COMMENTS THAT LEAVE A MARK

ONLINE ABUSE IS JUST AS SERIOUS AS OFFLINE ABUSE.

In September 2022, MP Daorsa Kica Xhelili announced that she was leaving Lista Guxo for the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Kica Xhelili initially was a member of Vetëvendosje (VV), and was elected to the Assembly of Kosovo in the 2021 general election. Her election was secured through the VV and Lista Guxo joint electoral list.

When LDK chairman Lumir Abdixhiku posted a photo with Kica Xhelili — who is now the youngest member of the party — on Facebook, negative online comments against her quickly flooded in. The commenters used harsh language towards Kica Xhelili and judged her for joining LDK. Amid hundreds of insulting, denigrating and humiliating comments, many accused her of having manipulated the will of the people. This criticism stemmed from the fact that she was voted in as part of one political party and was now switching to another. 

Facing hate speech on social media was a difficult experience for Kica Xhelili.

“These comments are always difficult to face in the beginning,” she said. “After that, you need to do a psychological analysis, a social analysis and an analysis of the propaganda. This makes you realize that it has less to do with you and more with society.”

According to her, hate speech is not necessarily about its target.

“[Comments that contain hate speech] are not about a substantive thought, just an inability to hear a different way of thinking,” said Kica Xhelili, adding that this creates the impression that there is only one dominant opinion and intimidates those who think differently.

Kica Xhelili’s case is not the only example of social media users venting their anger toward individuals whose actions they don’t like, disagree with or simply want to mock. 

Members of the public who do not hold any public position are also often targets for hate speech. At the beginning of this year, a KTV interview with two girls went viral on social media. The journalist asked them about their musical preferences and they answered in Albanian, occasionally switching to English. In the comments section, social media users mocked, insulted and spread hate speech toward the girls for not responding solely in Albanian.

Video interviews, usually done in a vox pop format where journalists ask members of the public on the street for their opinions on various topics, are increasingly becoming targets for abuse on social media. Social media is frequently used to distribute short videos often taken out of context.

Nowadays, insulting and using hate speech has almost become the norm on social media. This is a hard problem for Kosovo’s media outlets to manage due the large number of internet users.

Hate speech on the rise and the need for a legal basis to control it

The most popular social media platforms such as Facebook, X, formerly known as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are widely used by journalists and media outlets to distribute news to the public. The most popular social platform in Kosovo is Facebook. This may be why Kosovar media outlets use it most for distributing news articles and posting other media content.

Hate speech is widely spread on these platforms.

In the most general sense, hate speech refers to any form of communication or expression with the intention to discriminate, harass, provoke a reaction or incite negative attitudes, intolerance, hostility or violence against individuals or specific groups. This language involves attacks on race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language affiliation, cultural, moral or political views, social status, occupation, physical or mental characteristics, or any other characteristic.

Comments that spread or incite hate speech can be dealt with by the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kosovo by reporting to the Police or filing a complaint.

Article 141, point 1 of the Criminal Code of Kosovo states: “Whoever publicly incites or publicly spreads hatred, discord and intolerance between national, racial, religious, ethnic and other groups or based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other personal characteristics, in a manner which is likely to disturb the public order shall be punished by a fine or imprisonment of up to five years.”

According to media lawyer Flutura Kusari, there are regulations to address hate speech in Kosovo, but the implementation of this legislation is lacking. According to her, women, particularly activists, journalists, and those involved in politics, are more frequently subjected to online hate speech. “There is an increase in the insults, incitement to violence, abuse, and death threats that happen on social media,” she said.

Kusari said that a part of the responsibility remains with media outlets. According to her, they do not pay enough attention to the wars happening in comment sections. “Sometimes [hate speech] is nurtured by the media itself and this then discourages people from participating in public discussions,” she said, adding that this particularly affects women. “They know that if they talk about it in the media, there will be thousands of comments that are largely attacking their personal lives.”

Kusari said that under the Civil Law against Defamation and Insult, individuals targeted by derogatory comments have the right to file a lawsuit and request that the comment be removed. They also have the option to request compensation for any damages. According to her, although this legal standard has been established by the European Court of Human Rights, it is not yet being practiced in Kosovo. 

“If a media outlet publishes a news article on its Facebook page and comments with criminal content are reported, let’s say, an article about me is published and the comment section contains death threats. If I report it to the media outlets, then they have an obligation to react immediately. If they don’t react, criminal liability arises for them,” Kusari said. According to her, there are very few reports of hate speech comments due to low expectations that media outlets will take action.

Media outlets in Kosovo usually do not moderate their comment sections. This is either due to a lack of human resources to address the large volume of comments, or because the comments increase the visibility of publications, generating more clicks. Social media algorithms are designed to maximize user engagement and monopolize their attention, guiding users toward polarizing and inflammatory content.

While social media platforms such as Facebook moderate for comments containing hate speech in several languages, moderation is not available in Albanian.

Meanwhile, for media outlets, there is no framework other than journalistic and personal ethical code that mandates checking, deleting or editing comments that contain hateful or divisive language on their social media pages.

The Press Council of Kosovo (PCK) is a self-regulatory body established by the media to regulate content published in written media. However, comments on social media do not fall within the jurisdiction of the PCK and taking action on these comments is not within their mandate.

The executive director of the PCK, Imer Mushkolaj, said that the PCK doesn’t accept many complaints about comments on social networks. Even the complaints that are accepted are not addressed. Mushkolaj said that the PCK advises parties to follow procedures and complain to the relevant social network or pursue other legal avenues.

The PCK’s jurisdiction is limited to cases where hate speech appears in media content. According to Mushkolaj, derogatory comments, hate speech and insults published by media platforms are treated the same as any other media content and appropriate decisions are taken.

Large numbers of hateful comments on social media can be fueled by how the media packages content. Often, media outlets present content in a certain tone that leads to an influx of hateful comments.

At the beginning of this year, the media reported that a girl around the age of 15 died after an accident at the Brezovica Ski Center. Some media outlets mentioned the victim’s ethnicity in their headlines for this story. The fact that the victim was a Serb was enough for the comment sections of many of the media outlets that reported on the case to be flooded with comments containing dangerous hate speech. In addition, some commentators openly rejoiced at this death, wishing that more similar cases would happen.

The disclosure of the victim’s ethnicity by the media in cases where it does not constitute any importance for the news can be seen as careless, malicious and aimed at inciting hatred. Including such information also violates the PCK’s Code of Ethics.

Media leaders admit that it is challenging to control comments on social networks, and place part of the responsibility on readers and commenters. The editor-in-chief of Albanian Post, Lirim Mehmetaj, said that his publication tries not to allow inappropriate comments on social networks. This is done to prevent the incitement of hate speech and to avoid labeling or judging people.

“Expressing thoughts in the comments sections should be seen as an opportunity to participate and contribute, not to offend or threaten,” he said.

“Online abuse is just as serious as abuse in real life”

Comments on social media that contain hate speech can cause serious consequences for the person who is targeted.

Last year, TikTok videos showing Lulzim Paci, a high school biology teacher, dancing flooded social media. Vetëvendosje MP Fjolla Ujkani wrote a Facebook post calling on education officials in Vushtrri to take measures against what she called “improper and degenerate actions” by the teacher. Paci became the target of online abuse and derisive comments towards him flooded social media. He burst into tears during an interview with KTV while talking about the negative comments he received, and revealed that he told his brother that he could tell others he was merely a relative and not his brother, in case he was embarrassed by him. 

According to psychologist Naim Telaku, someone who is the target of negative and derisive comments online may initially feel isolated and socially excluded, then start to feel scared about the long-term impact the comments may have.

“You can start to feel threatened and excluded, to experience feelings of guilt,” said Telaku.

The list of consequences Telaku mentions even encompasses problems with sleep and appetite. “Online abuse is just as serious as abuse in real life,” he said.

Telaku said that when abuse happens in real life, the number of abusers is usually smaller and the victim has more space to react. However, when abuse takes place online, there is a large number of abusers who encourage each other, often resulting in an escalation in the intensity of the abuse.

“These negative and offensive comments can then have an impact on employment opportunities, or on building social and romantic relationships,” he said.

The negative comments have also affected Kica Xhelili emotionally. She says that she often thought of withdrawing from public life, but has developed immunity to these comments and now avoids them. 

“Unfortunately, in politics you are never free from attacks. If you separate politics from your life, your emotional, financial and professional well-being would significantly improve,” said Kica Xhelili.

She said that avoiding the potential impact of these negative comments has taken her tremendous energy.

Author: Blerta Agushi

Feature Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

This article was originally produced for and published by Kosovo 2.0. It has been re-published here with permission.