Czech Elves on disinformation around election time: "One of the candidates is depicted as a threat to Czech interests"

Bohumil Kartous is a member of the Czech Elves – an internet group that tries to combat organised online disinformation and internet trolls. Most of its members are anonymous, but Kartous is one of the few who has made his identity known. Just days ahead of the presidential runoff, I asked him how disinformation has influenced the ongoing election campaign.

Petr Pavel and Andrej Babiš | Photo: Jana Karasová,  Daniela Tollingerová,  iROZHLAS

“During the presidential elections the situation is pretty clear. We can see that one of the candidates is depicted by the disinformation scene as a threat to Czech interests, as a traitor, as somebody who is a person of weak moral virtues, and so on. This is the negative picture which the disinformation scene tries to put forward to the Czech audience.

“And voters are offered a solution to this threat – Mr Babiš is for peace, he is somebody who will fight for the interests of people from the regions against the Prague elites, and so on.”

There have been reports of presidential candidates receiving death threats or threats of violence. Would you say that disinformation is fuelling extremism in this country?

Bohumil Kartous | Photo: Kateřina Cibulka,  Czech Radio

“I think that this is not the core of the problem. The disinformation scene can contribute somehow to the radicalization of people, but in the Czech Republic, we still fortunately have only very little evidence of radical violence connected with political issues.

“We cannot say that it will not happen – but I would not expect it.”

In a recent interview with Czech Radio’s Radiožurnál, you described disinformation as an intentional construct designed to mislead people. How do you know which ideas are constructed intentionally to mislead people and which ideas just arise spontaneously?

“There are some patterns in the disinformation tactics. The disinformation content would like to put forward some solutions to the situation, and those solutions are the same every time. It is the idea that a strong man like Putin or Orban is a better solution than a democratic government.

“And from this we can abstract that those patterns are established with the support of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. This is something that is obvious if you look over the content of thousands and thousands of chain emails, social media and disinformation websites.”

Where is the line between trying to stop disinformation and censorship?

“That’s the one-million-dollar question. We don’t have the right recipe for how to tackle this problem with legislation.

“But we need to try to find a way to discuss it, because there are some sources which regularly, on a daily basis, spread only disinformation. And we need to identify those sources and somehow denote them as a disinformation source.

“This is the right way, in the long-term horizon, to identify those who spread disinformation repeatedly and systematically. This is really different if you compare it to the sources which try to distribute information and from time to time you can find there some controversial opinion or something which resembles disinformation, but it’s not systematic.

“I think that identifying the systematic spreaders of disinformation is the way to go to regulate the problem of the information chaos in the digital space.”