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. Continue reading