Perspectives | Disinformation

We are fed misinformation daily

By - 09.12.2022

In addition to the media, the government is a source of disinformation in Albania.

Disinformation has become something we are fed daily. It’s something individuals and web portals serve us in exchange for clicks and views. It is enough to log onto Facebook, Instagram or TikTok — the channels with the most public engagement in Albania — to find tantalizing disinformation.

In the blink of an eye, this news spreads, from children to teenagers and the elderly. Based on monitoring done by the fact-checking platform Faktoje, it is evident that many tend to share information without verifying whether it is true. The large distribution of unverified content shows that disinformation has achieved its goal — reaching the widest possible audience.

In Albania, similar to the worldwide trend, misinformation that went viral during the last two years was mainly related to Covid-19 vaccines. This misinformation was inspired by anti-vaccination groups or even conspiracy theories spread by pseudoscientists, who were given generous air time by Albania’s main television channels.

This misinformation was so influential that, as Faktoje confirmed, in cities such as Tirana, Kukës and Korça, individuals of different ages made the decision not to get vaccinated based on it. They based this decision on unverified information about the “irreversible damage” that the Covid-19 vaccine could cause.

The high number of shares on social media proved that the audience fell into the trap of misinformation, which was sold with sensationalist headlines. This was despite the fact that this content never contained quotes from experts or scientific facts. 

The negative impact this disinformation had on public health was only one part of the campaign, which took off at the start of the pandemic and was dubbed an “infodemic” by the World Health Organization. In Albania, the infodemic went beyond public health and touched almost every topic of public interest.

The spread of misinformation

Since 2018, Faktoje has been engaged in checking the authenticity of the news. In the second half of 2022 we’ve found that misinformation is being spread daily by ghost portals with dubious names.

The names of these portals often contain words like “news” and have a random number attached. Sometimes, the names are phrases that have nothing to do with the news or professional journalistic reporting, despite the fact that the headlines relate to issues of great importance to the public.

Here is a typical case. A few months ago, a headline in an Albanian portal stated “the mayor of Belsh is arrested, after reporting to SPAK [Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Structure], handcuffs for other officials as well.” The article, which received hundreds of views and was widely shared, was fake.

After verifying the sources from SPAK, the State Police and the municipality itself, Faktoje published the correct data and the article in question was removed from the portal. However, these types of articles are recycled by many other portals, which serve up sensationalist headlines to try and catch as many people as possible. It is impossible to identify all the portals that do this in time.

This case illustrates how quickly a large mass of people can be misinformed and in comparison, how slow the process of verifying and reporting fact-based information is. The damage caused by the spread of misinformation is increasingly difficult to repair.

The positive news is that in the same channels where misinformation is spread, fact-checking services are increasing the amount of campaigns against this phenomenon. This is what Faktoje does every day. By verifying “fake news” we help the public to distinguish fake information. One tell-tale sign of fake information: when we see articles with serious spelling errors, there is a good chance that the errors are intentional to avoid being recognized by the algorithm and to escape content verification. This is an element we find in almost all viral news reports with sensationalist headlines.

But the problem of disinformation in Albania goes beyond this. Today there are hundreds of portals and profiles that are financed by unknown sources and with employees with unknown levels of professional training.

The government is part of the disinformation campaign

Disinformation through state propaganda is alarming.

Part of the infodemic that occurred during the pandemic was propaganda from Edi Rama’s government about their “successful” confrontation with Covid-19. Dozens of statements and promises from state institutions and officials went through Faktoje’s magnifying glass. Some of these statements guaranteed that the government had put aside over 9.8 million euros for the reimbursement of patients with Covid-19 to cover medical expenses. It was also stated that the government’s expenses in the health sector had increased compared to 2013, when the Democratic Party was in power.

However, verification through several sources, including the government itself, showed that the reimbursement scheme for Covid-19 patients was, in fact, fictitious. Data from the Compulsory Health Insurance Fund shows that in the period between January and August 2021, only 5% of infected patients were reimbursed. The “lucky” ones received an average reimbursement of the equivalent of $40. Patients who got infected with Covid-19, depending on complications, could spend up to the equivalent of about $800 on medicine and supplements, not including hospitalization.

The statements about the increase in government spending on health turned out to be numerically true, but verifying the facts showed that this increase went to pay private companies that won public tenders. This means that the reported increase in government spending did not affect members of the public, who continued to spend out of pocket. Albania is still ranked among the last out of regional countries and Europe in terms of budget expenditures on public health.

But how did state institutions become a source of misinformation on other issues? It was through communication campaigns containing information of a triumphant nature or comparing Albania’s situation with that of other countries. 

At the beginning of autumn, the debate on the global energy crisis reached new heights due to the effects of the war in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions against Russia. In Albania and many other countries, news began to circulate about potential drastic government measures to save energy. Sensationalist headlines filled newspapers, tabloids and online portals.

So far, the situation was predictable.

But in Albania, the government launched an awareness campaign for saving electricity. This was also extended to educational institutions, using unverified information and reporting it as factual. 

“Switzerland imprisons those who heat up their homes to more than 19 degrees,” was one statement that appeared in an official’s speeches, who explained that such measures would not be taken in Albania, as the government would take care of its citizens. Although many took this news as factual, it was not true. Faktoje verified this through direct communication with Swiss institutions and informed the Albanian public that they were being deceived through the use of unverified information spread by Albanian government officials.

Such cases, when untrue comparisons are made by public officials themselves, have repeated, contaminating the correct information of the public and thus promoting poor decision-making. This phenomenon has been proven to be more and more present as elections approach, when the propaganda machine increases its promises to attract votes.

In less than a year, Faktoje has identified three flagrant instances of Albanian government authorities using false information to make analogies with other countries.

Use of misinformation by the government

In March 2020, Prime Minister Rama shared a video of the Spanish police intervening in order to disperse people during the pandemic. Faktoje verified that the video was not from Spain, but in Algeria and had nothing to do with the pandemic.

On September 29, 2021, a Faktoje article, which included responses from the German government, refuted another claim made by Rama about the Media and Information Agency as based on a successful German model.

At the beginning of October 2021, Prime Minister Rama announced that the United Kingdom had made a plan to limit energy usage. A few days later, Faktoje contacted the UK government press office and verified that this was untrue.

These actions show that the government is guilty of multiple cases of communicating false information to its citizens and using false examples of measures taken by other countries. 

Beyond the verification and publication of these instances, Faktoje has also continued its work in measuring the veracity of the statements and promises made by public officials. Before the end of 2022, Faktoje counted 23 statements as true and 54 as untrue.

The statements that were verified were selected based on the importance and impact they have on the community as well as current developments also related to Albanian citizens quality of life. Among these topics, we mention the vaccination against Covid-19, the housing of residents affected by the 2019 earthquake, the reconstruction of public objects such as schools and hospitals, expensive public-private partnership tenders with concessions for waste management, the expensive cost of living and the process of integration and guaranteeing the right to vote for the diaspora.

The real war is online

Since last year, the publication of confidential data in Albania began to form a real security threat. In December 2021, a list was published with the salaries of around 600,000 Albanian and foreign nationals working in Albania, as well as other sensitive data.

The case remained an isolated incident until the attack on the “e-albania” state data system began this year. This culminated with cyber-attacks on the security systems of other platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, the system that issues identification documents and the email correspondence of government officials.

Investigations led to the culprit being found, which according to the government, was Iran. Relations were immediately cut off between the two countries and within 24 hours the staff of the Iranian embassy in Tirana had departed. After this move, that some considered hasty from a diplomatic point of view, the campaign of cyber-attacks against Albania intensified, to the point where classified state information ended up in an “online marketplace.”

The publication of this data and the cyber-attacks against security systems was preceded by suspicions of Russian espionage or the Russian financing of certain Albanian political parties. This situation led the Central Election Commission to request the electoral law to be amended, to ensure full transparency regarding the third party financing of political parties.

Since February of this year, before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine officially began, Faktoje has devoted a column to disinformation in times of crisis. This attracted the public’s interest, but also that of the traditional media, since it verified the spread of disinformation and propaganda by Russia. This propaganda was used to justify the attack on Ukraine and also to expand Russian influence.

This was when Russian propaganda became even more present in Albania. An illustration of this was a statement from the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov, who had started to stir the pot even before the war started. Lavrov issued destabilizing statements such as, “Albania and other countries in the Balkans are sending mercenaries to fight against Russia.”

Manipulated photos or videos were published and sold as actual footage from the war in Ukraine or in order to incite ethnic hatred. It has also been important to report on fake online initiatives that collect funds from phantom organizations in aid of Ukraine.

When disinformation masquerades as accurate and truthful, fact-checking is vital. Educating the public to be oriented towards healthy information that is based on data, accurate sources and expertise should be the next joint effort to fight disinformation.

Feature Image: Majlindë Hoxha/K2.0
This image was created in part with GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model.

This article is the third in a series of articles from fact-checking platforms in the Balkans. Through this series, fact-checkers from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia elaborate on common trends in disinformation and malinformation.

The regional program ‘RESILIENCE: Civil society action to reaffirm media freedom and counter disinformation and hateful propaganda in Western Balkans and Turkey’ is implemented with the financial support of the European Union by partner organizations SEENPMAlbanian Media InstituteMediacentar SarajevoKosovo 2.0Montenegrin Media InstituteMacedonian Institute for MediaNovi Sad School of JournalismPeace Institute and Bianet.

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0 and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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