Stories That Matter: How Exit News Exposed Albanian Politicians Manipulating Public Opinion Through Facebook

In the face of declining media freedom in the country, Alice Taylor reveals how the ruling party is systematically weaponizing social media to influence elections and reduce trust in journalism.

Alice Taylor's colleague was murdered. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese anti-corruption journalist, was in her gray Peugeot when the bomb exploded. The shockwaves rattled Galizia’s home up the pebbled street, and news of the event shook Taylor some 500 miles away.

When Taylor lived in Malta she wrote for the same paper as Galizia, whose work inspired Taylor to become a journalist in the first place. Taylor has since resettled in Tirana, Albania, where she is one of a handful of English-language investigative reporters.

Albania was the last European nation to transition from communism to democracy. For over four decades, the cordoned-off country — the North Korea of the day — was ruled by Enver Hoxha, a paranoid, hard-line Stalinist who once called Nikita Khrushchev “anti-Marxist and a defeatist.” He severed contact with the outside world, including former allies in the Soviet Union and China, potting the borders with hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers to create a wall-less defense system against invasion.

Read the Original Exit News Story

Today, the young democracy is still finding its footing, especially its relationship to the fourth estate. Albania ranks 83rd on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Journalists face an increasingly hostile environment, highlighted by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s urging to the public to “protect themselves against the media” during the pandemic and a proposed “anti-defamation” package that would muzzle reporters. The potential law is pending in parliament.

Despite being the target of a government smear campaign, Alice Taylor reports on politics, corruption, financial crime, human rights issues, gender equality, and media freedom. She first reported on a web of government-supported fake profiles on social media in 2019, which spawned over two years of investigations that unveiled how Albanian politicians weaponize Facebook to manipulate public opinion. We spoke with Taylor via Zoom about the state of the media in Albania, how she carried out the investigations, and what it is like to operate in a hostile media environment. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

After the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, you vowed never to write about politics or organized crime again. But here you are. Why did you go back into investigative journalism?

Taylor: In the years since she died, I have gone back and forth between whether I should quit or continue. I've had this battle within myself a few times but I feel I have a responsibility to carry on in her name. That’s something quite personal to me though.

In Albania, it’s definitely about wanting something better for the country because I love it. I love living here. I have an Albanian partner and a daughter. I think once you make a decision to base your life somewhere and you really integrate yourself and make the decision to raise children in a place, that very much shapes how you want the society to be. I love my friends and family and I think the country deserves better.

When I first came to Albania, I was still covering Malta and was actually writing a travel blog locally. Then someone from Exit News contacted me and asked if I wanted to write a column about culture and travel from an expat perspective. I was going around and seeing damage caused by hydroplants, as one example, and I think being a journalist, that inquisitiveness — the desire to report, the hunger for a story, the need to hold someone to account if you see something wrong — you can’t just switch that off. So I got sucked back into it, but it happened gradually.

Can you talk to the media environment you’re operating in as a journalist in Albania?

Taylor: There’s a lot of self-censorship, a lack of independent media organizations, poor working conditions and protections for journalists, legal harassment, and a new “anti-defamation” package.

There are many Albanian journalists who don’t want to use their own name in their writing because they’re worried about repercussions if they write something critical. Examples could be a family member losing a business permit or being fired from their government job.

Then you have the five or so main media companies who are owned by very rich, powerful businessmen. They have their fingers in lots of different pies from education to real estate to banking, etc. One of the big TV companies here is owned by a construction company, which gets lots of government contracts.

Their portals can turn into propaganda platforms. They won’t criticize, they’ll publish government news in a favorable light, not focus on scandals or undertake investigations, because they’re reliant on this sort of government link.

The result is that journalists who work for these companies end up going away from the difficult stories. They will not publish certain things.

There are issues with labor laws as well. Journalists may have a contract, they may not. Even if they have one they may not want to enforce it or the contract doesn’t protect them adequately. Wages are often withheld for two or three months, and wages are often very low [editor’s note: the average monthly salary as of 2021 was €454, or $535]. Journalists don’t get holiday or sick pay or time off. They work extremely long hours. There’s a lot of sexism in Albania, in newsrooms as well, from women getting paid less to blatant sexual harassment.

You also have the threat of lawsuits. We’ve seen journalists who have published extremely well researched, very thorough and accurate stories being slapped, quite literally, with these SLAPPSs [Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation], which are designed to shut the story down. These are often intended to financially cripple the journalists or the media portal. There are also a lot of regular lawsuits in the Albanian courts filed by politicians against journalists.

Lastly, we have this “anti-defamation” law, which would bring all online media in the country under the direct supervision of a government-appointed board. They just elected the former director of communications for the prime minister to head the board. So he’s essentially put his chief propagandist in charge, who will rule on the future of all online Albanian media.

This board will have judicial powers without being a judicial body. They will be able to shut down media and impose fines of tens of thousands of Euros, and the organizations will only be allowed to appeal the ruling once they’ve paid the fine. Organizations can be banned for things such as causing panic, spreading fake news or threats to national security — extremely vague language, which could basically constitute anybody who dares to criticize the government.

Are you ever concerned for your own physical safety?

Taylor: I did an anonymous survey recently of journalistic colleagues, and about 80 percent have received some kind of physical threat as a result of their work. Beyond that there are organized smear campaigns against journalists, online trolls, sexual and general harassment, death threats, abuse.

Having witnessed what happened prior to Daphne’s murder, the ruling party was actively involved in creating an environment where journalists were denigrated and dehumanized, where there were campaigns to delegitimize them, and these things contributed to an environment in which a journalist could be murdered.

And some media organizations, like the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders, have also commented that this is what is happening in Albania.

The prime minister, Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, and other politicians openly denigrate and use offensive language against journalists, in public, on television shows, during press conferences and to the media. Other politicians don’t condemn the attacks against journalists, and, in the last few years, the police have yet to convict anyone for crimes against journalists.

You have the bodyguards of Mayor Veliaj assaulting journalists who were trying to ask him questions. You have the police who have assaulted, I think, six journalists in the last year, when they’re conducting their work. When you have this going on, you’re essentially telling people that journalists are the enemy and that it is fine to be abusive and physically violent to them. This creates a dangerous situation where impunity rules and journalists are positioned as the enemy.

While there hasn’t been a murder of a journalist since 2011, violence is already acceptable, and the foundation is being laid for an environment where a journalist can be killed without repercussion.

You start the 2019 article describing the incident where the government used tear gas at 6 a.m. to remove residents from their homes, and then demolished the housing. All of this without compensation for the displaced. Later that day, you saw a rush of support for the ruling party’s actions on Facebook. Was this the first time you noticed suspicious pro-government activity online?

Taylor: It seemed that there was a concerted effort to frame the narrative online in 2019. People had talked for a long time about networks of trolls and that there may be people, perhaps even employed within the offices of the municipality and of the prime minister, whose primary role is to frame the story online. I’d heard a lot about this, but it was this incident where I began to see quite a lot of pro-government comments on Facebook.

As the year went on, I noticed these posts pick up in periods of criticism and especially prior to the local elections in June. It was a very important time because, in January, there was a big government scandal. Some prosecution wiretaps were leaked to the public, which suggested that the prime minister and various other officials have been involved in voter buying, intimidation, and manipulation. This was huge news and there were ongoing protests throughout the year, up until the summer. There was violence, there was lots of unrest, people put in prison.

All the while the action of these trolls was stepping up a gear, among other actions. There were more posts being taken down, many pro-government posts and memes being posted, and during livestreams of the prime minister or the mayor of Tirana, the comments were full of, “you’re the best!,” “we love you!,” “you’re what we need for the future of the country!”

How did you go about investigating this? What steps did you take?

Taylor: I identified suspicious comments on government posts. From each comment, I would click on the name, which would reveal it was a Page, not a profile. I would then look and see that the page — almost all of them were created in the previous two months — and looked through whether there was any recent activity. If so, what they were posting, if they liked any other content. Quite often there hadn’t been much activity. Then I would do a reverse Google Images search of the main photo, which often spat out that it was Sheryl Sandberg or some Iranian model or something. And I stored it all in a document. From all of this I took an educated guess that these were fake profiles. I found hundreds in total.

In our second investigation, prior to the general elections in 2021, I worked with an Albanian colleague. Together we went through the list, and new Pages that we found, and we were able to identify Pages that we thought were probably linked to the same profile because they might have written in a slight dialect or a particular style [editor’s note: profiles can set up hundreds of Pages, all run from the same account]. We would also sit in on livestream events and check the profiles that were popping up in the discussion.

It was from this that we also noticed there was a high number of government employees on these livestreams. Police, teachers, people working in ministries, etc. and this then ties into an offshoot investigation I did. Essentially, I found that part of their job description is to attend livestreams and comment in support of their leader.

In your article about that investigation, “Socialist Party Uses State Employees to Share Propaganda on Social Media,” many of your sources are anonymous. What are your guidelines or policy for using anonymous sources?

Taylor: This was something I had a huge debate with my editor about because these are people employed by the government. These are people who, if I publish their name, will lose their job. Even with initials — if it’s D.E. working in the police department, the authorities can narrow it down, you know? — and I don’t want to be responsible for people losing their jobs. The concern was that people might accuse it of being fake news, by not naming sources.

One important factor: Everyone in Albania knows this happens. Often they have a cousin who has to do it or their neighbor has to. Publishing this story was a public declaration of what most people already knew, but I was the first to bring it out of the shadows and make it public. So, it wasn’t like it was unbelievable.

How did you approach the sources?

Taylor: I saw all these messages from government employees and reached out. I connected with a handful of people in the police department and various ministries. I was shown firsthand their profiles and WhatsApp groups, where they are instructed to post between two and four links per day.

I was then able to look at other employees of the state (it shows their professions in their profile) and you could see that they were all posting the same stuff. Many profiles had minimal other activity aside from them posting speeches of their boss, government propaganda, government news, etc. I was then able to search for other employees on Facebook and see that they were posting the same stuff that was posted in the WhatsApp group I had seen.

Also, I spoke to people directly about other activities they had to do offline. One of them told me how he was made to go to electoral rallies even though he’s a registered member of the opposition party.

What is the perception of news and the relationship to media in the country?

Taylor: People have a great trust in TV and radio here, which has been shown in some recent studies. They don’t trust the government per se, but they trust certain TV programs. And I don’t think they understand that what they’re being shown is not always the truth, or where the motivations for certain narratives come from.

I think in a country where English isn’t a commonly spoken language, a lack of media literacy becomes even more serious and the government has no intention of introducing it in schools.

A lot of people don’t speak English, so they don’t have the ability to fact check. I know how much I rely on my language to fact check; to look at papers and studies and interviews and testimonies and court documents. If I didn’t have access to this or that resource, the internet, etc., it would be extremely difficult to do my job. For example, with my articles, people sometimes accuse it of being fake news. And I’m like, well here’s the evidence, and they don’t really understand what evidence is.

I think the past of Albania — it being closed off, an environment of not asking questions, people who were brought up to accept things on face value ​​— has an influence. So today, if they’re reading pro-government media and they’re seeing hundreds of positive comments, they take it at face value. I see this issue a lot with COVID misinformation at the moment. People read fake news in Albanian and have no intention of researching it, fact-checking it, or trying to see if there is any actual evidence to support it.

It’s a very complex issue and certainly something I don’t have a full understanding of, but am trying to untangle.

About a year later, your findings were corroborated by Sophie Zhang, the whistleblower from Facebook. In her internal memo, she said she came across “blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry.” What did you think when you heard this?

Taylor: I was thrilled when I found out that the same act, that pattern, had been picked up by Sophie. I mean, it was happening.

Sophie said she felt that her inaction could have contributed to devastating consequences for Albania [editor’s note: Sophie spoke with Taylor for an article]. She feels that the networks that she discovered — which confirmed what I had already found — were big enough to have a significant impact on democracy.

Based on what we’ve seen elsewhere and how we understand the way that humans behave, if you see a hundred comments saying, “this is great, this is great, this is great!,” you start to think this is great, and there’s no reason why that can’t apply on Facebook as well.

The local elections in 2019 [editor’s note: the Socialist Party won in all but one municipality and ran uncontested in most], when I revealed this was happening, the article was republished in a lot of media portals in Albania. I think this took the wind out of the government’s sails a bit; it was quite big news here.

People were pissed off, excuse my language. They were disillusioned, they didn’t want to take part in a single-party election. The turnout was essentially just people who work for the state. Nobody else really bothered to vote. So I mean the whole thing was a farce anyway, but I think my revelation was just another straw for people feeling disillusioned, more pissed off and maybe not voting, because they felt they’d been misled. But I can’t prove that.

This was also highlighted in the recent OSCE [Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] report. It noted concern about “the misuse of social networks by politicians during and beyond the campaign period.” In a small country like Albania, 10,000 votes is a seat in parliament. The next local election will be in 2023 and the government has been advised to make significant electoral reforms before then.

Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Predict: What Happens Next?

“We will have an opposition in Parliament, in September, for the first time in two years,” says Alice Taylor. “But, I see the Socialist Party being in power for the foreseeable future because of the grip that they have. Every municipality in the country is under the Socialist Party. That means every institution, every authority, every road sweeper and their family up to the highest MPs and officials, police, army, doctors, and nurses, are essentially under the de facto control of one party.”

“I think that attempts to crackdown on the media will increase,” Taylor continues. “What happens with the path toward the European Union will have an impact as well [editor’s note: Albania applied for E.U. membership in 2009 and has been an official candidate for accession since 2014]. Albania is such a dynamic place, though, so who knows? What I do know is that there are a growing number of journalists in Albania, younger journalists, who are incredibly talented, incredibly brave, who are resourceful, who are professional and who are desperate to try and ignore the attempts to silence them and to create a better media environment. And that’s really great to see. So I have some hope.”

Read: More on the Media Landscape in Albania

Meet: About the Author

Aaron Gerry is a freelance journalist and traveling rock climber. His work can be found in ESPN, Climbing, Gym Climber, Calvert Journal, SAPIENS, and other publications. He often writes about the impact of sport on developing economies.