Czech Elves’ Bob Kartous: Some politicians benefit from disinformation, others are too scared to combat it

Bohumil Kartous, foto: Ian Willoughby

The Czech Elves are secretive volunteers who have taken it upon themselves to monitor disinformation that they say emanates from Russia. Their name is borrowed from similar groups in the Baltic states who also combat trolls, while their chief activity is publishing regular reports about disinformation and fake news in the Czech online sphere. I discussed their work with Bob Kartous, a Czech Elves’ spokesperson and one of the few members who is not anonymous.

Bob Kartous | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International
You guys are Elves, you’re fighting trolls. In your case, who are the trolls? They’re not just angry people online saying outrageous things but are more political I guess?

“It differs. There are just a small number of professionals.

“But they are just a small number of people and they are not able to do all those things we can witness in the information disorder nowadays.

“The rest, the majority, they are people who can be described as useful idiots or victims of disinformation.

“Many of those people are really victims.

“They are only confused by the information overload in the digital space.

“They are not able to somehow raise their orientation, their information skills.

“They think, honestly, very often, that spreading disinformation is something that can help their friends to better understand what is really happening in the world around them.”

So they feel there’s a real danger of “a flood of Muslims”, or whatever?

“Yes. That was maybe the starting point of this really huge disinformation in Czech cyberspace, especially in so-called chain emails.

“What we can see during those years is that the immigration crisis was the starting point of when chain emails were first used as a really effective tool for disinformation campaigns.

“Before this, they were kind of a channel for people to share content like, I don’t know, landscape pictures, pictures of pets…”

Or jokes?

“Yes, jokes, funny stuff.

“But after the immigration crisis somebody came up with the idea, Yes, we can misuse this for spreading disinformation.

“And since then, which we can witness today, there are some professionals, especially serving some local political interests in the Czech Republic, who have been trying to use those chain emails to deliver to people a kind of apologetics and political marketing which is targeted especially at voters of Mr. Zeman, Mr. Babiš, Mr. Okamura, both Klauses, older and younger, and so on.”

“There are some professionals, especially serving some local political interests in the Czech Republic, who have been trying to use those chain emails to deliver to people a kind of apologetics and political marketing.”

Who are the people who are spreading this kind of material?

“Partly professionals. Partly you can see that this content is the product of copyrighters.

“They are really professionally produced texts.

“Part of them are people who are convinced that they need to spread to others this so-called alternative reality about the world.

“They could be, as I said, useful idiots.”

As for the professionals though, who are they? Do you know their names? Do you know who’s paying them or anything like that?

“It’s very hard to trace it back to those people who are really the authors of those texts and content.

“In the Czech Republic a few journalists have been trying to do it and I think they are continuing in those efforts to find out who is behind those things, but unsuccessfully, yet.

“I think that it’s really important to try to do it, to try to uncover somehow who the producers are.

“But if you ask ‘Cui bono?’ and if you ask why those people like Mr. Mr. Babiš and Mr. Zeman and others are benefitting from those contents, you can also answer this question.

“It is somebody who is trying to support them.”

Was there anything in particular, or any one moment, that spurred you and the other members of Czech Elves to say ‘We have to do something’?

“Yes. It was the repeatedly stressed fact by the Czech intelligence service [BIS] that groups of pro-Russian trolls and pro-Russian disinformation services are operating here.

“It was kind of a feeling of threat, a kind of feeling that we, or the people who founded the Czech Elves, need to do something more.

Illustrative photo: B_A,  Pixabay / CC0
“That meant at first to do something real – to analyse and make public more information about trolls and about the disinformation scene.

“The second very important goal is to raise public awareness about disinformation, because what we can see is that there is still kind of thinking that this is not so important.

“And what we can see from the political scene is that there are many politicians who try to benefit from the disinformation scene.

“That means that they will not make some pushback against it.

“The rest of the politicians are not literally cowards, but they are scared about the impact on their political profile.

“That means that they prefer to be silent.

“And the Czech Elves are trying to raise awareness about it.

“Because we feel it is part of a crucial social responsibility of the whole of society.”

I was reading that the Czech Elves also attempt to infiltrate some groups of people spreading disinformation. How do you do that? And what are the results?

“If you want to get more information and get more knowledge about what is really happening in the disinformation then yes, you need to infiltrate those groups.

“But we try to do it just because we need more information and are trying to analyse it.

“That means that we really don’t try to fight them somehow personally or threaten them with any kind of persecution.”

But is that purely in the online space? Or are you in the physical world in some way in contact with these people?

“We have been operating in the online space.

“We really don’t want to get into physical confrontations. That’s not the goal.

“And honestly [laughs], my own experience, as somebody who is a public person in the Czech Republic, is that they are really cowards.

“Partly you can see that this content is the product of copyrighters. They are really professionally produced texts.”

“They are able to attack you in the digital space but they are not brave enough to come to you and say something face to face.”

That was my next question. You are one of the few members who are publicly known – are there any consequences for you because of that?

“Yes, I was really wondering about the reaction from the public space after the revelation of existence of the Czech Elves.

“And I was nicely surprised by the reactions, because the huge majority of them were positive.

“Yes, I got some negative reactions, some threats, but it was really just a small number from the whole bunch of reactions.

“And since the revelation about our existence, the Czech Elves got hundreds and thousands of offers to cooperate and expressions of support.”

How long have the Czech Elves been active? And can you in any concrete way point to any successes you’ve had?

“We’ve been active more than one year and the success is that we have, since the first moment, been cooperating with others.

“That means there are more organisations, and even corporations and individuals, who are trying to do something in the effort to counter disinformation.

“And I think that besides the reports and the insights that the Czech Elves provide to the public this is really a success.

“This is something that makes me more optimistic about it – that there is a really strong coalition of people, of organisations, that are aware about this threat.

“They are trying to do something about it and to coordinate their activities.”

Some people may respond to all of this by saying that the best response to trolls is no response. People say, Don’t feed the trolls, because that’s what they want – they want to provoke people. What do you say to that?

“Yes, I think that in the digital space that’s right.

“My experience is that they are really cowards. They are able to attack you in the digital space but they are not brave enough to come to you and say something face to face.”

“I think it makes no sense to exhaust yourself with futile conversations with trolls, because yes, this is their goal – to strip you of your energy and your time.

“But what I think could seriously help is to meet people, not trolls but victims of trolls, in the physical space, offline.

“Especially through education workshops, or through meetings not necessarily with education content, with older people in particular, are really, really fruitful for diminishing the impact of disinformation.

“This is something that I can see has started some months back and I hope some greater effort will be invested in this field.”

If you guys find some hoax email or whatever and you point out that it’s a hoax, do you have any sense that the producers of these emails care?

“We have some anecdotal evidence about what actually happens with that content, but it really differs.

“What we try to do is not to trace all those chain emails but to collect them in our database and analyse the narratives.

“And what we really try to do is to provide that content to others, especially some fact-checking websites, so they can work with it and use it in their own operations.”

Do you think fact-checking is still worthwhile? Frankly with every year that goes by I increasingly think no-one cares about the truth any more. The trolls, or the nationalist politicians, will repeat the same things, just louder.

“Yes, I understand, and I partly agree that it could seem to be futile, a bit.

“But for me it’s very important that those fact-checking websites do their work.

“Because very often when somebody turns to me with a question about this or that I can very easily find an article explaining the manipulation, lies and techniques and tactics of how this content tries to influence people.

“That means it’s very useful, especially in the time later, after the circulation of that chain email content.”

Looking to the future, are you optimistic that things may improve in some way in this regard? Or will it get worse in terms of disinformation as the world seems to become more fractured?

“There are some new threats like deep fake content, deep fake videos.”

“I really cannot predict what will happen.

“There are some new threats like deep fake content, deep fake videos.

“We can be sure that the growing capability of artificial intelligence will be used and misused – and what I think is that it will definitely be misused also in disinformation campaigns.

“But if we will raise the awareness of society and if we grow as an alliance, or as a group, of people and organisations who will try to counter that I could be optimistic in some forecasts.

“But disinformation should be part of global political solutions.

“It’s necessary for some international structures like the European Union and superpowers like the USA to very strongly negotiate with the big tech giants, like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and try to push them to take responsibility for what they do and how they impact society.”