Every morning Agim (not his real name) and his colleagues receive a message via WhatsApp. Members of a group chat, the 80-or-so employees in his government department are instructed to post between two and four links on their social media accounts.
These links that they are told to post “urgently” relate to government propaganda, news of what the minister and ministry has been doing, and stories that praise the Socialist Party government. The links are sent by individuals in the ministry who he claims are employed specifically to manage the reputation of the minster on social media.
“It’s embarrassing having to post them- my friends and family know it isn’t genuine but we have to do it.”
At the end of each week, management checks the social media accounts of each employee, ensuring that they have shared the correct number of pro-government links on their personal profiles.
Failure to keep up with the posting schedule would result in a stern telling off, but Agim tells me that no one dares to not post the links because they know that if they do, they run the very real risk of losing their jobs.
In addition to this, they are notified of times when the Minister is appearing on Facebook live and they are instructed to go and watch to make up the numbers of viewers. Even when these broadcasts happen outside of working hours, they are told that it is “mandatory” to take part.
“They tell us to comment as well, things like ”bravo “,”this is the party we want”, and “you are our future” but I don’t do this, I can’t bring myself to be fake”, Agim tells me.
I ask if he has any political affiliation and he tells me that he doesn’t but that he once had work experience with an individual affiliated with an opposition party. This, he explains has left him tarred and branded as an opposition supporter, despite the fact that his name does not appear on any party lists.
“Every day I come into work and I am scared I will lose my job. They assume I am with the opposition and I know I am treated differently because of this. It is very stressful,” he tells me.
“I will never get a promotion because of my hard work. I want to emigrate. I love my country but I don’t have a future here,” Agim said with a look of sadness on his face.
He goes on to explain that many in his department, himself included are on short-term contracts, and can be fired at any time for any reason, as it falls within the probationary period. Recently, he tells me that around 10 people had their contracts terminated because of their political activities and affiliations with an opposition party.
“A list came from the ministry, all of them lost their jobs for political reasons, I live in fear that this will happen to me also, despite me being very good at my job.”
He tells me about “snitches” that work in all government departments- individuals who monitor the activity of others, including any political opinions they have, or activities they might take part in. These individuals then feed back the information to the ministry and often, these people are fired.
I asked Agim if this is just in his department, he laughs and tells me no, this happens in every arm of the state, in every institution, and every department.
“I have a lot of friends working in ministries and government departments, we are all obligated to do this, it is just part of the job.”
I then spoke to two serving members of the Municipality police who fall under the jurisdiction of Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj.
Both officers explained how they were opposition party members but were ordered every morning to share specific links promoting the Municipality police and Veliaj.
“I hate it, it’s so annoying. Each morning they order us and tell us what we have to share. It’s stupid because everyone knows I am with the PD,” one of the officers told me.
A survey of 10 Facebook profiles of serving municipality police officers showed that over a seven day period, the same 8 links had been shared across all of their profiles. Further investigation shows that many of these individuals had also “liked” pages relating to opposition parties, suggesting that they were not aligned with the propaganda they were sharing.
Links included photographs of Veliaj attending events, posts including Taulant Balla, and others relating to the activities of the Tirana Socialist-Party controlled Municipality and the Municipality police. Facebook pages they said they were encouraged to “like” include the Socialist Party’s official page, Air Albania, Edi Rama TV, and Minister Elisa Spiropali.
Both officers also confirmed that during the 30 June vote they were told they must go and they should encourage their friends and family to do so as well.
For many years, it has been suspected that the Socialist Party government has a whole department dedicated to managing the reputation of the party and its members online.
In 2016, it was reported that as many as 40 individuals were employed in the Prime Ministers office and a further 23 in the Municipality whose sole purpose is to attack those who criticise the government. These trolls are allegedly paid with taxes and are tasked with shaping the narrative around the government and the Socialist Party and quelling voices of criticism.
Then, in April of this year, Exit uncovered a network of hundreds of fake profiles that had been set up all around the same time, using photos of foreign nationals with no link to Albania.
These pages commented pro-Rama and pro-Veliaj support on a number of posts and pages, as well as those that were critical of the government. Comments posted by fake pages included “Erion the best mayor Tirana has ever had” and praises to the Party for their work on improving conditions in Albania.
Another government employee, working for the Municipality of Tirana told me that he is a staunch LSI supporter. Despite this, he tells me how he has been forced on several occasions to attend Socialist Party rallies prior to the 30 June vote, both in and outside of his working hours. Failure to do so would result in him losing his job or being blacklisted.
“We just do it, there is no questions. It is an obligation but it makes me very angry.”
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 authoritarian political parties.
Rama’s Socialist Party has taken this one step further by forcing civil servants to spread and propagate fake appreciation of the government. This army of unwilling propagandists could total as many as 81,000- the approximate number of civil servants in the country.
In a country where unemployment rates are some of the highest in Europe, where salaries are barely enough to live on, and where a lack of adherence to fair labour law prevails, those who rely on the government for their livelihood are faced with little choice.
“This pressure makes us all feel like we don’t have a right to say what we want or to express ourselves. We are not free, it is like Communism- there is only one party”, Agim tells me.