Jaroslav Valůch: Disinformation is intensifying conflict in Czech society, communities and families

Jaroslav Valůch, photo: Ian Willoughby

Older people are the most vulnerable and targeted group in the Czech Republic when it comes to online disinformation, says Jaroslav Valůch. He is the head of the media education programme at Transitions Online, which runs media literacy courses around the country in cooperation with Elpida, a pro-seniors organisation. When Valůch visited our studios the conversation took in the specific kinds of fake news older Czechs encounter, how disinformation is poisoning intergenerational relations – and much more besides.

Jaroslav Valůch,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Last year around the time of the presidential elections there were a lot of reports about disinformation being spread among older Czechs via email. What’s your sense of the impact that those kinds of mass, chain emails can have or perhaps did have last year, during the elections?

“We don’t have data on the impact. Because it’s really hard to measure.

“You can do some social networks analysis with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“But with email, which is personal communication, it’s not that easy.

“We do know that some of the disinformation campaigns before the parliamentary elections and later the presidential elections did have some influence on voters’ behaviour.

“But it is still hard to say what the impact is.

“What we do know is that the older generations were and are up until now targeted through emails, with both quite simple and sophisticated disinformation content.”

What kind of fake news or extreme opinions are elderly or older Czechs getting in their inboxes?

“Before the elections it was obvious, it was just to kind of paint the opposition candidates to the current president in dark colours, as devils and paedophiles and whatever you can think of.

“That was before and during the election process.

“Otherwise it’s usually a mix of content: anti-EU, very nostalgic content, like that the old days were better, not necessarily the Communist days, but in general.

“Email currently for the Czech senior population is a social network.

“Also content along the lines of how the new young generation is irresponsible and terrible, and a lot of political content in favour of the current prime minister and president.

“But it’s not always political stuff. It’s kind of a mix. There are a lot of jokes – the stuff that we share on Facebook.

“We talk about email, but it’s just the channel, it’s a vehicle.

“Email currently for the Czech senior population is a social network.

“Sooner or later they will discover the beauty of Facebook and Facebook groups.

“The content the senior generations spread through email is completely similar to what other, younger people share through Facebook groups.”

Is there any evidence of political parties or political campaigns deliberately spreading these kind of emails?

“I wouldn’t say that they are spreading the emails.

“They are producing content that is later on shared through email by other people.

“It’s no surprise that, for example, Tomio Okamura’s party is a source of many pieces of disinformation and shares many pieces of so-called fake news from foreign sources.

Illustrative photo: European Commission
“So they publish it on their Facebook profiles or it’s published on these disinformation sites, such as Aeronet, and then it is taken and published through the email networks.”

This is a slightly different area, but recently the documentary The Great Hack explored how kind of micro-targeting with political ads on Facebook of so-called “persuadable” people, undecided voters, in the US presidential election and in terms of Brexit had an impact. The best-known company of course in this regard is Cambridge Analytica. Do you know, have there been any reports of such of targeting of persuadable voters in the Czech Republic?

“I think definitely it was done, simply because it’s a modern online marketing technique, so I’m sure that the same as companies and organisations do that, the political parties do that – they explore the potential of micro-targeting of their potential readers and voters.

“So no question about. I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong about it.

“It’s important that people in the audiences know how this micro-targeting works, to be more, let’s say, resilient.

“That’s the role of media literacy and digital literacy.

“We do have some reports that Cambridge Analytica was also active in the Czech Republic, in the service of some political actors.

“But I don’t have any more details on that.”

Recently I heard some people talking about a crazy conspiracy theory that some relative of theirs, a man in his late 60s, had encountered online and was repeating as if it was the gospel truth. If I meet someone like this, is it worth trying to convince them that this is just pure nonsense?

“You have crazy hoaxes, like that the Vietnamese in a Ostrava supermarket are kidnapping wives and taking out their organs. This is a hoax that keeps repeating, depending on who is the most hated group at the moment.”

“We have to categorise the types of content.

“You have these crazy hoaxes that have been around for really ages, like that the Vietnamese in one Ostrava supermarket are kidnapping wives and taking out their organs, for example.

“This is a hoax that just keeps repeating, depending on who is the most hated group at the moment in the Czech Republic.

“It started with the Vietnamese, then you could hear it about Muslims and recently I’ve seen this hoax circulating again, this time against Polish people – because we don’t like Polish people because they export bad quality food to the Czech Republic.

“So you can see this crazy stuff.

“I think it’s just a fringe kind of thing. I don’t think there is a significant danger that it would create massive panic, or anything like that.

“A different situation is like when you have such a tense moment as the so-called migration crisis in the summer and fall of 2015, when society is understandably very concerned about what’s going on, very scared about what’s going on.

“And then if you have actors who effectively, with a purpose, use this to promote their political-ideological agenda through spreading fake news and hoaxes and manipulated content; we’ve seen tonnes of examples of that happening…

“Well, that’s when actually it gets serious.

“Because once you have such tension in the society, it doesn’t take much to push people to commit something.

“We are I think so far the only country that has a domestic terrorist who faked terrorist attacks, and really almost injured and killed people on a train…”

This was the case of Jaromír Balda, who derailed two trains?

“He cut down trees to fall on the tracks and derail the trains and he placed little papers with, like, Arabic writing, saying ‘You infidels deserve this’.

Illustrative photo: Pavla Pelikánová,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“This is where it ends when you push people over the limits.

“This guy was perfectly normal, a grandparent, but suddenly he got more and more deeply into all these conspiracy theories, such as that the Muslims are here to replace us.

“Obviously he was a big supporter of Tomio Okamura’s party.

“He got kind of caught up in these information silos, in these secret Facebook groups, where you only consume a very specific type of information diet.

“He couldn’t understand why other people in the Czech Republic were so blind that they couldn’t see the danger.

“In the end, it pushed him to say, I need to ring the alarm. And he did this.

“A completely normal person did the first terrorist attack actually in the Czech Republic.

“So yes, it is dangerous when this disinformation is spread, particularly in these times.

“And to go back to your original question, in that case I think it really is important and it makes sense to try to debunk these stories and try to have a conversation with people about, like, what’s the quality of the source they are using.”

In terms of your research, how do you find these disinformation memes and so on? I never see them. I never see the ads targeting persuadable people, or whatever. This stuff never crosses my line of vision.

“One thing you can do is, with your profile, join these Facebook groups.

“Most of them are either public, open, or closed, but you can get in. So you can get there this way.

“Or, in terms of research, you can create a fake account and try to infiltrate some of the really secret groups.

“There are analysts doing this. That’s how you get more in-depth in what’s going on.

“Jaromír Balda was perfectly normal, a grandparent, but suddenly he got more and more deeply into all these conspiracy theories, such as that the Muslims are here to replace us.”

“In terms of these emails, because they are very much kind of personal, after I started working with senior audiences I started receiving these emails – because they just feel I should know about these risks or anything, they just want to share that information with me.

“Or we met at some of our events or workshops where I was talking about fake news and stuff, so afterwards they wrote to me saying, I received this – is it fake news or not?

“I’m doing this kind of personal fact-checking, verification, where I feel the responsibility, that I owe it to the people who ask me for advice.

“So I try to do this debunking, or fact-checking, for them.”

Recently I noticed on Twitter a tweet from some, I guess, middle-aged Czech woman, who said she had had a serious falling out with her father after he repeated some hate speech that he encountered online some place. Is that a common scenario, that you’ll find these kinds of disputes within families?

“Unfortunately, yes.

“I think this is the most worrisome aspect of this.

“Disinformation campaigns are trying to influence our voting behaviour and yes, that’s a problem.

“But I see as a much bigger threat a kind of radicalisation and more conflict within the society, within communities and within families.

“We did research among young people and over half of them are concerned about the way and the type of information that their grandparents are consuming and the impact it has on them.

“They are concerned that they are much more fearful, sometimes really anxious, about what’s going on.

Illustrative photo: Pixabay CC0
“And there is no chance of having some serious dialogue, because those people are so frightened that whatever you try hits the wall.

“So yes, I see this as the biggest problem. It is tearing families apart, it is tearing communities apart.

“On the other hand, it would be a problem to overreact to this.

“In one question, you asked me if it’s worth responding or trying to verify, cross-check, whatever, the information.

“We need to find a balance.

“Because that’s actually the primary purpose of those who generate and spread this type of content and disinformation.

“They want you to waste your time fact-checking every piece of, excuse me, bullshit or lies. That’s the strategy.

“There are a large amount of falsehoods and it takes you hours to debunk or fact-check one piece of information – and in that same time 100 more pieces of disinformation was spread.

“So we shouldn’t be wasting our energy and playing by the rules of those who create the disinformation.

“They want us to be angry, they want us to be angry about our grandparents, that they spread fake news.

“Because it helps to generate more conflict, more distrust in the society.”

I know you run courses educating older people in how to navigate the online world. Is the state doing much in that regard?

“The Ministry of Education has for many years been failing in implementing media literacy in the educational system.

“But for at least the last four years, the Ministry of the Interior is very active in the field of combatting disinformation, because they see disinformation as a security threat to the Czech Republic.

“So they do what they should be doing – they are trying to counter it, they are trying the public about the threat.”

“We did research among young people and over half of them are concerned about the way and they type of information that their grandparents are consuming and the impact it has on them.”

Looking to the future, do you think there’s much chance of things improving in this respect? Or will things only get worse as the world becomes more fractured?

“I’m usually an optimist.

“I think that we still haven’t hit the bottom.

“We are still trying to learn how to live with these powerful new tools of online communication.

“We still don’t have a full understanding of how it works.

“Therefore I think we need to go through this certain stage to hit the bottom; I hope it’s not going to be too bloody.

“And then we will learn how to live with that.

“There might be other challenges in the future that we still don’t know about.

“But I think it will pass.”