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.