The number of followers on the official Facebook pages of the main political figures in the country reaches more than 1.6 million. More than half of the country’s population, according to INSTAT figures. But a single click on the “most relevant comments” option is enough to understand that behind the compliments and supportive messages, there are hidden false identities or individuals who are suspected to promote the propaganda of the holders of these public profiles, for cash. Thus they become collaborators of the virtual world that politicians want, a world where the cult of the individual seems to be rising.
“Facebook has repeatedly allowed world leaders and politicians to use the platform to deceive the public or harass opponents, despite being warned that there is evidence of this,” wrote “The Guardian” a year ago, when the former communications expert at Facebook, Sophie Zhang, announced that Albania was among the countries where public opinion was being manipulated and political discourse was being distorted.
A whole propaganda machine is witnessed in Albania by young people who, through fake profiles, try to influence the political beliefs of citizens. The latter are more active during the election period.
How much does it cost in Albania? A salary of 10,000 ALL to 26,000 ALL, support for a job or “turning a blind eye” by the authorities to obligations to the state. This is the scheme that is implemented, part of which are mainly young people engaged in politics. Juliana N. is one of them. The 23-year-old tells ACQJ that the publication of positive comments on the profiles of Albanian politicians is a job done by young supporters of political parties against a payment or other economic favors.
“I was engaged during the last political campaign of the Socialist Party and I say that anyone who writes untrue comments is part of an organized group. He’s a fan,” she says, adding that “the payment for positive comments made on the Prime Minister’s official website ranged from 100,000 old ALL to 260,000 old ALL [sic]”. According to her, the commenters’ payments were lower than those of their supervisors, who made sure that each comment conveyed a clear and convincing message on the Facebook social network.
“During the period when I gave my contribution to the SP, there were no shortage of cases when the commentators were not paid, but as a form of reward for the work done, they did not pay taxes for family businesses”, she explains.
Juliana N. also recalled the involvement of the administration in the machinery of manipulation in the interest of the government. “Even the employees of the administration have not been able to avoid the virtual support they had to give to the government. During the election period of April 25, even people employed in the administration, such as teachers, were asked to be active”, she says.
Endri Fuga, the Director of the Office of Communication of the Prime Minister, denies that the government practices the inclusion of fake profiles as its virtual supporters.
“I see comments that speak positively and negatively. Who curses and insults and praises. I see it in the Prime Minister and the ministers as I see it in the opposition. I see it in Albania, I see it in Europe, I see it in the world,” he said for the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism. He emphasizes that fake profiles are a wrong practice, which the office of the Prime Minister does not follow.
“We don’t have this practice”, he denies and remembers that his figure has been affected by the negative comments of fake profiles.
“If you were in my place and read what is written about me, my family, every day by trolls and by opposition politicians, I assure you that you would be much more disgusted than I am,” said Fuga.
Fake commentators during the April 25 campaign were not absent even in the Democratic Party. On the condition of anonymity, a former commentator told the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism that the trolls in DP were paid, but not much.
“Most of our group of 30 people came to the office with personal computers and we were asked to promote the former chairman of the DP, Lulzim Basha, as a Western leader”, he says, emphasizing that “some young commentators do not they had a payment, while the people who performed the role of supervisor had a payment of 30 thousand lek per month”.
“After losing the 3rd election and especially after the departure of Basha, our group disbanded. I don’t know what happened to the others already”, he concludes.
Asked by the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism, the former director of the Media Office for the Democratic Party, Patrik Sadikaj, denied the existence of a group of fake commentators, saying that during the election period only polls were carried out that had to do with recognition and the embrace of the DP program by the electorate.
How many comments are fake on the pages of Albanian politicians?
“Congratulations and the best of luck in your future endeavors. Thanks to you, Albania will have better roads. You are the only one who is developing Albania”, says Migena Dushku, one of the fake commentators on Prime Minister Rama’s official Facebook page.
Mostly, these fake commenters are profiles with female names, which, although they do not have an updated activity through posting attractive photos, manage to get “friend requests” not only from African or Asian profiles, but also from real profiles of Albanian male followers. This can be clearly distinguished from the comments made on these fake profiles, where it is shown that there is a lack of communication with the followers and an Albanian language translated verbatim from a foreign language, or comments of the same format and script. The opposite happens with fake profiles opened with male names, they have very few, 2-5 virtual friends and are not active at all.
Also, the lack of friends, profile pictures is another distinguishing feature of fake accounts on social networks, specifically on Facebook.
But how did we distinguish fake profiles?
We first took a look at the profile picture of most commenting profiles. Most of them had either perfect pictures, or pictures which through google reverse image search came up as stock. Most of the profiles either had minimal to no interactions in their timeline, as well as minimal friends, or friends from other parts of the world, with no connection to the Albanian reality, or with inconsistent activity, with previous months being fans/commenter/followers/liking other topics, while at a turn of the dime, being avid followers and commenters of Albanian politicians.
During the observations made by ACQJ, it turns out that no matter how many times a fake profile comments on the prime minister’s profile, the repeated positive message is the same: encouragement for the further continuation of the policies undertaken so far.
In five of the video-posts published on the official page of Prime Minister Rama on Facebook, we observed 200 random comments at the top of the list of most relevant comments, and commentators who had also won symbols as the most frequent commentators or the most loyal commentators to the Prime Minister, out of hundreds of comments posted. Specifically, in the video of the opening of the Vlora Bypass , posted on July 14, 2022, in the video of two Indian tourists promoting Albanian beauties, in the video of the port of Saranda, of the NATO headquarters meeting in Brussels and in the post- the video where the Prime Minister was present at the inauguration of the new park in the city of Vlora.
According to our data, out of 1000 comments published in these five videos, 470 are published by fake profiles. In other words, 47% of the most relevant comments on these post-videos of the prime minister are fake, while the fake profiles that wrote these comments are over 138, which means that a single profile has commented on average 4 times, but it is noticeable that many of the profiles are many times more active on the Prime Minister’s profile than on other profiles, leaving lots of positive comments on each post.
Unlike the posts of Prime Minister Rama, in the profile of the former Chairman of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, we can distinguish fake supportive comments mainly during the campaign period. In the video of Lulzim Basha and Luan Hoti conversation with business representatives in Durrës, in the 200 comments at the beginning of the comment list, there were 20 fake comments, 8 of which were from the same profile.
Former Prime Minister Berisha has one of the most followed profiles on Facebook. His official profile is followed by 1.1 million followers, but his last five video posts average 872 views, while our observations show that comments from fake profiles are absent.
Specifically, we analyzed the two videos of the former Prime Minister made on September 22 in the Assembly of the Parliament of Albania, the video post from the statement of the member of the Presidency of the DP Mimoza Hajdarmataj,¨ the video post published on September 21 about the speech of the sportswoman Krista Kovaçi during the conversation with Berisha and the post-video of the former prime minister’s conversation with the literary critic Lili Sula.
All five of these videos had been commented on a total of 895 times, by the time of research for this article, although the number of followers of the former Prime Minister’s profile is approximately half of the population of Albania. This can indicate either a large number of fake followers, or a lack of interest on the part of the latter.
Unlike the politicians of the two largest political parties in the country, President Bajram Begaj counts 3.3 thousand followers and comments on his posts range from 5 to 25, all made by real profiles.
How much does it cost to buy followers, comments and likes?
“Buying followers, likes and commenters is very simple, you just need a debit card or cash,” says Information Technology (IT) expert Said Dulevic. According to him, even in Albania there are many sites which offer 10,000 (ten thousand) comments for $4.
“You can also buy personalized comments, where the buyer himself decides what will be written, but they are expensive. The price ranges from $50 to $80,” he explains.
“The person who writes these dictated comments has an active profile on social networks, almost like a real person. Mostly these profiles publish posts related to travel or gastronomy”, he continues.
The use of social networks in political confrontation and the consequences in democracy
According to Erlis Çela, expert and lecturer in Communication Sciences, fake comments aim to manipulate public opinion.
“The strategy of fake users on social networks and engaging people to generate content, comments and reactions to accounts, mainly those of politicians, clearly aims to manipulate public opinion,” says Çela, adding that “the commentators are mainly people from Africa, Indonesia and India, which have nothing to do with the content of the messages, nor with the Albanian reality”.
The Communication Sciences professor, Edlira Gjoni, thinks that the Albanian public is faced with a flood of false information, unverified or distributed by unreal profiles, which burdens the audience’s ability to separate truth from lies.
“The most negative consequence is that a person can make wrong decisions when he is overloaded with false information, because he acts under the pressure and untruth of the online reality that is offered to him without any verification filter, ” she says, adding that “the formation of wrong opinions, receiving truncated information leads citizens to make wrong decisions”.
“Such citizens fall prey to political, economic or social frauds and are very vulnerable in making decisions for voting for example or for investments, payments and other wrong decisions that come as a result of the suspicious content that comes from these fake profiles. A real danger for society”, concludes Gjoni.
Afrim Krasniqi, Executive Director of the Albanian Institute for Political Studies, says that social networks have long been used for political warfare, “starting from the fact that in Albania the mentality that the more followers and commentators you have, the more successful you are”.
“Until a while ago, almost 100 people in the Palace of Congresses formed the leader’s online army and their task was to attack the opinion against it, from which it was transferred to foreign companies, as we saw in the last campaign that Israeli companies controlled social networks and led where their leaders wanted”, he recalls.
In his judgment, the real consequences of this activity are felt by people who are afraid of power, which are the majority of the older generation.
“When an ordinary person sees that a decision of the Prime Minister receives thousands of positive comments and ‘likes’, he begins to believe that his fate depends on these people who seem numerous and can destroy his house, can take his wealth and can destroy him. These false messages from the virtual world are addressed to these categories that should be silent and accept everything that comes from above”, he emphasizes.
Krasniqi concludes the analysis by warning that “these mechanisms distort the concept of democracy, free thought and media freedom”.