Daniela Rangelova, member of Parliament of Republic of North Macedonia from the right-wing populist party VMRO-DPMNE, confirmed the existence of the party’s troll army during a TV debate conducted by the “360 degrees” show on 8 November 2019 in Skopje.
When asked about her communication with the current party leadership and their disagreement with some of her positions and public appearances, she said that they have no courage to say what they feel in her face, but rather use their “bots” as conduit.
“They act very nice when we meet, but after each my public appearance I suffer lynching on the social networks by party’s bots, which are familiar to me, who were functioning in the same manner at the time when I was a member of the party management, and by people who are paid by the party to lynch people that express disagreement,” Rangelova said.
This is not the first time for high party officials to reveal details about the existence of the “troll army” or “bots” – a branch of the party propaganda machinery intended for coordinated and orchestrated influence over the public opinions over the social networks.
The term “bots” (short for robots) is used across the Balkans for the practices which are internationally known as “armies” or “factories” of trolls – malicious social network users who act in coordinated manner. The most famous example of entity running a troll army is the company Internet Research Agency from St. Petersburg, accused for attempts malicious influence across the world in line with Kremlin’s goals. The word “bots” has become common in the Balkans region as a nickname for the , who are called “SNS bots” by its opponents.
A year ago, in an interview for Kanal 5 TV on 28 November 2018, Nikola Todorov, former government minister in several administrations run by Nikola Gruevski, pointed out that the party has created an army of “party political bots” which manufacture an illusion of support by the people or the public, but also serve as intimidation mechanism using serious threats to hinder the work of individuals who are blacklisted by the party.
“It’s those bots. Political party bots, whose job is to promote all those negative and destructive ideas of VMRO-DPMNE management, and to spread hate speech and falsehoods….This whole system for lynching via social networks that was built by VMRO-DPMNE is very dangerous at this moment. I would say… I’m afraid the people who work for that system would end up in jail for obeying the orders of VMRO-DPMNE management. And these are young people, in their twenties, who sit behind computers…” Todorov said.
Todorov was let off from the political party structures because he didn’t support the campaign for boycott of the 2018 referendum, contrary to the statements by party president Mickoski that anyone can vote according to their conscience. VMRO-DPMNE has not admitted that the party run the “I Boycott” campaign, run online through the members of the troll army, the same people who before and after advocate the party positions or are cyberbullying people it has blacklisted.
Nikola Todorov, who has started working as a lawyer, said that the existence of the party’s troll army is nothing new, and that it’s a system using threats, defamation and hate speech, which is forbidden with the Criminal Code and “very dangerous.”
“This functions within VMRO-DPMNE and that has been the the way VMRO-DPMNE works. They give an order “tear to pieces Nikola Todorov on social networks.” And you know how that functions afterwards? There are about 20 people sitting behind computers, each with 10-15 fake profiles. And then they start with threats, insults, fabrications et cetera from those fake profiles. If there are about 20 with around 15 profiles each, they create the perception that an enormous number of people, say 200-300-400, think in that way. Which is not so,” Todorov explained.
The above statements and other information leaked to the public indicate that the troll army has several branches, connected to the Center for Communication of VMRO-DPMNE, which have been financed through state resources over the years of their rule. One branch of the army runs a network of individual (non-anonymous) and fake (anonymous) social media presences, the second branch consists of persons from the media outlets close to the party which serve both as source (incl. anonymous authors) and amplifiers of the social media manipulations. The third branch is a kind of infantry, party loyalists who think they owe their employment in the public administration with a duty to like or share content produced by the first two branches, so they would be visible to their wider circles of friends.
Leaked wiretaps published in early 2015 indicated that beseides ‘broadcasting’ party propaganda, the troll army operatives are also engaged in surveilance, or monitoring of activities of designated persons of interest over social networks. For instance, showed that then-government minister Mile Janakieski gave orders to officials to threaten civil servants with resignation or demotion for “liking” an undesired Facebook page (owned by then-opposition candidate) during an election campaign.
Later during that year European Union facilitator Peter Vanhoutte revealed that the in personal income taxes by the party in 2014 was about 3,200 euros — the equivalent to employment of one person. At the same time much larger number of people were engaged on party business within its 8-story headquarters in Skopje, and much more in party branches across the country. During the subsequent period there were more indications that such people are possibly paid through fictitious contracts for services paid through different state institutions.
Some publicly known cases indicate entanglement between of the functions of the three branches of the troll army in order to promote certain personages as opinion makers. For instance, some Twitter users who achieved certain level of popularity were recruited to join the structure, incentivized through paid jobs such as columnists in media outlets close to the party, or by providing access to public procurement for companies owned by their family members. On the other hand, some existing columnists were promoted to social media influencers on Twitter.
In a well-known case American lobbyist Jason Miko, who was in 2015 and 2016, was presented as independent analyst in the daily “Dnevnik,” and then was also turned into active Twitter user who constantly tweets on the #Macedonia hashtag and supported with retweets and likes by many known and anonymous profiles. Another case included Bogdan Ilievski who first gathered significant amount of followers through his profile “Batman says this” expounding anti-establishment positions. His career progressed from position of columnist in Off.net.mk and some media outlets owned by the now bankrupt MPM, through participant in the events leading to and the raid on the Parliament in April of 2017, and was later appointed as the following July.
Over a year ago, Meta.mk about an journalist investigation which determined that an Internet Research Agency operative specialised in established “bot armies” had a working visit to North Macedonia in June 2015. Anna Bogacheva, who is also charged by US special counsel Robert Mueller for allegedly interfering in the US elections, refused to explain with whom she had been working in the country in the months after then-President Gorgje Ivanov showed support for Putin by attending the Victory Day parade in Moscow, which was boycotted by NATO and allied countries in protest of aggression against Ukraine.