Albania Sees Rise In Killings, Crime Starting From Toxic Online Content – Analysis

Experts say legislation is needed to address toxic social media content that too often turns into offline violence in Albania, but there are fears authorities will seek again to exploit the issue for political gain.

In December last year, a well-known Albanian TikToker posted a video “confessing” that he had hired someone to plant a bomb at the house of a rival; the TikToker’s car had been set on fire, and he was out for revenge.

The two accounts spend hours live-streaming their feud; one has more than 380,000 followers, and other more than 250,000. The language they use is violent, promotes crime, and is derogatory towards women. But they are making money and have even appeared on Albanian television to discuss how to monetise social media.

Violent, toxic language on social media, particularly TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, is on the rise in Albania, spilling over into offline harassment, violence and, in several cases over recent months, deaths.

In February, a 27-year-old woman killed herself in the capital, Tirana, after an explicit photo of her was shared on TikTok and a 39-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of “causing suicide”; in March, two teenagers were arrested in Fier near the coast on suspicion of killing another person over a ‘like’ on TikTok; last year, in April, a man shot and wounded two people after an argument on TikTok over music; the same month, in the port city of Durres, two men were injured in a fight that began on TikTok before moving offline; and in May 2023, a 15-year-old boy was killed and friend injured in a fight that initially began on TikTok.

Meeting representatives of TikTok and pupils of a Tirana secondary school in February, Albanian Interior Minister Taulant Balla said “alarm bells” were ringing.

“There is uncontrolled language on this platform,” he said. “The messages contain completely inappropriate language. And then there is also the promotion of criminal activities, as well as the promotion of narcotics.”

Rights experts say legislation is required, but there is nothing as yet in the pipeline.

“First, a clear legal framework governing digital rights and responsibilities is needed,” said Megi Reci, a lawyer and researcher on digital security at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation, IDM. “These include laws protecting freedom of expression and privacy online, as well as laws against cyber-bullying, harassment, stalking, sexual blackmail, or hate speech online.”

“In their absence, the level of impunity is high and is an enabling factor,” Reci told BIRN. “In Albania, there have been cases when online threats or concerns have been followed by murder or suicide. They were held responsible only after the ‘physical’ crime took place.”

Playing politics?
Mirgit Vataj, head of the Order of Social Workers, which issues licences for social workers, called for young people to be taught in school about how to behave online and for public institutions and the companies behind such platforms to cooperate on regulation.

“Sometimes it is very difficult to prevent since the Internet is a space that knows no borders and the most effective strategy that can be applied in such cases is to start a massive national campaign to make young people aware of how to use social platforms responsibly and to talk about what is considered ‘cyber hygiene’, so that we have a healthy environment where hate speech, insulting language, threats – which can turn into physical violence – are not used,” Vataj told BIRN.

“Unfortunately, in Albania, violent language is used as a way to increase visibility.”

Altin Hazizaj, executive director of the NGO Children’s Human Rights Centre of Albania, CRCA, which runs the I Sigurt [Safe] hotline as part of its efforts to combat cyber violence against minors, warned of a rise in “toxic masculinity” on all social platforms but particularly TikTok and Instagram, “which above all affects teenage boys”.

“Likewise, the models that are transmitted to them are just as toxic, with images and music full of violence, luxurious lives with expensive cars and sex, without asking how this income is created for this kind of life,” Hazizaj told BIRN.

“The lack of proper parental care and education, together with the lack of proper mechanisms, rules and education in school, is increasingly leading teenagers along a path where violence is the norm.”

In Albania, however, there are concerns that the authorities may seek to capitalise on such fears to clamp down on online freedoms in order to win a political advantage.

In 2019, the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama sought to regulate online media through a package of laws that Rama claimed would fight defamation. Civil rights groups, however, said the package threatened to censor legitimate criticism of the government and, after a three-year battle, the Socialists withdrew the proposal.

When a 41-year-old woman killed herself in January in Durres after being bullied on TikTok, parliament speaker Lindita Nikolla, a member Rama’s Socialists, announced the lawmakers would immediately debate “changes to legislation on online media, the penal code, and laws dealing with cybernetic crime, attacks, offensive and aggressive content on social networks”.

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