František Vrábel: Facebook is literally doing nothing over Russian disinformation

František Vrábel

František Vrábel is an expert on Russia’s infiltration of Czech society via sophisticated online disinformation, something his international company Semantic Visions monitors very closely. At their offices in a lovely Art Nouveau building overlooking Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery we discussed efforts to combat such propaganda – and Facebook’s role in spreading disinformation. But I first asked Vrábel, who is in his early 60s, a little about himself. 

Could you please tell us a bit about your background? You grew up in Iraq.

“Yes, my parents were teachers at the Baghdad University and I spent a significant part of my childhood, the formative part of it, there – from eight to 11.”

I was also reading that your dad was a trainer of some famous sportsperson.

“Yes, the most famous athlete that he trained was Ludvík Daněk, who was the Olympic winner [in discus]. In three Olympic Games in a row he also won bronze and silver medals.”

How did it shape you growing up away from Czechoslovakia, in this international environment?

“There’s a lot of buzz about the need to fight disinformation but very few customers that would be ready to pay for it.”

“It was, I would say, a very exciting experience.

“I think it influenced me or impacted me big-time.

“I simply couldn’t not be interested in history and archaeology, because of the historical ancestry of Iraq: Mesopotamia.

“And my parents were good enough to show us, or enable us to visit, all the historical sights, like Babylon or Ninive or Persepolis.

“So I understood that the world had its history, and that multiple cultures and multiple civilisations lived on Earth.

“And because I got a unique chance as a child from a Communist country to see something completely different, like the Middle East – and we also visited Western Europe – so I had pretty unique views, seeing at least three completely different cultures.”

Was it hard then to kind of readjust back to Czechoslovakia, after seeing all these things?

“It was difficult, because we returned with our parents in 1970, two years after the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia.

“And yes, it was difficult, a lot, mainly for our parents.

“My mother was fired from the university and although my father remained they had difficulties in their jobs.

“My father later on declined to be part of the doping programme of Czechoslovakia, which was started in the ‘70s.

“We are three brothers. My brother was allowed to study what he wanted to study at university.

“This was not my case; I had already had difficulties getting into high school.

“The university which I graduated from was not my first choice – let’s put it diplomatically.

“And my younger brother was not allowed to attend even high school.”

You also worked at a collective farm, I understand?

“Yes, I did. This was in the second half of the ‘80s.

“Actually I was graduated as a teacher – and I was not considered to be a trusted member of society.”

How did you end up in the field that you’re in now, which is data analysis?

“I don’t want to get back to a time when the Russians would govern this country.”

“Well, when the political changed happened after a short period of me being part of the new democratic governing structure I decided that politics was not my field.

“My brother and I founded our first company and we were real estate developers.

“And when we finished a big project after six or seven years I didn’t want to continue in that, and I wanted to do something a little more, I would say, intellectual [laughs].

“I started to invest into IT, information technologies, and mainly information security.

“We were recognised by the US military and started to work in the framework of US foreign military assistance.

“So this was my way to big data analysis.”

If I understand it right, your company Semantic Visions, which by the way is a fantastic company name, both researches disinformation and identifies potential problems for supply chains for corporations – is that correct?

“It is correct, and we started with the latter.

“What we do, or what we have achieved, in automatic and real-time disinformation detection is, I would say, a side effect or collateral benefit or implementation of the technology that we originally developed for supply chain disruption predictions.”

Your company’s mission statement says Semantic Visions is committed to “safe-guarding democracy through the detection of disinformation and adversarial propaganda”. So clearly it isn’t just a business for you. What is your motivation in doing this kind of work?

Source: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay/Radio Prague International,  CC0

“Yes, it is not real business for us.

“Because although there’s a lot of buzz about the need to fight disinformation, there are very few customers [laughs] that would be ready to pay for it.

“So most of the work that we do is for free.

“This reflects our social responsibility, and also my experience – that I don’t want to get back to a time when the Russians would govern this country.”

Your company is “operating in the front line of the information war with Russia”. When do you feel that Russia’s information war as we see it today began?

“I would say the first sign of something very strong was back in 2008, when the Czech government considered inviting the United States to build a radar, as part of the defence against Russian nuclear missiles.

“Then there were several years when it was pretty calm and then there was a sudden burst of hostile propaganda and disinformation from the Russian side with respect to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the beginning of Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine that same year.

“When that happened I was looking into the system and trying to find traces or signs that something like that would have happened – if we would be able to recognise it based on our data – and I concluded that yes.

“Most Russian disinformation operations are being done on Facebook.”

“For example, we saw that the Russians were active in the information space and did artillery information preparation two and a half years before – not against Czech citizens or German citizens or American citizens, but against their own population, to change the sentiment Russians had toward Ukraine.”

How effective are the Russians at information warfare? I’ve got to say that to me, as a lay person, they seem terribly good at it.

“Unfortunately they are excellent.

“It is in, I would say, big contrast to their physical capabilities, I mean military capabilities.

“Their knowledge of information warfare goes back to the 1950s, when the KGB established a special department of black propaganda.

“They called it desinformatsiya, so the word disinformation comes from the Russian language.

“There was scientific research conducted on this in the Soviet Union – how to manipulate the minds of people, or of masses of people, by remote.

“And what we see now is the result of this long-term research and also practice.

“The reasons the Russians are so successful is, unfortunately, mainly due to the online platforms.”

Since February 24 the Czech Republic has tried to fight back to some degree, by blocking some disinformation sites. Is that proving effective, do you feel?

Photo: edar,  Pixabay,  CC0

“I think it was a good decision.

“It is proving to be a correct decision from the standpoint of minimising or decreasing the strength of the stream of propaganda and disinformation from Russia.

“The estimates are that it went down to 50 percent.

“But having said that, the web portals that were blocked, either the ones blocked by the .CZ domain operator, or the others that were blocked by internet service providers… this has only a limited impact on the Russian disinformation operations.

“Because most of it is being done on Facebook.

“Facebook is doing really nothing, literally nothing, against it.

“And this part of, I would say, the information domain is completely available to the Russians.”

You’ve been saying for some time that Facebook should be regulated. But I wonder sometimes if it’s possible to put that genie back in the bottle, so to speak. Facebook has become this monster – is it possible to, in some way, rein it in?

“I believe so and I’m trying my best to explain how, or why, Facebook is so bad – and that regulating Facebook could have nothing in common with freedom of speech, or censorship, if you like.

“The problem is not in stopping the dissemination of the posts – like censorship – but in the other part of the Facebook algorithmic factory, which is amplification of the disinformation.

“Harmful content is multiplied thousands of times or tens of thousands of times or hundreds of thousands of times.”

“Currently the algorithms work in a way that the more aggressive the message, or the post, is, the more radical the content is, the more polarising the content is, the more emotional and more fearful the content of the article or the post is, the more this content is being spread within the network.

“So if there’s something really harmful, like false news or posts that Ukrainians are killing Russian children and putting them into mass graves and the like, or crucifying them, this is being inherently boosted by Facebook algorithms.

“And these false claims or harmful content is multiplied thousands of times or tens of thousands of times or hundreds of thousands of times.

“So this is the real problem.

“And Facebook unfortunately, with all its lobbying power, and I would say also its not understanding of political leadership, is still protecting its monster machine.”

I’m on Facebook. I put up pictures of my dog sometimes and I like to see photos of my cousins’ children. Am I also contributing to the problem by being on it at all?

“I think so, yes.

“But of course to a lesser extent than the founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has all the power to run the company, which is very exceptional, or almost unheard of, in the case of a company being listed on the stock exchange.

“I think that the only way how to influence Facebook so that it will start to behave properly and not to destroy society is when we as users start leaving Facebook and make our decisions public.

“So by voting with our feet.”

What’s the future outlook? Are things going to get even worse in the coming years, with regard to deep fakes and all these kinds of things?

“Certainly, unless we adopt pretty strict regulation, which unfortunately will happen, I think, in time.

“And the deep fakes is a real threat that is incomparably bigger than the current threat coming from I would say mainly textual disinformation.”