometimes ten times a day, and which often contain bare accusations unsupported by facts with offensive vocabulary towards the political opponent, analyzes the state agency MIA.

"SDSM: Instead of a solution, DPMNE is blocking the issuance of passports from the White Palace, for months they claimed that they would have solved the problem with personal documents. When DPMNE entered the technical Government, their minister made further chaos, tried to create panic among citizens by announcing fines and complicated the process for issuing passports."

"VMRO-DPMNE: SDS are nervous because they see that the law will be applied to everyone - VMRO-DPMNE will not cover up and stifle cases like SDS did. We understand the need of the SDS in every possible way to defocus the public from its crimes and the incompetence of the Ministry of Internal Affairs-SDS, which left 600 thousand citizens in "state detention".

This is just one example of the daily fights between political parties, but the harmful narratives do not lag behind in the speeches of the deputies in the Parliament and in the statuses on social networks.

- Disrespected, a deserter from the president and disrespected fellow MPs, today they are the 'mastermind' of smuggling in the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia. The patriots of batteries from DPMNE, the quislings from ESDEES and the secessionists from DUI put the noose on parliamentary democracy through point 1 in the amended Proposal - Rules of Procedure of the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia. These three political dragons who suck the blood of the Macedonian people want to have no opposition in the future, is a part of the speech that Dimitar Apasiev, MP and president of the Left, presented at the session on the amendments to the Rules of Procedure.

The presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for April 24 and May 8. The parties and potential candidates are already campaigning even though it only starts in April. The number of negative words, smears, twisting of facts, misinformation... overall harmful narratives are predictably increasing.

Professor Eleonora Serafimovska from the Institute for Sociological-Political Legal Research, who is working on the DAMAGE-NA research with the Institute for Communication Studies, in a statement to MIA, emphasizes that she expects harmful narratives to strengthen and prevail as before with an unfounded undermining of trust in institutions. biased information selection, Ad hominem attacks instead of attacks on the arguments of political opponents, demonization of political opponents, spreading populism, spreading fear and panic.

- As before, I expect an election campaign in which, first of all, other people's policies are denigrated, and little is said about their own visions, programs and the way in which they would be realized. I expect the narratives to continue, the harm of which is that they encourage divisions between us and you, we the good and the honest versus you the bad and the dishonest and the corrupt, we who are with the people and you who do not love our own people, we who are progressive and pro-European as opposed to you who obstruct Macedonia's bright path to the EU, says psychologist and communicator Serafimovska.

She believes that political subjects will continue to use social media frequently, but, as before, not to communicate directly, directly and openly with the public, but to express their own ideas and views in a one-way way.

I expect, she says, the use of emotionally charged words that would intensify certain negative feelings, that politicians would continue to disrespect the principles and standards of public discourse, open debate and democratic values.

- It seems that a long time will pass until the moment when awareness of the terrible consequences of harmful political narratives will be a self-regulating tendency in political communication - the professor believes.

Her colleague from the Institute for Sociological-Political Legal Research, Jovan Bliznakovski, also does not expect significant changes from what we saw in the past.

- Harmful narratives will be represented in the election campaign, and the same applies to the mobilization of citizens through clientelistic promises of employment, advantages and other material benefits. In the field of narratives, we will have fights along the lines of "pro and against the EU", "patriots vs. traitors", mutual attacks on who is more corrupt and/or incapable of running the country, etc. I expect more of the same that we have seen in recent years, both within the ethnic blocs and between them - says political scientist Bliznakovski in a statement to MIA.

The antagonism that is created among the citizens from these harmful narratives, according to professor and psychologist Ana Chuchkova from the Slavic University, creates a ground of disorientation due to the already created skepticism and mistrust in no one and nothing.

- Since this bipolarity lasts for several decades, the division into smaller groups and subgroups will be more and more pronounced. It is very likely that the action will be more concentrated at the municipal level. And the turnout in the elections will be much lower - emphasizes Chuchkova for MIA.

Politicians and parties should work on transparent and ethical use of communication platforms

The DAMAGE-NA survey conducted by the Institute for Communication Studies in collaboration with media and communications researchers and experts, journalists and media professionals measures harmful political narratives. These are narratives that have negative consequences for society, democracy and the well-being of individuals. They refer to stories, ideas or messages promoted by political entities that are not for the benevolent purpose of informing the public or promoting civil activism, but serve to manipulate it, which makes them the main factors for undermining democratic and humane values ​​in general.

The research is longitudinal and covers the time period from September 1, 2023 to July 31, 2024. Political actors in the country are monitored through monitoring and analysis of: the official websites and official Facebook profiles of the political parties from the current parliamentary composition that have more than one MP - a total of 10, as well as the official Facebook profiles of the presidents of the political parties - a total of 10 , as well as the ministers (members of the Government - 20 in total) from the current government composition.

Professor Serafimovska says that the main goal of this monitoring is to investigate whether and how political actors in Macedonia create, use and share harmful narratives.

The second monitoring, as she explains, is on television stations (monitoring of central, major news) and online news media, every fourth day. A total of 11 informative online media and nine television stations are monitored, and the main goal of this monitoring is to investigate what and what is the role of the media in reporting these harmful narratives, that is, whether the media apply professional and ethical journalistic standards.

- The analysis of the contents of the websites and Facebook profiles of the parties and politicians shows that they use their own (official) websites as well as Facebook profiles to convey their views and ideas. When the political entity uses both channels for communication, then the contents shared through one and the other channel are largely the same. Of course, not every political entity has the same dynamics of publication on these two channels, and each one, in turn, has its own specificity in how it transmits the content of one and the other channel - says Professor Serafimovska.

Social networks have become a breeding ground for extremism used to undermine democracy, an expert group concluded in Davos and called for reforms that would restore trust in government and

As an illustration of that dynamic, according to the research, when these two channels were published in the month of December, the websites of the targeted political parties and the Facebook pages of the targeted political entities were monitored for 18 days (every third and fourth day of the month). At the same time, only three political parties use their website to spread harmful narratives: VMRO-DPMNE, SDSM and Left. The Facebook profile is used by a dozen politicians, office bearers and parties from almost all political parties. SDSM equally uses both media and websites and Facebook profiles. The Left, on the other hand, uses the Facebook profile more often to post posts with harmful profiles.

Professor Serafimovska emphasizes that here, it seems that it is not so important which media politicians prefer to convey their views and ideas, but how they do it, especially when they convey harmful narratives.

-Usually, years ago, and current research has shown that, political subjects use social media/platforms to share content that serves only to promote their own activities, and not for two-way, direct communication with citizens. Sharing is done by skilled public relations managers, thereby missing the opportunity for immediate, direct communication and interaction. Simply put, political subjects very frequently use social media to express their own views, ideas, but they do not use the potential of social media for constructive political debate, so there is no real dialogue in the public. On the social networks of political entities, apart from the promotion of their own views and ideas, there is often unfounded denigration of political opponents, so that in fact the communication is directed only to their supporters, and not to the general public - emphasized prof. Serafimovska.

All this, she says, emphasizes the need to raise awareness for transparent and ethical use of these platforms by politicians/political entities.

Bliznakovski from ISSPI says that harmful narratives in politics have been present in our society since the beginning of multipartyism. It reminds that mutual fights between politicians on a personal basis have been present for decades and are already a common decorum in political competition, but also the ethno-centric narratives that elevate one ethnic community and discriminate against another.

- I separate these two as types of narratives that are more characteristic for our context, in addition to narratives that refer to the involvement of the international community in internal processes that can also sometimes be characterized as "harmful", of course depending on the message - he says Bliznakovsky.

With the emergence and development of social networks, the mentioned and other similar harmful narratives multiply and probably at the moment, the assistant professor assesses, we have a situation in which they are at a "peak" of prevalence.

- At the moment, due to the specific historical context, various harmful narratives are "supported" by the so-called "fake news", creating an image among ordinary people of the justification of a certain narrative because of some apparent factual situation. It seems to me that right now we are really experiencing a "boom" in the prevalence and their effect on society, although we should be aware that this phenomenon is not at all new for our democracy - says Bliznakovski.

Creating and reinforcing ideas of "enemies" and feelings of inequality and not belonging

Macedonian society lacks cohesion, social polarization is great, and with the performances of politicians in which they use harmful narratives, it deepens even more, especially now in the pre-election period.

Bliznakovski emphasizes that harmful narratives often have the function of increasing this polarization and reducing the possibilities for social cohesion. He says that harmful narratives create and solidify ideas about "enemies" and as such act distinctly negatively towards the possibilities of cooperation between different groups and individuals.

More narrowly, in terms of democratic development, harmful narratives are also used as a method for political mobilization of citizens, including during voting. In many societies around the world, political parties, says Bliznakovski, are moving to mobilization methods based on explicit attacks on political opponents in a situation where they have not built a reputation of reliability in terms of the fulfillment of political programs.

- This is the situation in our country as well - the parties prepare programs, but after seizing power they consistently do not fulfill them - the citizens are aware of this situation and do not see the party programs as a serious argument for voting. In order to circumvent this problem, parties resort to other mobilization tactics that are democratically deficient, such as "buying votes" or, in relation to our topic today, attempts to vilify the opponent through a damaging narrative. In this sense, harmful narratives directly undermine the ideal model of democracy, which by definition is based on voting based on a program offer and accountability according to the program offer - Bliznakovski points out.

In this way, he concludes, harmful narratives help maintain a deficit in the application of democratic principles.

(Un)ethical politicians, contactless communication with citizens, influence

Ethical competence in communication among politicians is unsatisfactory, and the desire for success in the political competition seems to be greater than ethical principles. Citizens feel powerless, they have the impression that they cannot influence the processes that take place in the country, as if they are part of a reality show, and those who decide their fates - the politicians - are put in the role of influencers.

In the political battle, harmful narratives are used as one of the weapons to win, and parties often have no filters, intentionally or unintentionally, to prevent these kinds of narratives from reaching the public.

Bliznakovsky says that our political parties, especially the larger and longer-lived ones, have a history of "playing around" or "circumventing" the rules when they self-regulate. He says that professional filters are needed, but he is skeptical that the parties themselves are capable of implementing it properly.

He is not aware that any party has used such a mechanism, but perhaps, as he told us, he is not well informed. He believes that the general atmosphere in our politics is "belligerent", insulting speech is used, the focus is defocused on the personality of the opponents, clear differences are made between "us" and "them", citizens are mobilized on the basis of a "negative" campaign.

- We can clearly see that communication is susceptible to harmful narratives: this is common to both types of communication you mention. Even when politicians address citizens - they often know how to separate a group of citizens who will be "branded" as "unfavorable", using terms such as "traitors", "foreign mercenaries", "Russophiles", he says when asked that gave a general assessment of political communication between politicians, but also of politicians to citizens.

Bliznakovski believes that only training on ethical speaking, which does no harm, is not the final solution for this kind of rhetoric. He believes that a certain part of politicians are not aware of the consequences of harmful narratives and hate speech and cannot recognize them as such, but he also believes that a certain part is ready to implement a discourse that would be free from harmful narratives. They, he adds, are the target groups where training would be useful.

-However, we also have another part of politicians (while it is really difficult to assess which of the mentioned groups is dominant) who consciously use harmful narratives in their performances. In our country, prescribed repercussions and their implementation in practice is a completely different matter and I believe that those who resort to harmful narratives in the public sphere are calculating with impunity. In this case, it is really difficult to expect that training will help, says Bliznakovski.

 

Harmful narratives are also present in the EU member states, even in the most developed ones, but there the public filter is especially important. There, as Bliznakovski says, hate speech will not pass equally in most of the older European democracies and in post-communist countries like Macedonia.

- Simply, the public reacts and that is the best corrective for politicians who want to use harmful narratives. A critical mass against harmful narratives contributes to better regulation as well as to the implementation of the regulation against them - says Bliznakovski.

Psychologist Chuchkova recommends training on behavior with the public and changing the approach to citizens. According to the professor, many of the things that lead to harmful influences in the public are done by politicians unconsciously and because the non-verbal communication, which she observes as a psychologist, very often indicates that they humiliate the people.

- They do it unconsciously, because they themselves are already antagonisms. Their way of thinking is that in order for them to be first, the other must be denigrated, labeled, denigrated, denied, invalidated. It will be training, it will be a great awareness, for me there is hope, but if we become more and more aware - says Chuchkova.

Regarding whether politicians have become influencers, Serafimovska says that if influencers are people who have an influence on other people, on their attitudes, values, behaviors, and in this digital age in which we live, they do it, above all, with the help of social platforms, then politicians desire and constantly try to be influencers.

-Whether they really are, to what extent they are, which of them are and which are not and why they are not - will depend on many things. Politicians who effectively use social media and digital communication to communicate messages to the public can be considered influencers. In fact, the rise of social media has blurred the lines between traditional political figures and influencers, as politicians now have the ability to directly engage in communication with their followers, share content and influence public opinion in ways that were not previously possible. And this can happen at any moment of time, depending on the strategy and approach to communication of each individual politician - says Serafimovska.

The professor says that she could not accurately say whether politicians have an awareness of what is private and what is public space, but from the analysis according to the standards that should be followed in political communication, the DAMAGE research defined several principles and monitored how political subjects they respect.

These are the principles of transparency, professionalism and impartiality in communication, the principle of communication based on evidence, the principle of ethical communication and the principle of not spreading hate speech, discriminatory speech.

- The data showed that political entities violate all principles without exception. Here are examples: when politicians baselessly (without evidence) undermine trust in public institutions and when they biasly select information, which they often do, they do not respect the principle of transparency, the principle of professionalism and impartiality in communication and the principle of evidence-based communication , when in their narratives they make attacks on a personal basis, and even demonize, when they use hate speech, and all this is also often done according to the analysis, then the political subjects do not respect the principle of ethical communication and the principle of not spreading speech of hate, discriminatory speech. When politicians try to spread panic, fear and uncertainty with their narratives, then they break the principle of ethical communication and the principle of professionalism - says the professor.

The dilemma remains, as our interlocutors point out, whether politicians are not aware and do not know the standards for public political communication and therefore make a mistake, or are they aware and know the standards and principles, but deliberately and intentionally do not respect them. Both are equally impermissible, but there is no doubt that generally political actors do not adhere to the principles and standards of political communication.

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