Albanian Political Leaders Are Using Covert Tactics to Silence Anticorruption Watchdog Groups

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

Guest Post: Should Corruption Prosecutors Tweet? The Brazilian Example

Today’s guest post is from Victor Rodrigues, a researcher at the FGV School of Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

How openly should prosecutors investigating corruption or other high-level wrongdoing be about their activities and their views on the larger public policy questions that their investigations implicate? As has been discussed on this blog before, there is a longstanding debate on this issue, and considerable variation across countries. The United States represents one approach, in which federal prosecutors are exceedingly discreet and tight-lipped. Consider the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, leading the high-profile investigation into possible wrongdoing by the Trump campaign, barely speaks in public.

Brazil seems to be going in a different direction. Not only does the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office have verified accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but many of the individual prosecutors are also active on social media. Perhaps the most prominent example in Brazil is Deltan Dallagnol, the federal prosecutor coordinating the Car Wash Investigation (Lava Jato). Mr. Dallagnol has used his verified account to tweet over seven thousand times, and many of his posts mention Lava Jato cases.

While we can’t know for sure what impact these tweets have had, it’s unlikely that an account with almost half a million followers would have no impact at all. I imagine that for many readers, for example, those from the United States or countries with similar traditions regarding prosecutorial (non-)communication with the public, Mr. Dallagnol’s Twitter presence might be disconcerting, perhaps troubling. But in the context of a country like Brazil, these tweets, and prosecutorial openness more generally, are likely to have a positive impact not only on specific corruption cases but also on the development of legal and democratic institutions. In particular, this widespread use of social media by Lava Jato prosecutors can have three beneficial effects:

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Unfriended: Should Facebook be Required to Enforce US Sanctions Against its Users?

Late last year, Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, the despotic leader of the Chechen Republic. The social media giant claimed that it had a “legal obligation” to disable Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts because of new sanctions imposed by the United States government under the Magnitsky Act. Among other things, Kadyrov has been accused of ordering the assassination of a political opponent, personally torturing another, and leading a violent purge of gay men. He’s also an active social media user: four million people followed his Facebook and Instagram profiles, and 400,000 continue to follow him on Twitter. Kadyrov had become famous for posting videos of himself wrestling a crocodile, praising Russian President Vladmir Putin, and—perhaps ironically—mocking what he saw as the ineffectiveness of American sanctions.

As many journalists noticed, Facebook hasn’t disabled the accounts of other sanctioned individuals, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. Facebook explained this seeming inconsistency with an unhelpful truism that it “operate[s] under the constraints of US laws, which vary by circumstance.” Its statements have led observers to speculate that Facebook is using the sanctions as a pretextual reason to cut off a user it already disliked, or that it’s “picking and choosing compliance” in an attempt to please the government. Although those explanations seem plausible at first glance, a careful look at the relevant laws suggests an even simpler (albeit more mundane) one: Facebook may actually be correct that it had a legal obligation to suspend Kadyrov’s accounts but not those of others targeted by American sanctions.

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Facebook Fever is Not Enough: The Role of Social Media in the Philippines

The Philippines, long mired in corruption, appears to have made progress on this front in recent years. While the current administration’s anticorruption efforts may have contributed to this progress, some commentators have suggested that social media might actually be playing a bigger role in the decline of graft in the country. Indeed, there are some dramatic examples of social media playing a role in the fight against corruption. For instance, as details of a major scheme involving misappropriation of public money began to surface in 2013, social media platforms exploded with photos and videos pulled from the Instagram and Facebook account of Jeane Napoles, whose mother, Janet, had orchestrated the scheme. Filipinos were shocked and appalled by all that ill-gotten wealth could buy—private planes, expensive handbags, multi-million dollar apartments, and even a new car detailed with an Hermes leather exterior (yes, exterior). Even after these accounts were taken down, photos of the Napoles’ lavish lifestyle continued to circulate. These images made people far more aggressive in condemning the actions of those involved, and even inspired the Million People March, when protestors called for complete elimination of the fund used in the scheme. More recently, Facebook posts about sightings of the younger Napoles helped the media to discover that Jeane, who fled the country in 2013, had in fact returned. She has since been charged with tax evasion.

This is encouraging, and no doubt social media platforms can be useful in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I’m cautious about overstating the long-term impact that social media might have on corruption in the Philippines. After all, the Philippines has had an active free press for decades, and past administrations have frequently been challenged by civilian participation and condemnation of corrupt practices. Can we really rely on social media to effect lasting change? Continue reading