Going viral: Czech researchers map local spread of Covid-19 dis/misinformation

Photo: Dipesh Parmar, Pixabay / CC0

A team of researchers from the Faculty of Education at Palacký University in Olomouc have conducted an extensive study of how misinformation, disinformation and fake news about Covid-19 have spread throughout the country. Leading the research was department head Kamil Kopecký, along with fellow academic Dominik Voráč and other members of the ongoing E-Bezpečí (eSafety) project.

Most misinformation about Covid-19 circulating in the Czech Republic comes from abroad and has also spread throughout other European Union member states. For example, at the onset of the pandemic, fringe and social media were full of commentary that the novel coronavirus was no more deadly than the common flu; that the danger it posed had been overstated (for various reasons, often malicious); that it was manufactured in a lab by China or the United States and was purposely or accidentally released, or that it simply did not exist.

One of the most widespread (unfounded) beliefs among Czechs regarding Covid-19, according to the research by E-Bezpečí, is that alcohol kills the virus, and so drinking alcohol regularly is a truly effective method of prevention.

Do these unfounded beliefs among Czechs differ significantly from those of other countries in Europe?

Kamil Kopecký,  photo: Kopeckyk,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Kamil Kopecký: “The most frequent disinformation that is spreading in the Czech environment includes fake news and disinformation connected with the European Union or the refugee crisis, as well as disinformation associated with elections and the election campaigns. In the last year, a large amount of disinformation associated with 5G technology and the Covid-19 pandemic has emerged. Much of the disinformation and hoaxes also came to us from the surrounding European countries.”

Apart from on Covid-19, what are some of the disinformation topics that have spread widely in the Czech Republic?

Dominik Voráč: “The most popular disinformation responds to current national or global issues. We had refugee crisis and disinformation about this topic are still alive and they circulate. For example, a photomontage about an overcrowded train with migrants at the Cheb railway station first appeared in 2015 and then returned in 2017.

“Three years ago, there was a presidential election in the Czech Republic, where the main opponent of the Czech president Miloš Zeman, Mr. Jiří Drahoš [now a senator] was for example accused of being a part of this strange group of people that secretly rule the world and it’s called illuminati. And I think the political topics are the most popular and shared ones – and it doesn’t matter if it’s about Russia, the United States or local politicians.”

In November 2020, the Centre for the Prevention of Risky Virtual Communication research team at the Faculty of Education, Palacký University Olomouc, looked into what Covid-19 related disinformation stories were encountered by users of social networks (and other online services) over the preceding six months.

Photo: memyselfaneye,  Pixabay / CC0

They created a research tool for this purpose – an online questionnaire in Google Forms, containing a selection of 35 Covid-19 related disinformation claims or conspiracy theories. Respondents were given an opportunity to add their own items.

The goal was to find out which disinformation claims or conspiracy theories the respondents have encountered – not to clarify or explain why a certain story is disinformation or a conspiracy theory, or to assess the quality of the source. The questionnaire was distributed on social networks (particularly on Facebook), by e-mail and in web adverts.

So, on which social media platforms is disinformation most widely shared in the Czech Republic? Are there any noticeable differences compared to other countries in Europe?

Kamil Kopecký: “According to the Palacký University survey that focused on disinformation related to Covid-19, the main tool for dissemination is the social network Facebook. Next are various disinformation and conspiracy sites that benefit from publishing and disseminating fake news.

“Friends and colleagues are also a very important source of disinformation – a lot of false information is spread through various chain emails, which are forwarded to each other by friends [often in chain emails]. It can be said that the situation is very similar to other European countries.”

Dominik Voráč,  photo: archive of Dominik Voráč

A relatively stable disinformation scene took root in the Czech Republic over the past decade, consisting of self-proclaimed “independent” or “alternative” media. There are increasingly obvious attempts to get rid of the “disinformation” label, and to legitimise the opinions through traditional and well established media.

Such activities can be interpreted as a natural part of a widespread trend, an effort to shift conspiracy theories, pro-Russian narratives and anti-Western beliefs from the margins to the centre of the media spectrum

How much of the disinformation originates in other countries (for example in Russia)?

Dominik Voráč: “We cannot quantify and find out exactly how much of the disinformation originates in other countries. For example, the [Czech] website Aeronet is known to serve Russian propaganda, but the main editor is from the Czech Republic. Or there was a lot of disinformation about the election in the United States back in 2016.

“Some would say that authors of this fake news must be from the United States, China or Russia and want to influence the election results. And the surprising thing was that the authors was a group of teenagers from North Macedonia and they earned a lot of money from ads on their sites. And we can see the politicians itself might produce a lot of disinformation – for example Donald Trump.”

Photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

In relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, the study identified “misinforming, disinforming and conspiracy stories related to testing, quarantine measures, contacts with those infected, etc., circulating on-line in the Czech Republic and other European countries”.

These stories became popular among users, being actively disseminated, shared and commented on social networks. For a vast majority of them, it was not possible to reveal the source. But they did identity who created and disseminated some, including a claim that those who wear facemasks are “welcomers of immigrants”, with originated with former president Václav Klaus.

What other trends have the researchers observed in recent years?

Kamil Kopecký: “One of the essential problems associated with disinformation is the so-called infodemic – there is a huge amount of information, a tsunami of information, in a public environment and it is difficult for a large part of the population to recognize truth and lie. With the development of social networks, disinformation is spreading very fast and can reach millions of users around the world.

“Another worldwide trend associated with disinformation is the relativization of true information. Terms such as alternative truth or inappropriate opinion have entered the public debate, and disinformators repeatedly apologize for their unverified claims by saying that while they are not true, they could be.”

In your recent study, you write that ‘in the Czech area, established projects like Manipulátoři.cz, Čeští elfové (Czech Elves, combatting internet ‘trolls’) and E-bezpečí have helped to fight disinformation during the Coronavirus pandemics’. In what way? Do these groups specialise in certain aspects? Or coordinate efforts?

Photo: Engin Akyurt/Pixabay,  CC0

Kamil Kopecký: “The project Manipulátoři focuses mainly on fact-checking, verifying various hoaxes, fake news or conspiration. The project ‘E-Bezpečí’ (eSafety in English) focuses primarily on risky behaviour in the online environment – cyberbullying, hate speech, sexting, cybergrooming, online privacy – but also on the support of critical thinking and media literacy. Both projects cooperate with each other, for example in the field of sharing verified information.”

The researchers note that there are also other Czech initiatives, not focused directly on fighting disinformation, but on securing better access to information in times when a certain part of the society, politicians and various experts saw the government-imposed regulations to stop the spread of Covid-19 as chaotic.

Who is more likely to spread and believe disinformation, according to your findings?

Dominik Voráč: “Fake news is mostly believed and spread by people looking for ‘alternative truths’ because they don’t trust the official media. These people either share things spontaneously when they see them on social networks, or they are so absorbed in disinformation that they look for resources on various websites and then they share them.

“They don’t spread disinformation intentionally; they just want to find a way how to understand this world and want to share their knowledge with other people. In addition to this distrust in the official media, however, media literacy plays a role as well. There are a lot of readers who don’t fact-check the information when reading a sensational article or don’t evaluate the source of the information at all.”