Disinformation and propaganda: the format changed, but the message remained the same

Authors: Elsa Kotorri and Klesjana Omeri

In Albania’s most recent parliamentary elections, due to pandemic restrictions, political parties used social media more than usual to expand their electoral campaign. They spent thousands of dollars on Facebook and Instagram ads to reach potential voters in real time.

Our investigation found that the two biggest political parties in Albania (Socialist Party & Democratic Party) and their candidates spent in total around $410,800 over a six to eight-week period from February through April 25th of last year. Ads were aimed at voters between the ages of 24-35. Each Facebook post reached an average number of 10,000 to one million people each week.

Examining the most popular politicians’ Facebook profiles we noticed something suspicious in the commenting post section. The comments came only from people who praised and supported these politicians. Negative comments were almost nonexistent.

Some of the profiles of those posting were even more suspicious when one examined their activity, including how long they had been posting on Facebook and their following/followers on the social network. Their posts appeared to be coordinated which raised the question: were these fake profiles created to manipulate voters?

Sophie Zhang, a data scientist and former Facebook employee who’s investigated fake engagement on the platform, said the indicators we uncovered may be proof that the positive comments are coming from fake profiles.

Sophie Zhang, photo ABC News Australia

Zhang said that one account on Facebook can coordinate hundreds of fake profiles without much effort or time. But trying to figure out who or what is generating the fake profiles is no easy task.

“Beside our doubts, we cannot be sure if the government or political parties are behind that. It can be also an organization. It can be anyone,” Zhang said.

Our investigation into the extent of disinformation or social media manipulation by political parties came up with several findings.

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Facebook page usually has no negative comments. Some of the profiles of people posting are relatively new with some posts made within a day the commenter’s profile was created.

On the Instagram platform of the Prime Minister and Minister of Infrastructure and Energy Belinda Balluku, the opportunity to comment on posts has been removed.

There are Facebook pages which aim insulting and bullying material at the political opponent of the ruling party. One was the “Untold story of Albania” page, which was deleted from Facebook after the 2021 elections.

Political Science Professor Afrim Krasniqi said that institutions involved in elections, including the Central Election Commission, the Audio-Visual Media Authority, the Electronic and Postal Communications Authority, the Prosecution and other institutions for protection against cybercrime, should create practices and legal ground to protect the integrity of the election campaign.

“Since the 2021 campaign, neither one nor the other [creation of legal and administrative safeguards against unethical and illegal behavior on social media] has happened, which does not exclude, even encourages the possibility of a repeat in the next elections,” Krasniqi said.

Referring to Article 9 of the Constitution, on the transparency of funding sources for political parties, Krasniqi said it should be noted that for most candidates the source of funding was the party headquarters or relatives, electoral staff or other individuals related to it, and not directly a personal account as declared to the CEC.

“Due to lack of legal basis and uncertainties in the sources of funding, this social media funding can be considered legally problematic and politically incorrect. Parties and candidates promising the rule of law, must follow legal avenues and transparent mechanisms to fund their campaign,” said Krasniqi.

Afrim Krasniqi, photo GazetaSi

Our investigation also found that, during the most recent campaign, both political parties used hate speech and negative ads directed at their opponents more than they did in the previous election.

The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and its limitations shifted the election campaign to the various online platforms. Social networks were the means through which political parties communicated to the electorate and for good reason – it’s the easiest way to reach a large audience at home or on their smartphone. The pandemic accelerated this trend.

The downside to this online communication is that it allowed disinformation to be spread quicker and easier. And those spreading it knew immediately who was reading or listening to their lies.

Another downside, Krasniqi said, is that reaching voters through social media requires sensational headlines rather than coverage of what’s happening each day in a campaign.

The parties and candidates did just that, he said, along with using photos, graphics, statistics, positive (for themselves) or negative (for rivals) video clips, and encouraged supporters to make mandatory shares, especially for the ruling parties, resulting in high visibility.

Another problem contributing to the spread of disinformation, communication experts believe, is that the country’s politicians and parties have turned into content producers while Albanian’s news media has lost its function of holding political interests accountable.

Elvin Luku, Executive Director of MediaLook

“The use of media space as a speaker of political purpose has created a crisis, because the media has shifted in its axis from the public interest to the political interest, ” said Elvin Luku, the head of MediaLook Center (online media).

Elert Yzeiri, information director at A2CNN TV, agrees.

“Political players go from one TV studio to another TV studio explaining their promises, denigrating opposing political forces, and in most cases, imposing predefined questions on journalists or moderators of television programs,” said Yzeiri.

He says that for the past 15-16 years, the media in general in Albania – but mostly television – has been brought to its knees by the influence of politics.

Elert Yzeiri, Editor in Chief of A2CNN

Yzeiri says that ever since news outlets started airing or publishing prepackaged material from political parties without any filter or editing, disinformation, in one form or another, has penetrated television screens, imposing itself on the public.

The government, the political parties, the deputies and the individuals involved are part of a propaganda army that produces disinformation, Yzeiri said, and he believes that this is a pact accepted by the media, mostly news outlets’ owners, who benefit financially from this arrangement.

“Even when a pact was made between different media outlets to boycott the so-called prepackaged political ‘cassette’, the major national television media continued to accept and broadcast news produced by political parties without editing, paving the way for propaganda,” Yzeiri added.

Today, in Albania there are few television news outlets (ABC News, FAX News, SYRI) that refuse to broadcast the “cassettes” produced in the offices of the government, the Municipality or other state institutions.

Institutions such as the Prime Ministry, the Municipality of Tirana and some ministries have more staff in their press offices than the largest national television stations have in their newsrooms. They include journalists, cameramen, editors, social media specialists and IT who, in a coordinated way, post, produce, and in many cases even attack with information and what some would call propaganda, said Yzeiri.

“The way and form on which the propaganda is based in the country is almost perfect. It does not need to be pushed by external actors,” he said.

Politics, scandals and the economy are some of the main topics not only on TV news stations but also on online news portals.

Over the last 15 months, the Albanian NGO Faktoje.al, examined 260 statements and promises of senior government officials. It found 19 statements to be true, 53 were false, 24 half true and 48 statements “uncategorized.” Faktoje examined 116 promises made by government officials and found only six promises have been kept and 110 unfulfilled.

Artan Fuga, photo Gazeta Telegraf

A member of the Academy of Science, Artan Fuga, says that all of the information delivered by Albania’s mass media is systemic disinformation that can be stopped only by complete reform of the legal framework of the media, forms of ownership, regulatory institutions, as well as the public media. The goal, Fuga says, should be separation of the media from monopolies and from politics.

The problem is not journalists but the media, Fuga adds, pointing out that media financially dependent on politics and business cannot be an independent media at all.

“A bad policy cannot be regulated by a good media, but a bad policy in the end corrupts the media and makes it a bad media,” said Fuga.

Elert Yzeiri suggested one possible way to combat disinformation is through educating journalists working in the media. But, at this point, there are only a few institutions in place to do that. He says the current status of media education efforts in the country and efforts to improve journalistic standards are almost non-existent.

Another problem Yzeiri points out, is that young journalists coming from schools into newsrooms have significant shortcomings. Countless associations produce worthless activities and never build genuine programs and training to improve standards, Yzeiri says. He said that monitoring institutions such as the Audio-Visual Media Authority should take greater responsibility for media education.

“These journalists, at the and of the day, will be hired by the same newsroom where the editor-in-chief, director or owner himself is still subject to politics,” Yzeiri said.

The US Embassy is involved in a number of media education projects including funding for journalism students training and media literacy at the national level. Other international partners such as IREX, the European Union and other international donors have long been trying to fund, support and encourage standardized quality journalism and investigative reporting.

The Albanian Media Institute is currently involved in two media education projects. The first has a target group of pre-university students. This project includes a curriculum, teacher training and textbooks on media education. This initiative is supported by UNESCO, the European Union, ASCAP and the Ministry of Education.

The second one involves universities and will create a media education curriculum aimed at increasing the awareness and capacity of teachers and students. The Institute also has been engaged in several trainings for students and teachers focused on the development of critical thinking and media education skills.

In the end, despite the numerous institutional efforts to curb disinformation and misinformation in the media, one of them being implemented by the Ministry of Education itself, the chief instigator of fake news and propaganda still remains the political caste which at one point or another in time, runs the country.