Alexander, fake news and the end of ancient Athenian democracy
On January 25, 2019 the Greek Parliament narrowly approved the Prespes agreement, establishing closer relations with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), now North Macedonia. The vote was preceded and followed by multitudinous demonstrations at Syntagma Square, where orators roused the crowds to a frenzy of nationalistic fervor.
Similar demonstrations took place in 323-322 BCE not far from where the modern Parliament stands today. To the ancient Macedonia idealists in particular, this obscure story offers some big lessons.
Philip II, a Trump-level warlord, conquered Athens in 338 BCE. When Alexander died in 323 BCE, the Athenian parliament decided to expel the Macedonian garrison. Prudent people advised against a rebellion; after 100 years of wars against other Greek states, the Athenians had neither the population nor the resources. But orators like Demosthenes threw caution to the winds, and they prevailed. Soon Antipater, Alexander’s general, arrived and ultimately conquered the Athenians in Lamia in 322. His condition for allowing Athenian self-rule was the dissolution of democracy. From then on, the citizens who had the most gold would make the rules. No more risks of individual votes determining outcomes unpredictably. Demosthenes committed suicide.
The final act was sealed by a striking example of disinformation. An orator named Stratocles lied to the Athenians about the outcome of the Lamia battle. They had won! When confronted with the truth, Stratocles said, according to Plutarch, “Did it bother you that you got two days of celebrations?”
Thus the Athenian democracy went down in a blaze of fake news, compliments of Alexander the Great. The Greek cities would not see democracy again for about 2,200 years.
Flash-forward to the 2019 demonstrators, who proclaimed that the ancient name was not for sale, regardless of economic benefits for Greece. How could an educated population be led to focus solely on a specific period of ancient history and shut off thoughts about the future?
The process has been carefully orchestrated. Some countries have a policy of using psychological research to manipulate citizen opinions. They buy access to Facebook and other profiles and fine-tune messages to personal circumstances. They then may show users vaguely worrisome or distorted news, such as Zoran Zaev proclaiming that Greeks must learn “Macedonian.” People email these shocking items to others, and their frequency alters the statistical data of our minds. Bit by bit, they sound believable. People tend to read news that reinforces their beliefs, so they may spiral into conspiracy theories.
Russia is reconstituting the former Soviet Union and is prodding Eastern European countries to vote for moneyed oligarchs who suppress free press and human rights. FYROM is expected to follow suit, but the government instead wants to join the European Union. A convenient way to stop this has been to use psychological research and rouse the populations of both countries against the name change and against each other. News organizations such as the Guardian and The New York Times have documented the strategies.
The disinformation campaign in Greece deftly coupled beliefs about the superiority of the Greek civilization with the 1940s Yugoslavian communist conflict. People became concerned about the safety of their homes in Thessaloniki, given the impending Slavic invasion. Crucially, people were made to suffer emotionally. They mourn the loss of exclusivity in the name, though for 23 centuries “Macedonia” was larger than the 330 BC area.
The nationalistic fervor perpetrated by fake-news tactics may be pushing citizens into right-wing beliefs. Unpopular decisions of elected governments enhance the status of nationalist parties who vow to restore the wounded national pride. Research shows that men who feel powerful support democracy less, and humans seem genetically predisposed to look up to strong males like Donald Trump or Alexander the Great. The one-person-one-vote democracy has been unstable and has rarely emerged in history. Democratic processes are complicated, unpredictable and liable to manipulation by influential people. It is simpler to have a ruling class of oligarchs, suppress dissent, and hold rubber-stamp elections. From Poland to Venezuela, examples abound of democracy being undermined in a few short months or years. The right-wing regimes disparage the European Union.
The economic crisis could be pushing Greece away from democracy. Foreigners are buying influential companies, including publishing media, and they do not typically come from democratic countries. Pressures from Turkey and the withdrawal of Donald Trump’s America from Europe favor Finlandization. Greece will have to consult with Russia and Turkey before making major decisions. Thus in the next decade, nationalists could usher Greece into a bloc of countries led by dictators and against the EU. The anti-FYROM demonstrators certainly enjoy waving flags and cheering, but in 10 years these events may look like the Stratocles celebrations.
If Greece follows the policy of ancient Macedonians, will democracy re-emerge soon? Democracies are fragile, but so are dictatorships; oligarchs start wars, may die early, and their subjects may become highly dissatisfied. But advances in data science would suggest otherwise. Governments and corporations can now collect personal data and pass them through algorithms that reasonably predict who may start a rebellion. The revolutionaries of tomorrow may be apprehended before they even know that they have seditious thoughts. Worldwide, democracy could be headed for a long, long night.
So what does this mean for the Prespes agreement? If the two countries collaborate effectively, the EU would be strengthened. On the other hand, the disinformers have done a very good job raising enmity in both countries. The political detente may be derailed by citizens who believe it is their patriotic duty to do so.
So Alexander is an eerie symbol in the name conflict. Hopefully, the Macedonian kings’ disdain for democracy will not prevail in the region.
Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist and a retiree of the World Bank. This essay represents the author’s views.