Shkëlzen Osmani, the director of the fact-checking outlet Hibrid.info, said that Facebook contains many media outlets within it. “Facebook is now like a universe. In that universe there are many other celestial bodies, but Facebook has included them within its universe,” said Osmani.
Anyone with access to Facebook can publish content there. Social media networks owned by Meta — formerly known as Facebook and which owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Threads — do not make a distinction between media pages and other content publishers.
“There is nothing that tells you what pages are media outlets, influencers, health pages or institutions. You are informed depending on how the algorithm places them in your feed,” said Osmani. The social media algorithm determines the content’s audience based on the user’s prior preferences, which are determined based on likes, shares, clicks and user interactions.
Meta has come under significant pressure for allowing the spread of disinformation, particularly after the 2016 American elections. It was shown that the spread of disinformation on social media influenced the election and that millions of users’ private data was sold for use in the election campaign.
During the campaigns, CNN revealed that a group of young people from North Macedonia operated a fake news farm by creating fake profiles of American citizens. They benefited financially from spreading fake news since they earned a certain amount for each click. This fake news largely favored Donald Trump. It was falsely claimed that Pope Francis supported Trump and that Bill Clinton, husband of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl. Due to this fake news and the harvesting of private data, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before the U.S. Congress in 2018.
Meta began collaborating with fact-checkers to combat disinformation, starting with Facebook in 2017, WhatsApp in 2018 and Instagram in 2019. The newly launched social media platform Threads does not currently collaborate with fact-checkers.
Meta’s collaboration with fact-checkers in Kosovo started in 2018.
Facebook under the fact-checkers’ lens
In Kosovo, one of the main fact-checkers is Krypometri, which has been part of the online media outlet Kallxo.com since 2016. In 2018, Krypometri received Facebook’s approval to review content and rate its accuracy. Krypometri is now what is known as a “third party fact-checker” and is so far the only Meta collaborator in Kosovo. Krypometri is also part of the International Fact Checkers Network (IFCN), an organization that monitors fact-checking trends, provides training resources and a venue for collaboration for nearly 200 fact-checking organizations worldwide.
CATEGORIES OF DISINFORMATION
There are six categories that can be reported through third-party fact-checkers:
-lacking context (when the content indirectly conveys a false claim),
-manipulated (when video, audio, or photographic material is altered in a way that can mislead the audience),
-partially false (when the publication has some inaccuracies in facts),
-fake (not based on facts),
-satire (when the material uses irony or exaggeration and may not be easily understood as such by the audience), and
-true (when there are no inaccuracies).
The deputy leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), Vlora Çitaku, was also a target of disinformation on Facebook when an account baselessly claimed that she had Serbian citizenship. In the reel where this claim was made, there was a warning that stated “False information. Independent fact-checkers say this information is unsupported by facts.”
According to Facebook’s policies, accounts that publish disinformation that are marked by Meta’s partner fact-checkers will have their visibility reduced within the platform.
Valon Canhasi, founder of the digital marketing company Hallakate, said that fake accounts have become increasingly present during election campaigns. The rise of disinformation during election campaigns is a global phenomenon.
According to Canhasi, any attempts to assess the number of fake accounts is bound to fail.
“It’s hard to come up with a specific number, but platforms have become so sophisticated that these are in a very small percentage. In reality, real accounts are the problem because they share this kind of information,” said Canhasi.
According to a report by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which monitored online news media and social media from March 2020 to February 2021, many Facebook groups and fan pages that are created to support a party or a cause spread disinformation, especially during election periods.
Osmani, from Hibrid.info, which is also part of IFCN, said that despite not being an official Facebook partner, they have ways to communicate with Facebook when it comes to fact-checking.
“Facebook algorithms usually notice on their own when a fact-checker or IFCN member deals with content on the platform,” he said.
This video was shared during a period of tension in the Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo after the April 24 municipal elections.
Adea Beqaj, a senior official for NDI’s Information Integrity program, said that the purpose of this misinformation is to sow distrust.
“Kosovo’s Prime Minister and the American Ambassador were used and through a fabricated conversation an attempt was made to harm both parties. The context of this manipulation of information is important because it plays a role in destabilizing the country and deepening the ethnic divisions between Serbs and Albanians,” said Beqaj.
MESSAGING APPS ARE MORE DIFFICULT TO MONITOR BECAUSE MODERATORS IN CLOSED GROUPS DECIDE WHAT IS SHARED.
In the Telegram app, there is an option to report content to the platform and contact the account manager, although the phone number and administrator’s name can be hidden.
In Kosovo, Hibrid.info has debunked false news multiple times published on the channel BUNT. Combating disinformation on messaging app channels like Telegram is more challenging since fact-checkers can’t use social media monitoring tools that work on other platforms.
Twitter is less commonly used in Kosovo. According to data from the company Hallakate, Twitter had 102,000 users in Kosovo in July 2022. Despite having fewer users, political content shared on the platform is also spread on more popular social media platforms.
“If someone has posted something false on Twitter, whether it’s a politician or an influencer, you can easily find it reposted on Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, by other media outlets and other people,” said Gashi from Kallxo.
The disinformation on Twitter is often spread through bots, which are used to spread disinformation and incite hatred. Bots, also known as “zombies” once a device has been infected, are computer programs that imitate human users. However, some bot-like activity is also carried out by individuals.
Bots often share and like each other’s messages and spread unverified or false claims to create an online atmosphere either for or against a specific idea or person.
Researcher Agon Maliqi exposed one such Twitter bot that was spreading nationalist narratives in both Kosovo and Serbia. “It’s time for Albania and Kosovo to merge and unite,” read a post on the profile Malcolm16991871, which had tagged American senators, including Democrats Chris Murphy and Jeanne Shaheen. However, as Maliqi showed, the same profile had also shared a post from the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the political party of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
SNS REPORTEDLY PAYS PEOPLE TO COMMENT AND DISTRIBUTE CONTENT ONLINE, EITHER SUPPORTIVE OF THE SNS AND VUČIĆ OR CRITICAL OF SNS’S POLITICAL OPPONENTS.
During 2020, Twitter closed 8,500 profiles serving the SNS. Stefan Janjić, editor-in-chief of Fake News Tragac and assistant professor at the University of Novi Sad, explains in his recent article for K2.0 how SNS’s bots resemble an online army of over 8,000 real individuals taking orders from SNS.
BOTH KRYPOMETRI AND HIBRID.INFO DEAL WITH DISINFORMATION PUBLISHED ON TIKTOK, BUT THEY SAY IT’S DIFFICULT TO MONITOR DUE TO THE HIGH VOLUME.
A Tiktok video that has over 800 shares shows the owner of a horse ranch in Obiliq. In the video, the filming of the movie “Dasma në Male” (Wedding in the Mountains) was taking place in his ranch and the actors and ranch owner were wearing KLA uniforms. In June 2023, the Patriotizamsrb Tiktok profile, which publishes content in Serbian and has over 4,000 followers, republished the video to deliberately spread disinformation. The republished video falsely claimed that the ranch owner is a terrorist and made his name public. The video has over 7,000 likes, nearly 1,000 comments, 830 shares and 1,300 profiles have saved it to watch later.
Osmani said that Tiktok poses a high risk, especially taking into account the age of the users. “TikTok has gained significant popularity, especially among the younger audience,” he said.
Although there is no accurate data on TikTok usage in Kosovo, it is believed to have many more users than Twitter due to the appeal of short format videos among young people. This suggests that Facebook’s dominance is being challenged by the preferences of younger audiences. According to data from That Ad, as of September 7 the 18 to 24 age group has 193,200 users on Instagram as opposed to 187,500 on Facebook.
Both Facebook and YouTube, as well as TikTok, Twitter and Telegram have been accused of profiting at the expense of users, either by failing to combat disinformation or by giving the green light to content that incites hatred and violence.
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla via Midjourney
ABOUT THE AUTHORArdit Kika has completed his BA in Political Science at the University of Prishtina. He has worked as a journalist in Kallxo.com and Prishtina Insight. Currently, he is working as a freelance journalist mainly covering politics, culture and human rights issues. Ardit is a K2.0 Human Rights Journalism Fellowship program fellow (2018 cycle).
- This story was originally written in Albanian.