“-How many people do you have?
-I want 25 app downloads
– What is this? How can I force people?
– This is not up for debate!”
This conversation took place in the office of a director in a ministry in the capital, where the debate was not in regards to the download of a government app, but of “Aktiv1st” of the Socialist Party, where the likes, shares and the large numbers of viewers of live videos on social media of the main ministers of the government and the prime minister, who, according to the evidence found, are mostly public administration employees.
“The main discussion in the corridors is: how many points do you have?”, – says an official in a ministry on condition of anonymity. While talking to him, he explains how this app works.
“Each institution has 4 to 5 people, who are responsible for the app, its downloads, following political activism, etc. They are political appointees,” – he says, adding that regular meetings are held in central and local institutions to monitor the progress of the application and its users.
“I don’t understand why there is such violence, violence against people in 2023. They want numbers, they don’t care about the opinion of people”, – continues the official’s confession, asserting that the panic of workplace insecurity has spread in all institutions. “It’s not the work you’re appreciated for, but the activist.”
Based on this conversation, through a verification in the Google Play Store it turned out that this app had more than ten thousand downloads, while in the Apple AppStore it is impossible to find the number of downloads, but the popularity of this application captures extremely high numbers, ranking it as the sixth most downloaded social network app in Albania.
What is common, on both different platforms, are the comments that describe this application as a means of propaganda and exerting pressure on the public administration.
“This app is being used by the government for propaganda. And it doesn’t just stop there: It is violating every employee’s right and collecting personal data”, – says one of the comments on the Google Play Store platform, where, among other things, it is pointed out that this application is being used by the Socialist Party, the ruling party in Albania, to force all employees of the state administration to share it and distribute the government’s propaganda.
“You must like, comment and share on Facebook, etc., the posts of the Prime Minister, the party, etc. If someone does not agree to participate in this application, I am afraid that they will be blackmailed and even fired”, – is written in the comment of the citizen E. Gjergji.
On the other hand, similar comments have not been missing on the AppStore platform either, where one of them states that this application is used by the government, which forces government employees to participate in SP’s political propaganda.
How does the “Akvtiv1st” of the Socialist Party work?
“For the internal affairs of the Socialist Party”, – is the answer that the Communication Office of the SP gave the ACQJ, on the question of what was the reason for the creation of this application.
However, the application is available to the general public, not just SP staff and supporters. To open an account in the “Aktiv1st” application, users must first provide some personal information such as: first name, last name, municipality where they live and a phone number. After creating the account, a link is sent to the personal e-mail to confirm the account, in which a 6-digit code is sent.
However, this superficial verification, according to sources close to the administration, is only an initial verification, and in addition to this, dedicated people in the government institutions also perform a personal verification of whether the people who download and use it, are employees in the administration.
In its response, SP states that the application is dedicated to a target group within the party, and aims to “bring much faster communication within their political family“. However, this application requests and collects personal data that affects a much larger pool of the population than just the socialist family.
Officially, this application, according to the description given in the AppStore, is “a platform of the Socialist Party of Albania, which gives the opportunity to any person who has an idea and desire to be a participant in local or national competitions, to advance his initiatives, as well as being an active factor in the community where he lives”.
Alas, there are only four initiatives on it. “Promote the Agrotourism of your city“, an initiative that extends throughout the territorial space of the country, “Donate a book, enrich the library“, an initiative for the city of Laç, “Digital Marko” and “School is not a fortress“. What stands out is the fact that these initiatives, apart from a photo, a title and a few lines of text, have no information on how you can become a part of them other than clicking the “Support” button.
The moment you open your account in this application, below the profile name appears a wide menu of activities and options, such as Social, News, Posts, Contests, but all of which are focused on clicking on the “news” posted by the app’s administrators on government achievements and various events of various members of the ministerial cabinet.
In the focus of the main menu are all the posts of the socialist government people and mayors of Albania, previously published on their social networks such as “Facebook” and “Instagram”, where users are directed to the posts on special profiles for further interactions.
As far as the “News” category is concerned, what is noticed is that news is distributed which was carried out by the media very close to the socialist government, which always put the government’s activity in a positive light. On the other hand, the “Posts” category includes user posts promoting the good work of the government. Meanwhile, the “Competition” category is what highlights the “real workers” of the app, where the 100 users with the most points are reflected and the top three receive medals.
The question that remains is what price do these digital medals represent?
One like 5 points, one share 15 points
“There is a vetting for the persons who are accepted”, – says a source near an institution which offers services throughout the territory of the Republic of Albania.
For more than a month, the testimonies collected under condition of anonymity managed to create a clear overview of the distribution of this application in state institutions.
“It has been on the AppStore since November. There are people at our institution who so far have 1500+ points”, – explains the source, saying that “I have the impression that 90% of the institution’s employees are already users of the app”.
The information received from different sources on the distribution calendar of this application in the administration has also been confirmed by the suspicions of the IT experts consulted by the ACQJ.
Meanwhile, another person employed in a directorate under one of the largest municipalities in the country, explained to us the scoring system this application has.
“You will visit the Edi Rama, Belinda Balluku and other ministers profiles, and you will always like and share from within the application. A like is 5 points, a share is 15 points”. – he explains.
“They asked us for a list of names, which are then verified on the platform if they have their own account and how active they are”, – says another source in the structure of the Customs Directorate, adding that in case of “non-fulfilment of opening the given number of accounts, your job may be at risk”.
Based on these complaints, using the “Aktiv1st” app, the ACQJ managed to verify in January, that of the top 100 fans (users with the highest points listed in the application) more than 60% are employees of the public administration, part of whom also hold high management positions in the administration.
32 of them are employed in the Municipality of Tirana, in positions such as Municipal Police Officers, high-level specialists, archivists and even administrators of municipal units, the rest are managers of directorates and subordinates in the public administration.
Following a request and refusal by SP media representatives, for an interview with Mr. Etjen Xhafa, Secretary for Digital Coordination, the ACQJ received through an official email the reaction of the Socialist Party, in which this party asserts that the idea of the creation of this application came “as part of the ongoing modernization of the Socialist Party”.
At the same time, ACQJ asked Mr. Endri Fuga, Director of Communications of the Prime Minister, for a comment on the accusations raised by administration employees regarding the obligation to download “Aktiv1st” and to be active in it, who denied them.
“This is untrue and there are no facts about this. So other than denying it as a charge, I have nothing else to add.” – he said.
Asked if the Albanian government in any of the cabinet meetings, formal or informal, has ever discussed the social media performance of various government departments and strategies for increasing their numbers, Fuga replied that “in government meetings decisions are discussed that the government takes”.
But this assertion of the Prime Minister’s spokesman contradicts what Taulant Muka, former deputy Minister of Education in the “Rama 2” Government.
“In a government meeting that I attended, the topic of discussion was specifically the performance of the ministries. The table of data that was presented was the table of likes, shares, twits, of each ministry, the Ministry of Education, Economy, Health, etc., etc.”, – says Muka, asserting that this is more or less how the performance system in the social networks was evaluated, based on the performance of the minister.
“I remember in that meeting, in fact, the Ministry of Education was criticized a lot because there was one of the deputy Ministers who received only two likes and a 30-minute discussion was held by the Prime Minister on likes, why are there few when the reforms were very big”, – he says, adding that the discussion about the performance at the government meeting lasted about 1 and a half hours.
Mr. Muka says that a platform was presented that automatically controlled how many likes and shares each institution received.
“On the other hand, [the presentation] showed a design where every employee of the administration would automatically be part of this system, where regardless of whether the employee liked or not a status of the ministry, he would automatically like and share it on social networks”, – he concludes.
The statements of Mr. Muka that in government meetings the performance of various ministerial cabinets was discussed on social media, are confirmed for the ACQJ by people who have information on the informal government meeting held on January 4th 2023, in “Vila 31” in Tirana, as well, corroborating that “a large part of the meeting was dedicated to the online government performance”.
Asked about this, Mr. Fuga answered, “I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem so to me [nuk më rezulton] “.
How are social networks being used by the government?
The fact that social networks are widely used by political parties has already been proven during previous election campaigns. Meanwhile, what has recently begun to be researched is the use of social networks by political parties and politicians to distort public perception towards a politician or a political party. The Albanian Center for Quality Journalism, in an investigative article on the likes, shares, and comments of politicians, managed to find that on the pages of the most popular political figures in Albania, fake profiles were used not only to “produce” likes, but also to comment on the profiles of the latter.
In order to see if “Aktiv1st” has had an effect on the increase of interactivity in the posts of the social networks of the ministers of the “Rama 3” government, we chose to do a simple analysis of numbers in four videos of any kind published in the months of June, December of 2022, and of the month of January 2023, for a number of cabinet ministers.
On June 15th 2022, the current deputy Prime Minister Mrs. Belinda Balluku, in a video post on “Facebook”, has only 479 likes, 27 comments and 22 thousand views. Meanwhile, on December 12th, the number of likes, comments and views have increased to the respective figures of 1 thousand, 73 and 53 thousand in the video post made by Mrs. Balluku. Furthermore, the upward trend can be seen in a video posted on January 12th 2023, where Mrs. Balluku has received 7.5 thousand likes, 851 comments and 32 thousand views.
Meanwhile Minister Olta Xhaçka, in a video post on June 2nd, counted 182 likes, 12 comments and 62 thousand views, and on December 7th, in another video post Mrs. Xhaçka counted 2.2 thousand likes, 98 comments and 20 thousand views. A month later, in another video post, the number of likes of Minister Xhacka marked a big decrease, registering only 403 likes, the comments followed a similar trend where there are only 32 likes, while there was an increase video views, counting 34 thousand.
The Minister of State for Relations with the Parliament, Mrs. Elsia Spiropali, who leads a ministry without a portfolio, on June 13th of last year, in a video post would record 835 likes, 391 comments, 5.1 thousand views. On December 12th, in another video post, Minister Spiropali would receive 4.7 thousand likes, 1.2 thousand comments and 34 thousand views. Conversely, on January 10th of this year, Spiropali received 4.4 thousand likes, 527 comments and 10 thousand views for a video post.
Given these results, there are fears that the app in question is designed to avoid the use of fake profiles, and instead use a more stable “user base” to amplify the government’s message and distort public perception in the run-up to the elections and beyond, the public administration.
“Since 2018, Facebook’s algorithm has elevated posts that encourage interaction between users to the top of the table,” states an October 2021 Washington Post article, noting that for a subset of extremely partisan users, today’s algorithm may turn their sites into echo chambers, where users only hear what they don’t want to hear.
Expert state that the practice violates all possible Albanian and international laws
Gentian Progni, information technology expert, analyzes the data that the “Aktiv1st” app collects.
“There are two types of access”, – he says, explaining that the moment you install the application on devices with the Android operating system, it gets access to photos, videos, messages, the location of the phone and has the ability to use them even when you have closed the application.
“There is also the second moment of the installation, where you have to make a certification with your social account, that is, Instagram or Facebook”, – he says, adding that it is an approval system that has access to all your profile data, from reading messages to who you like, share, etc.
Progni indicates that this application is built on the Firebase platform, which is a “Cloud” based platform.
“You can build systems, databases, servers, etc. and through this system you process data and receive data, send notifications, etc.”, – he says, continuing to explain that “when these transactions are made, data is generated in the backend for each user. So, if Gentian Progni is an employee of the Ministry of Entrepreneurship, a point is made for every action you have taken, and according to those points, you will be given a warning or added credit”.
He further adds that the biggest problem he sees is the backend of the application, where the administrators can see how many times you have opened the application, how much you have used it, whether you have kept the live video running until the end or not, whether you have liked and whether remove the like after you have done so.
“All these generate a PDF, which for each directorate is special and are channeled in the form of a larger network up to the ministry”, – he concludes.
The Commissioner for the Right to Information and Protection of Personal Data, in response to ACQJ’s questions, says that the legal processing of personal data requires compliance with law no. 9887, dated 10.03.2008 “On the protection of personal data”, adding that when the controller [data collector] processes personal data received from the data subject [users], he is obliged to inform the latter if their provision is mandatory or voluntary.
Expert Progni says that this application violates all possible Albanian and international laws.
“The GDPR law that has been approved by the EU and America clearly states that this data should not be collected and processed”, – he says, noting the case of “Cambridge Analytica” which through the collection of data and their processing achieved to indirectly influence people’s voting preferences.
“The same thing is happening with “Aktiv1st””, – he emphasizes.
“Creating the feeling of insecurity in the workplace and the idea that it is not the work for which you are valued but this [use of the application], is intolerable. It is everywhere in the administration – central and local; in fact, it has even wider spread at the local level. There are regular meetings to monitor the progress of the application and its use.” – said the official of the ministry on condition of anonymity.
Asked if they managed to verify if there is pressure on the administration to use this application, Progni says that there are hundreds of messages a day.
“Normally I will never make it [their names] public, they write to me that they were forced to install the application to share and like etc.”, he says, adding that he has tried to help many of them.
“I helped them find a solution on how to escape the situation to some extent, without being fired, by sharing the posts in private and the person responsible who monitors them, and maybe I helped them a little bit to not be part of this facade”.
“It is not the work for which you are appreciated, but the activist”, – is the common expression of all the testimonies received by ACQJ from public administration employees.