Czechs scrutinise disinformation during presidential campaign

Jiří Drahoš and Miloš Zeman during the last presidential election debate, photo: CTK

Disinformation and its role was one of the themes of the latest Czech presidential elections. Re-elected head of state Miloš Zeman was cast as pro-Russian and so it was a question how much stories boosting his chances and smearing the reputations of his opponents would be used during the campaign. The jury appears to be out, though some experts believe home grown disinformation played much more of a role than anything that was imported.

Jiří Drahoš and Miloš Zeman during the last presidential election debate,  photo: CTK
Disinformation can take many guises from the misleading poster campaign casting an opponent in a false light to the overt or whispering campaign over the Internet or on chat-sites. But it was probably the trend of lies and half lies to be spawned and develop on the Internet that has been the biggest concern across much of the western world, including the Czech Republic, in recent months. And the eventual presidential face-off between Miloš Zeman, known for his fairly frequent meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin and his pro-Russian comments, and the more EU-oriented Jiří Drahoš was viewed as a high risk occasional where disinformation could play a key role.

Jonáš Syrovátka is a project coordinator at the Prague Security Studies Institute specialising mainly on Russian attempts to influence the Czech political environment. His latest project has been to try and map what platforms peddle disinformation during election campaigns. And his conclusion ahead of a final report on the presidential election is that the campaign did lend itself more to disinformation that the parliamentary elections back in October.

ʺI would say that there was more than in the parliamentary elections that took place during the fall of 2017. This makes sense because the presidential campaign is more polarised. There are two camps and so there is a bigger split in society and so it can be expected that someone will try to use those conflicts in society to create disinformation.ʺ

Martin Ehl is a respected journalist at one of the top Czech newspapers, Hospodářské Noviny, which has devoted much of its resources to tackle and track disinformation. He doesn’t think disinformation played a crucial role in the presidential contest but it was definitely present.

ʺI don’t think there was such a big role of disinformation in the presidential campaign.ʺ

ʺYes, there was some clear disinformation or lies used in the public space, especially against one candidate, Mr. Drahoš. At the same time there are suspicious activities or information circling around, which if you were a hardliner you would call disinformation but I would be cautious about calling them directly that because you have to verify them. But yes, there was some role but I would not say it was the most decisive factor.ʺ

Earlier, Hospodářské Noviny had tracked one of the major causes of the parliamentary elections, that over a memorandum signed by a Social Democrat minister for industry and trade with an Australian mining company over the extraction and processing of lithium. The bland and non-committal memorandum was blown up by ANO party leader Andrej Babiš with claims that the country’s interests were being sold out. Martin Ehl again:

ʺIn the parliamentary campaign we have described the lithium affair which partially came from the political stupidity of one of the ministers which was then used by one of the pro-Russian servers as a major piece of disinformation and it played some role there. I think that was a lesson for both sides that they be a lot more careful in using them in the presidential elections. This is one of the reasons I don’t think there was such a big role of disinformation in the presidential campaign.ʺ

So what sort of disinformation did crop up in the presidential campaign. Jonáš Syrovátka again:

Martin Ehl,  photo: Jana Přinosilová
ʺI would speak about four kinds of disinformation. One tried to connect Mr. Drahoš with foreign powers and foreign influences. One specific one tried to say he was financed by George Soros. Another one was connected with migration and in the first stage it appeared that all the opponents of Mr. Zeman are prepared to open the borders to an influx of immigrants. And the third one tried to connect Mr. Drahoš with the highly unpopular [possible] prime minister [Miroslav] Kalousek and the fourth one accused Mr. Drahoš with the communist secret police, the StB.ʺ

Actually, the rumour doing the rounds appeared to be that the former TOP 09 leader and finance minister Kalousek would be selected by Drahoš to be prime minister. There was another rumour circulated about Drahoš along the line that he belonged to some sort of masonic type group, the so called Rome club, which was opposed to Roman Catholicism. This, it seems, was aimed at undercutting his support in areas, such as parts of Moravia, where the church is strong and damage his reputation more generally.

The source of the disinformation in these cases seems to have stemmed from discussions on the Internet which were then circulated more widely. Jonáš Syrovátka again:

ʺThere is one very prominent disinformation platform and that is Aeronet.ʺ

ʺWell, when we are talking about the origins, in the Czech Republic there is one very prominent disinformation platform and that is Aeronet. It is very well known. And we can say that all the narratives appeared there in the first place. However, it is important to note that the authors that are doing the articles there also took inspiration from Internet discussion because this idea that Mr. Drahoš is financed by Mr. Soros appeared first in an Internet discussion. And then they were spreading on the other disinformation websites as well as in the discussions under the articles, also in the mainstream media. And also they appeared in another important thing, the chain mails.ʺ

To track the disinformation during the Czech presidential campaign to foreign sources though appears problematic. As Syrovátka comments, Czechs seem perfectly capable of coming up with the false raw material on their own and spreading it around:

ʺWell, I would be very careful about that because we could say that there are 40 dozen websites that are publishing disinformation but the only one that we can prove that has foreign ties is Sputnik, It is the other way around, it openly admits that it is Russian funded, Russian state owned. It’s important to know that Sputnik itself declared that it is independent in the election and according to our analyses it is true that it did not try to intervene too much in the elections. I would say the Czechs are good enough themselves at performing disinformation and that we don’t need foreign influences to do it for us.ʺ
Disinformation is being taken seriously at a national level in the Czech Republic. A special unit within the Ministry of Interior was set up and started working at the beginning of 2017 to tackle so-called ‘fake news’ and counter disinformation. There are regulatory bodies covering radio and television and the basic resort to the laws of defamation and libel. But some in the media and outside believe more could be done. Prague Security Studies Institute’s Syrovátka would prefer though to stress the positives from such developments.

ʺI would always say that there is room for improvement but I would like to see the glass as half full because at least something is done. There is this unit in the Ministry of Interior and I hope it will be spread to other ministries. And since there is also pressure from the European Union, it is certain that the state will have to react in some way and maybe establish other units. Of course, it’s something that states cannot do alone and I think that civil society, academia, and other actors should be strong partners for the state in this area.ʺ

In particular, he takes encouragement from the widespread practice of fact checking carried out during the two second range presidential debates by various organisations and the scoring of the candidates truthfulness. Public service broadcaster, Czech Television, also announced that it would carry out its own checks during the final debate which it hosted with the aim of rebutting lies and half truths. That did not really seem to have much impact during the programme itself but may have curbed the participants. In any case, Syrovátka believes it was a significant step forward for the broadcaster.

ʺI would say the Czechs are good enough themselves at performing disinformation and that we don’t need foreign influences to do it for us.ʺ

ʺThere was a very great need to present itself as a credible media and I think this was a very good idea and I hope this trend will continue. But other media were also active in this area as well and I think this was one of the positives from this current presidential election that awareness is rising of this issue.ʺ

Journalist Martin Ehl takes the view that generally societies in the former communist countries of Central Europe are more likely to grab the bait of disinformation and swallow its message. But, he has some qualifications here:

ʺI would say in general that the post-communist societies are more vulnerable that western standard democracies but I have two examples to contradict this statement. One is Brexit and the manipulation that was done there by the politicians. On the other side there is Lithuania as a country which is in the frontline of a more or less open information conflict with Russia. Society there is also post-communist but society itself and the state is constantly developing the tools how to contain this disinformation.ʺ