Macedonia, a small nation in the heart of the Balkans, no longer wants to be internationally known as “fake news land.”
And to change this situation — created during the last U.S presidential election — Macedonians decided to invest in media literacy. Specialists from all over the country are reaching teenagers in different ways to teach them how bad mis/disinformation can be — not only for themselves but for others — and they say this effort can reverberate in the United States in 2020.
The numbers reached so far by MAMIL, a program developed by Macedonian’s Institute of Communication Studies, are impressive in a country with only 2 million people. In the last three years, more than 800 high schoolers have joined the project and participated in after-school camps, contests and in the publication of a newspaper called “Medium.”
This is one of the reasons why MAMIL has been chosen by the European Commission as one of the best 10 active media literacy programs in Europe of 2019.
Specialists around MAMIL believe the project will not only have an impact in Macedonia and on its terrible reputation as an international hub for fake news production but also in other regions — The United States being the most important of them.
In 2016, the Macedonian city of Veles, with its 55,000 inhabitants, made international news as a fake news cluster for having interfered in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Young, unemployed and very skilled people living there learned they could post false information about the American presidential candidates on social media and get American voters to click on their URLs.
Since those websites were full of banners, Macedonians not only managed to mislead the political debate far away from their homes but also made a lot of money with programmatic advertising set by Google’s AdSense.
According to BuzzFeed, for example, during the last American presidential campaign, a group of teenagers from Veles controlled over 100 websites about U.S. politics. Out of Macedonia, for example, came the information that former U.S. president Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that Pope Francis had forbidden Catholic people from voting for Hillary Clinton. Both of them were 100% false but trended on U.S. soil.
Now, three years later and on the edge of a new and polarized U.S. election, why should Macedonians believe MAMIL is strong enough to have a positive impact?
“The perception of disinformation in Macedonia has, for sure, slightly improved,” said Dejan Andonov, who works as a program manager at the Macedonian Institute of Communication Studies. “But we still need to do a lot of work on the ground.”
According to Andonov, there are still some portals in Macedonia that consciously produce misleading content to be distributed in other countries — and it’s hard to convince these Macedonians to drop this income source.
“It is sad for us that they are unaware that they are doing something wrong for their public and society in general. Instead of informing and educating readers, they mislead the public, and their imperative is just to earn a profit.”
Two weeks ago, Andonov was one of the speakers at London Misinfo Conference. Once he took the stage, he defended MAMIL as Macedonia’s best chance to stop being known as a place where fake news easily grows.
He showed a video that said the program has visited more than 100 high schools in his country and emphasized it has two other components besides media literacy for young people. It also reinforces the watchdog role of media and raises awareness of the media role among many other stakeholders.
IFCN reached a few other high-level Macedonian officials to get their thoughts about the program and its impact. One of them, who requested to be kept anonymous, said that Veles is still the same economically ruined city it has been since its zinc and lead smelting factory closed and that not much has changed there since 2016.
In this official’s opinion, even though MAMIL is a good program, the question people should ask themselves now is U.S.-related: “Have Americans learned? Are they ready to face what will probably come out from Macedonia again or not?”
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.