From: Alice Elizabeth Taylor
Fake Profiles Take to Social Media to Support Veliaj and Rama

With election time just around the corner, the government and municipality propaganda machine is going into overdrive.

Three comments left in quick succession on an article posted by Exit on Facebook appeared to show unwavering support for the governments forced eviction of citizens in Tirana few days ago. In fact, the action taken by the government of using tear gas at 6am to remove residents from their home, and the fact that the homes will be demolished without compensation to residents is illegal and in breach of countless national and international laws.

The comments however all praised the government in their work, claiming that society should not stand in the way of development and that the government should be praised for thinking of the future of the city. Other comments said that social housing that had been offered to the residents was “very good” and offered “very good conditions”.

A quick investigation into these profiles however, showed that not all is as it seems with those posting the comments.

The profile of “Elsa Mema” was set up on February 14th 2019. Posts shared on the page include ones that praise Edi Rama and the socialist party. A reverse Google image search of the profile picture, revealed that the image supposed to be ‘Elsa’ is actually of Kim LaCapria, a writer at . The New York based content writer is not Albanian, nor is she an avid fan of Edi Rama.

Dritan Gjoka’s profile was also set up on February 14th 2019 and his has shared similar pro-Rama posts on the page. Whilst a reverse image search did not yield any results (something that is unusual in itself) the fact that the profile was set up on the same day as, and shared the same posts as Elsa, is suspicious.

Another pro-government comment was left by “Blerina Cobani”. Again her profile was set up on the same day as the other two commentators and shares similar propaganda posts including videos from the Prime Ministers own, personal television station ERTV. The profile picture used here was found to be that of Sheryl Sandberg, a Harvard graduate who has worked as a vice president at Google, and the COO of Facebook. Again she has no ties to Albania and is not known to be a supporter of Edi Rama.

Other examples of fake, pro-government profiles can be found here, here and here. The true number of such profiles is impossible to quantify across the whole of Albanian social media, but to find six on just one post shows the scope of the issue.

What is interesting about this is that these are not Facebook profiles that require individual logins, emails, and phone numbers- these are pages. A Facebook user can have an unlimited amount of pages that they can administer and post comments from, without having to sign up as an individual each time. This means that one person has the power to leave hundreds, if not thousands of comments under fake names and profiles.

Another comment on a different article reads; “Erion the best mayor Tirana has ever had” and was left by someone called Genti Bala.

Genti also has a page rather than a profile and it was set up on April 5th 2019 and his profile picture turns out to be a photo of a young man from a mens fashion magazine.

These are just some examples of the army of trolls that are being deployed on social media to praise the government and the Mayor of Tirana. It is not clear whether these profiles are set up by members of the public of their own accord, or whether they are under the instruction of politicians or those connected to politics. But it is clear that these fake profiles, posing as citizens are attempting to sway public opinion by falsifying support for political figures and policies that are being widely criticised.

The hiring of citizens and the use of fake profiles to spread government propaganda is widespread across the world. A report by The Telegraph in 2017 stated that at least 30 governments were employing keyboard armies to spread propaganda and attack critics. Those found to be using such tactics included Turkey, Russia, and China and paid pro-government commentators were designed to shape opinions and create the illusion of support for political parties.

Such tactics were also used in attempts to influence elections and to harass media that criticised the government or politicians.

A report in Tirana Times, written by Genc Pollo in 2016 noted that there were 40 individuals employed in the Prime Minister’s office and 23 at the Municipality who are employed to attack those who criticise the government online. These trolls are allegedly paid with taxes and their sole purpose is to shape and influence the narrative around the government, either through spreading propaganda, or insulting and threatening those that disagree.

With the elections looming, citizens should be vigilant and expect more such trolling. In addition, exposing these profiles and their behavior in public will help to counter their trolling which aims to influence the voting behavior.