Online media struggle to survive in a marketplace distorted by special interests. Next in a series on disinformation in the Balkans.

In today’s media environment in Albania, trying to finance a for-profit online news outlet solely on advertising revenues is considered a very audacious undertaking.

A number of factors have worked to transform Albania’s online media landscape in recent years and make it very difficult to survive on advertising alone: the tiny advertising market, preferential channeling of advertising to selected news outlets, and the injection of money to start websites with specific aims quite different from the classical business model.

Targeted Advertising

A study conducted by the Albanian Media Institute in 2018 was the first to construct a map of the online media landscape. The study showed that online news publishers fall into two main groups: around 23 percent are part of a larger media group, and 39 percent are registered as separate business entities.

In the first group, journalists are part of a mother company that typically publishes both print and online outlets through maximizing its human resources. It is precisely this need to produce content for both platforms that hampers journalists’ capacity to improve professional standards and even to verify the information they disseminate.

Funding sources for media that are not part of a traditional media group are mainly revenues from commercial advertising; injections from special interest groups (whether business or political); government money through advertising; donations (in the case of non-profits); and finally, income from unknown sources.

This environment creates fertile ground for the proliferation of fake news and other forms of untrustworthy journalism.

In a market where advertising money is limited, and often distributed on a preferential basis, the media are split into two distinct packs: some newsrooms, awash in funds from business, political interests, or unknown sources, aim at influencing public opinion regardless of financial cost and ethical standards, while others struggle to compete using the classical, advertising-based funding model.

In its 2018 Media Sustainability Index, IREX – a development, education, and media support organization – concluded that many Albanian television stations, newspapers, and online news sites cannot be sustained by revenues based on audience size, but instead rely mainly on special interests and distribution of favors by those close to media owners and managers.

Many media collect revenues that are not sourced from the advertising sector, which has shrunk to 39 million euros ($42.2 million) as the economy continues its sluggish growth, the study found. Online news outlets collected only 2.5 million euros in advertising revenues in 2018, according to the business publication Monitor.

Media outlets that rely on advertising are forced to operate in a market where the biggest players have access to huge sums from special interest groups. They have little choice but to operate with small and mostly inexperienced staff. Such newsrooms typically comprise three to five people whose main job is re-posting material from other news sites, thus creating the ideal setting for the redistribution of inaccurate and false information.

The publication or distribution of fake news, in many cases, stems from poor verification of sources, itself a direct result of insufficient finances for hiring and training staff.

News Wasteland

In the first week of March 2018, the Albanian media ran a large number of stories based on fabricated news about the disappearance of 1,300 containers of toxic waste.

The story, broken by a little-known Italian-language media outlet, alleged that the containers were en route from Italy to a specialized treatment facility in North Macedonia when they went missing during transit through Albania. Several civic groups staged protests in the port city of Durres, where the shipment had allegedly entered Albania, and demanded explanations from the government regarding the issuing of the transit permit.

A simple search on Google indicates that around two-thirds of the most visited Albanian media pages on Facebook relating to the story ran identical content on the supposedly missing waste. Although the story initially appeared on an almost unknown news site, several well-known media ran with it. Refinements to the story included claims the poisonous waste had been dumped in disused tunnels and mines. Scores of stories gave experts’ evaluations of the environmental and health impacts of such a massive illegal waste dump.

This incident is a typical example of how fabricated information, posted online by an obscure website, can spread rapidly via media outlets with large readerships and incite panic and insecurity among the public.

The story was published at a particular moment when waste was already in the public consciousness, thanks to a series of protests in Albanian cities against the building of waste incinerators. This meant the public was on high alert and reacted quickly, thus generating yet more fear and worry, which was in turn exacerbated as the seemingly impossible task of verifying the story dragged on.

Typically, readers of online news sites were much more interested and invested in the story when they still believed it to be true. As a count of news reports on the topic shows, interest waned as further news reports came out confirming that the story of the lost containers was pure disinformation.

The news aggregator re-posted about 850 articles on the affair of the lost container. However, a search of the same platform for stories that tried to set the record straight or reported the results of the official investigation into the matter, gets only about 70 hits.

Disruptive Mal-information

The misuse of the news media with malicious intent taints the Albanian media scene in several different ways. One incident predated the waste container story by several years. Early in 2013, reports began circulating that Kosovo’s Food and Veterinary Agency had seized large shipments of milk from Albania, among other Balkan countries, found to contain high levels of aflatoxin, a toxic substance produced by molds in food.

The agency announced it had ordered the removal of that brand of milk from stores. The next day, Albania’s National Food Administration confirmed the presence of aflatoxin above levels allowed for consumption by the European Union and demanded that the producers recall their products from the market.

In this case, unlike the pure fake news story about the missing waste, we are dealing with articles based on true information as reported by state institutions but then distorted through deliberate misuse and misrepresentation of facts. It had the making of a “mal-information” campaign – the dissemination of a basically true report with the intent to cause harm, although who would have benefited from spreading this news was not clear.

One of the dairies later claimed the stories broke at a time when it was expanding into the Kosovo market, and that Albanian authorities compounded its problems by repeating data reported by Kosovo without properly testing the milk themselves.

Unlike the case of the missing containers, where it is difficult to assess the consequences and damage caused by the publication of false information, in this case, reports based on official information led directly to the company going bankrupt. A few months later, the company won its court case against Albanian authorities and was awarded damages in the amount of 2.7 million euros.

Disinformation is also a tool for financial gain. One method used by the Albanian online media is to spread false reports on the death of a celebrity. These stories are published with the sole aim of generating profits on the back of increased website traffic.

A typical example of this kind of disinformation was the fake news about the accidental death of the Kosovo singer Sabri Fejzullahu. Within a few hours of the story appearing on a largely unknown website in 2017, it went viral on Facebook. The original source no longer exists, and the Facebook page was taken down for violations of company policy.

The story appeared soon after Facebook started allowing advertising in the Albanian market, prompting savvy individuals to open short-lived “news” sites with the aim of generating revenue from fake news.

Fighting Fake News

The government raised journalists’ hackles when it proposed to create a new body with the authority to fine and even shut down online sites found to have published false information. When parliament passed the bills in December, Prime Minister Edi Rama pointed to the toxic milk scare as a prime example of the dangers of an unrestricted media landscape.

“I have not made this law for myself,” he said after parliament adopted the legislation in December. “I have [done] it for dozens of businessmen who are obliged to go and pay for the removal of news that milk has been poisoned or that vegetables have hormones. … I do this for public servants that are [accused of being] thieves, marauders, and petty dealers all day long,” he said, Balkan Insight reported.

The government apparently chose to overlook the European Commission’s reservations about the media laws. The EU’s executive body said Tirana would do well to heed international expert advice to encourage media self-regulation, ensure independent judicial review of complaints about the media, and strengthen the transparency of media ownership. The OSCE and the Council of Europe also suggested the legislation be reviewed, and Albanian journalism organizations described the measures as overkill and warned the government’s enhanced powers to police the media sphere could lead to selective punishment of opposition media.

Albanian President Ilir Meta, a political foe of Rama, vetoed the legislation in December. On 30 January parliament postponed a vote to overturn the veto until the Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, the Council of Venice, completes its evaluation of the law.

Emirjon Senja is the editor in chief of Albania’s abcNEWS.