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Science

Politicians in southeastern Europe pay for aggressive online insults

Romanian, Bulgarian politicians are hiring people to make personal attacks against political rivals. But not all are in favor of less anonymity online.

A hand appears to be reaching out from a computer monitor at a user

A Romanian journalist was paid to spew insults online

The political culture in Kosovo, and in many of its neighboring countries like Macedonia, Albania and Romania, is often personal and vitriolic and with early elections set for December 12 after last week's no-confidence vote, it looks like politicians are about to start up their mud-slinging campaigns.

It's common for politicians to insult each other on a personal level. But now, political parties are migrating to the Internet and are hiring rhetorical mercenaries to start online flame wars.

Kosovo flag

In a volatile region like Kosovo, tensions can build up online

This type of behavior happens in China, with the so-called "50-Cent Party," a nationalistic group of government-paid Chinese bloggers. In the United States, there have been reporters of Congressional staffers altering Wikipedia entries. However, this kind of paid online vitriol hasn't been as widely observed in southeastern Europe.

Going undercover

Romanian journalist Vlad Ursulean went undercover during the 2009 Romanian presidential election campaign. After creating a fake online persona on Facebook, he got hired.

"Every day I received by e-mail a list with 30 - 40 links to articles from the online press, but also a list of various blogs and forums," he told Deutsche Welle.

"They told me that I should write comments to these entries. They told me, for example, that President Traian Basescu was personally to blame for to all grievances in the country, or that rival candidate Mircea Geoana had committed certain crimes. In other words, to make direct attacks against the candidates."

After his research, Ursulean confirmed that all the major Romanian parties took part in such practices. But Romania is certainly not alone.

Bulgarian parties follow suit

A person typing on a computer

Politicians pay people to leave often inflammatory comments on news websites and blogs

"We can assume that some of the posts were written or influenced by party members," said Haralan Alexandrov, an anthropologist at the New Bulgarian University.

"Such posts are very often dismissed in the forums with the note that the author is a 'paid user,'" Alexandrov added. "I can say that the Bulgarian Internet forums are very uncivilized."

Sometimes, the comments devolve into racist and xenophobic territory, and in Balkan countries, with a long history of violent ethnic conflict, that type of language can be inflammatory and potentially dangerous.

"Among Internet users, there is a war that can be observed not only here in Kosovo, but throughout the Balkans," Ibrahim Makolli of the Kosovo Journalists' Association told Deutsche Welle. "There are expressions of great intolerance between different ethnic groups in the Balkans."

But Makolli said he doesn't think hate speech has a serious, or even dangerous effect on the public. In his view, it is more of individual phenomena. Sometimes, though, the insults and threats can even come against human rights activists, particularly against those fighting for the rights of homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

Macedonian student faced online death threats

A finger pointing at a monitor showing a Facebook page

A Macedonian student received online death threats for publishing lesbian erotica

For example, one Facebook group targeted Irena Cvetkovic, a Macedonian graduate student who was threatened after she published lesbian erotic fiction and challenged the fact that her university's textbooks called homosexuality a disease.

One threat read: "Justice for her, either pistol or knife. It's her choice."

Her case was even brought up in a 2009 report by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of the Republic of Macedonia. But Cvetkovic herself remains undaunted by the threats.

"I let these kinds of things happen - I'm neither deterred nor offended," she told Deutsche Welle, adding that she's tried to ignore this hate speech as much as possible.

Desire for more online restrictions

The Romanian government has tried using legislation to tackle the problem. One member of parliament put forward a bill that would centralize and monitor all comment functions on all Romanian websites.

If countries like Romania, Albania, Kosovo and others intend to crack down on aggressive online speech through legislation, South Korea could be an example. In 2009, Seoul put is Cyber Defamation Law into effect. The law requires users to provide their real name and ID card number in order to leave comments on sites that receive more than 100,000 unique visitors per day.

However, Cristian Pantazi, the chief editor of Romania's largest online portal Hotnews.ro, considers this approach to be a mistake.

"For one thing, that would open up Pandora's box," he said. "Once you set up one barrier on the Internet, it paves the way for many more restrictions."

Author: Alexandra Scherle (cjf)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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