Civil society and investigative journalism have long played key roles in exposing corruption, and many CSOs and media watchdogs—especially newer, younger organizations—now make extensive use of social media platforms to engage with the public. In Albania, for example, relatively new organizations like Nisma Thurje and Faktoje frequently expose instances of corruption via Facebook, one of the most popular social media platforms in Albania. However, corrupt politicians are taking notice of these innovative tactics and finding equally innovative ways to silence their critics. In addition to ongoing efforts to censor the media and harass activists (see, for example, here and here), the Albanian elite has undertaken more clandestine efforts to attack civil society and journalists.
One savvy scheme involves Acromax Media GmBH (Acromax), a German digital rights company owned by two Albanians, which has close ties to Albania’s ruling Socialist Party. Acromax has contracts with over 95% of Albanian television stations, with far-reaching rights to take action on its own initiative against alleged copyright violations. For example, when a civil society group like Nisma Thurje posts a story on Facebook about a politician’s corruption, and includes a link to interviews or clips of the politician’s speeches that were originally broadcast on one of those TV stations, Acromax files a complaint with the social media platform alleging a copyright violation—even though re-sharing public content that clearly displays the original source is common practice around the world and does not meet the definition of copyright infringement. Moreover, Acromax only files such complaints with respect to stories that are critical of the government; pro-government posts, including clips from these same channels, are not flagged as intellectual property infringement by Acromax.
Distressingly, even though the claims of intellectual property infringement seem bogus, Facebook has largely complied with Acromax’s demands to take down content. This may be due in part to the European Union’s recent 2019 Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, Article 17 of which makes content-sharing platforms, not just individual content uploaders, liable for intellectual property violations, which in turn has caused Facebook to employ even more automation to deal with its new legal responsibilities. Unfortunately, the automated algorithms currently in use cannot reliably distinguish genuine copyright infringement from legal re-sharing, and the algorithms are sufficiently complex and opaque that it is very difficult for CSOs to challenge the take-down decisions and get their content reinstated. Acromax has exploited these weaknesses in the system to make legitimate civil society watchdogs look like serial copyright infringers. Indeed, Acromax’s harassment campaign has been so successful that two of Nisma Thurje’s founders had personal social media pages shut down because of complaints from Acromax, and Facebook further labeled Nisma Thurje “a dangerous group” and limited the range of Nisma Thurje’s social media capabilities. The technology giant further warned Nisma Thurje that its page would be shut down entirely if Facebook received even one more copyright infringement claim.
Acromax is a well-tuned operation for squelching civil society watchdogs that threaten to expose government wrongdoing, and may serve as a model for similar censorship efforts. Tackling this problem seems daunting, but these are some concrete steps that various actors—including governments, technology companies, and the civil society groups themselves—can take to address this new kind of assault.
- First, social media companies should understand the detrimental role they are playing via their censorship of legal and informative content created by civil society activists, and should reduce their reliance on automation to screen infringement claims. Automation is of course necessary given the volume of complaints, but there should be a greater role for human oversight to verify copyright infringement claims, or at least to respond to counterclaims from individuals and groups protesting the removal of their posts and pages. In particular, human review should be required before groups get labeled “dangerous” and before whole pages are removed. Additionally, there should be some sort of rule that if one organization (or closely affiliated association) submits a sufficiently high number of IP complaints that turn out to be bogus (or if a sufficient percentage of its complaints turn out to be bogus), complaints by that group should require human review before they can result in a take-down of content.
- Second, the EU should thoroughly review, and consider modifications to, Article 17 of the 2019 Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. The EU (and possibly other governments) should heed concerns about how the asymmetric incentives that this provision creates—with platforms understandably inclined to take down everything that could plausibly be infringing—may pose a danger to free speech.
- Third, civil society activists can alter their posting tactics to avoid takedowns. For example, Nisma Thurje’s leadership stated that because Acromax is mostly targeting videos, the group’s members have started creating more original content and avoided resharing video clips with politicians’ statements. This is not ideal, as it limits the ways in which CSOs can use politicians’ own statements to hold them accountable, but this tactical shift is nonetheless helpful in keeping pages functioning.
- Fourth, in the longer term Albanian CSOs can work together to push back against Acromax’s attacks. Civil society in Albania is quite fragmented and could benefit from more coordination, for example by sharing information with each other and collectively bringing more attention to this controversial take-down practice. CSOs within the EU have created Civic Space Watch, a centralized mechanism for recording threats to civil society across Europe; Albanian civil society groups could create a similar information-sharing mechanism to track and document these attacks, and could use this evidence to probe Facebook to reevaluate its processes.
- Fifth, civil society groups in Albania should put pressure on Germany, where Acromax is based, to crack down on the company’s abusive conduct. Germany is a major development donor and investor in Albania and a vocal champion of respect for democratic practices, free speech, and anticorruption reform. Coordinating with sympathetic organizations in Germany, including Reporters Without Borders, could help bring attention to the German Federal Foreign Office or some other body with the ability to investigate how Acromax’s conduct is stifling free speech in Albania.
Given the Albanian ruling party’s apparent lack of interest in genuine anticorruption reform, and its continued assault on journalists and civil society, it will fall to the civil society groups, together with their allies, technology giants like Facebook, and other governments to take the necessary steps to preserve space for these civil society voices. Real copyright infringement should be taken seriously, of course, but at the same time more aggressive measures are needed to prevent bad-faith actors from misusing both law and technology to silence the critics who are working the hardest to stop corruption and make their governments more effective and accountable.
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Hi Megan. Thank you very much for this interesting post. I think that the problem that you talk about could be minimized if social media, like Facebook, institute a proceeding in which the targets of complaints could present a defense, before a decision of taking down their contents. In addition, this decision should be taken by a “private court” instituted by each one of those internet corporations. This way, unfairness and injustice would be less likely. Perhaps, this will be the future of social media, especially in the control of the dissemination of fake news.
Hi Rodrigo. Thanks for your suggestion. I completely agree that social media companies need to play a larger and more proactive role in reducing disinformation or alerting users to such occurrences while also ensuring that they as content hosts and moderators are not silencing critical civil society voices in the process. To my knowledge companies like Facebook have automated a lot of their content moderation duties (because of the volume of content) but this has unfortunately led to instances of legitimate content deletion and hampering civil society functionality. I think some sort of internal company court-like body is a great idea but wonder how to incentivize these social media companies to set up this sort of mechanism, especially in light of the fact they are already having a hard time moderating current levels of information shared on their platforms. Perhaps, this is where governments can create legislation that compels these private companies to develop better due diligence procedures which allow for free speech protection but don’t allow disinformation to go so unchecked. In my opinion this is a balance current legislation in Europe hasn’t been able to accomplish and in the United States, we too have not developed an adequate regulatory regime for social media companies.
Great piece Megan. It is an eyeopener on how so ill-equipped governments are in regulating the social media. Facebook in particular has become a tough one to crack!