Marie Heřmanová: Most Czech parties don’t understand social media

Marie Heřmanová

Which Czech parties are skilled at using social media and why do some politicians get it so wrong? Where should we draw the line over what we share on the internet? And why did some Czech influencers begin spreading disinformation on Instagram? These are just some of the many topics I discussed recently with Marie Heřmanová, a leading Czech digital anthropologist.

“For a long time the best users of social media among Czech politicians definitely were Babiš and Okamura.”

I’d like to first look at the connection between social media and Czech politics. It often seems to me that the Czech political parties differ enormously in how they well they do social media, with ANO obviously being really good at it. Would you agree with that?

“I would definitely agree with that.

“Maybe this has changed, but I would say that for a long time the best users of social media among Czech politicians definitely were Andrej Babiš and Tomio Okamura.

“I think there’s a difference between the two, because Andrej Babiš and ANO’s communication is obviously very effective, very well planned, very expensive – that’s my guess; I don’t know, but it looks very expensive.

“You can also see that there is a team of people behind it, like famously Marek Prchal [laughs].

“But Tomio Okamura is maybe even better, because he’s really sort of authentic and he speaks always – it’s always himself and he always speaks directly to the people.

“And he’s everywhere: he’s on Facebook, he’s on YouTube.

“So I would that Tomio Okamura was really sort of a pioneer of this kind of communication in the Czech space.”

Conversely are there some parties that still don’t get it?

“Most of them, probably.

“The Social Democrats, the Civic Democrats, basically all the traditional parties.

“It’s funny. I think it sometimes goes viral because it’s so bad. Like, Look at how bad this actually is; it was meant to be a campaign but it’s just a joke.”

Illustrative photo: kropekk_p,  Pixabay

We’ve seen a few cases of people who say they’re running for president coming out with pretty bizarre looking campaigns – for example, Karel Janeček and also more recently Tomáš Zima – and pretty much immediately they are destroyed online. What do you think when you see a case like that?

“I’m actually not an expert on political communication or political marketing, per se, so probably different people would give you different opinions.

“But I think that this is a phenomenon that’s not just a Czech phenomenon.

“I think we see this happening in US politics all the time, for example.

“It’s basically textbook ‘how to become cringe’ [laughs] online.

“If they knew anything about how internet culture works, they would never produce this sort of content.

“So what they show the target group online is, I’m completely out of touch with who you are and what you find funny.

“I think they basically show people, Don’t vote for me – because I don’t know anything about you at all. I have no clue.”

Which of the social media platforms, the main ones, do you think is the worst or the most dangerous? And if your answer is Facebook, is that simply because it’s the biggest?

“Yes, if you ask like this, then I would say Facebook, partly because it’s the biggest one, at least in the Czech context – not the global context.

“But also because of the politics behind it. I think the Meta company at least in some aspects have a very problematic approach to various issues that they have on their platforms.

“But I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s dangerous.

“I think that’s also another mistake that we make quite often – that we think about the platforms as either good or evil.

“I think the most productive way to think about the platforms is to think of them as a tool or a platform or an actor in a much wider network of users, platforms, politicians, media.”

Illustrative photo: Stuart Miles,

But Facebook was used in what many would consider a negative and dangerous way during, for example, the US presidential elections, with micro-targeting. There is a danger in Facebook.

“Definitely. Because any tool that we use can be misused.

“Obviously there are features of Facebook that can be very easily misused.

“But if we study platforms as a tool, then we can study how they can become dangerous and also how we could used them for, I don’t know, the greater good, whatever that means.

“So I think it’s interesting that we usually tend to focus on the dangerous part, but there are obviously also other actors, other parties who also use to promote good causes.

“Facebook, social media, are for example a really great tool for NGOs and charities.”

Illustrative photo: geralt,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

I’d like to ask you about Instagram, which I personally have always regarded as being relatively harmless and kind of shiny. But still it seems that during the Covid period there were influencers on Instagram, including “Instagram mothers”, who were spreading Covid disinformation. Is that the case? Or could you elaborate on that?

“Yes, that’s definitely the case.

“Again this assumption that Instagram was for a long time seen as sort of the nicest place on the internet, the place where we just post nice pictures and lifestyle content and it’s all pastel-coloured and generally calming for us…

“This assumption definitely is part of the problem – and again that has practical implications.

“For example Meta as a company don’t pay attention to misinformation, or for a long time they didn’t pay any attention to misinformation and hate speech being spread on Instagram.

“The argument behind that was, This is an apolitical platform where this just doesn’t happen.

“And obviously it happens.

“My post-doc project actually started two months before the pandemic started.

“I was originally interested in Czech lifestyle influencers and mostly about the gender dimension of communication on Instagram.

“But because two months into my research project all lifestyle content sort of disappeared, overnight we could say, it was interesting for me to see how many of the women that I worked with and that I followed on Instagram sort of turned into a kind of political communication.

“Because they perceived Covid as something that really… obviously it impacted all of our lives, but I think it’s also fair to say that being an influencer was a profession that was very heavily impacted.

“A lot of them lost a lot of opportunities, lost a lot of money.

“So they felt like this is an opportunity for them to sort of speak out, and this is something that they have personal experience with.

“Over time it was really interesting to observe how some of them turned to different misinformation, conspiracy sources and were discussing this and spread it further.

“Some of them, on the other hand, tried to inform or educate their publics and do some fact-checking as well.

“But yes, it was a really interesting process and I think this has been happening in the English-speaking context for a while.

“But I think in the Czech context this was the point where Instagram became a space for political discussion.”

Illustrative photo: Shea Huening,  Flickr,  CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED

About hate speech and vicious trolling online, this seems to disproportionately affect women internationally. I presume it’s similar in Czechia?

“Yes, we have studies that prove we’re not different from the global context, that even in Czech-speaking online spaces women, specifically politically active women, are being attacked more than men.

“Also the hate-speech and the trolling that’s directed at women is of a different nature. It’s more sexualised, for example.

“It’s also more ad hominem attacks, so when a woman is trying to be part of a political discussion, let’s say on Twitter, for example, what she would always face is people commenting on how she looks, on her family status, on the fact that she does or doesn’t have children, for example, or if she’s married.

“Whereas men would much more easily get to the point of the discussion where their actual political opinions are discussed – instead of, for example, what their wife does.

“So that’s the main difference.”

I guess this also has a considerable impact in real life, on the victims of this trolling? Which I presume a lot of online people don’t about to any great extent?

“In terms of impact on your psychological well-being there really isn’t much difference between online and offline spaces.”

“Yes, I think there is again this assumption that it’s ‘just online’ so you really shouldn’t pay it any attention.

“Last year my colleagues from the Faculty of Humanities and I did a research project about the impact of hate speech and we did interviews with people who have experience of daily harassment and daily hate speech, both online and offline.

“And one of the really important takeaways is that, in terms of impact on your life and on your psychological well-being, let’s say, there really isn’t much difference between online and offline spaces.

“Even if people are just being mean or really horrible to you online, it can really affect how you feel in your everyday life.

“We had cases of people who were targets of hate-speech campaigns online and it resulted in them, for example, not feeling safe in public spaces, not feeling safe on public transport and cases like this.

“Our online and offline lives are not disconnected.

“Also the victims of hate speech quite often said, When I try to talk about this… and this is really difficult, because when they try to go to the police or when they try to find some help, the support mechanisms are not great in the Czech Republic, to be honest.

“So when they try to find some support and when they try to talk about what is happening to them even with their close ones, for example, the very common reaction would be, But these are just some people online – you don’t even know them, why do you care?

“And a lot of people would say, This makes me feel even worse.”

My next question is perhaps bit “niche”, but I use Twitter and I notice that a lot of people on it seem to write deliberately badly – they don’t use capital letters, they don’t use punctuation. Why are they doing that? And why does it seem to work? Is it because they want to create the impression that they’re tweeting so fast they don’t have time, or that they’re just so, I don’t know, “authentic” in some way?

“For me, it’s just part of what I would call internet culture. It’s just part of the environment.

“In all communities, in all cultures, you have some sort of language that you use to define that you are part of the community.

“And I think using bad grammar or using all caps – these are practices that have specific meanings on Twitter.

“They mean something and by using them you are, beyond just the actual content of your words, also conveying something else to you audience: that you are part of the group, that you know how to use the language of the group.

“This also one of the reasons why so many politicians who are not part of the group fail so often.

“They don’t know the rules, they are not familiar with the conversation, they don’t know what the words mean, they are cultural outsiders, as I would put it as an anthropologist [laughs].”

Tell me about your online behaviour. Are you somebody who puts a lot out? Or are you more careful?

“I try to avoid this sharing of everyday life, This is where I am right now and this is what I’m doing right now.”

“I think it depends how you define careful.

“Because from some point of view I’m very careful, but from another point of view I’m probably not careful enough.

“I think it’s also interesting in my case that I’m a millennial, so I’m part of the generation where I didn’t grow up online, but I spent most of my adult life online.

“So I think my generation has a different experience than people who are younger or older, obviously.

“When I started to use social media I was just – and I think we all were – This is so wonderful, I can tell everything to everyone.

“And I think most of us learned pretty quickly that this is not what you actually want to do.

“So right now my approach is I use social media actively, obviously, and I talk about my work, I talk about my research, I talk about my political opinion, but I don’t talk about my private life.

“The only place where I share something private, which would be holiday pictures, is on Instagram.

“I switch private and public profile on Instagram, quite often.

“But that’s the reason, for example, why I don’t use Instagram stories, why I was never active on Snapchat.

“I try to avoid this sharing of everyday life, like real life, This is where I am right now and this is what I’m doing right now, this is who I’m with.

“This is something that I’m trying to avoid, because this is somehow not comfortable for me.

“And this is in no way a criticism of people who do it, but this is where I draw the line, this is how I’m being careful.”

But it’s very hard to know where the line. I share some personal things online, even on Twitter, which is obviously public, but then I also see other people who I think are crazy because they’re sharing pictures of their children almost every day.

“If you were talking with cyber-security experts, they will tell you we are all crazy.”

“Obviously there are no guidelines, or no textbook, How to be careful online.

“It really depends on how you feel and what your personal experiences are – and obviously what the platform enables you to do.

“But if you were talking with cyber-security experts, they will tell you we are all crazy.

“Obviously, because we are just feeding more and more data to the platforms.

“I’m aware of that and I think by now most people are aware of that, because it has become part of the popular discourse.

“The other part of the problem is that this is a tool that we like to use – and we like to use it to connect with people.

“So this is what digital anthropology is about: In this environment, what do people do? What sort of cultural patterns emerge?

“There is a generation of parents who are now constantly online, so they are sharing pictures of their children.”

“I would, for example, say that in the academic community there is some sort of consensus that children are a very specific area and that generally we are not careful enough.

“Also we don’t have enough experience and we don’t have enough data on how to treat this issue.

“Because there is a generation of parents who are now constantly online, so they are sharing pictures of their children.

“Obviously the children can’t give them consent that they want to be [laughs] displayed in this way.

“There is also, for example, child influencers. That would be a whole other issue – it’s basically child work that is not being regulated, at all, which is also interesting for me.

“But this is for me, as an anthropologist, what’s interesting: Where do we draw the line? And what sort of practices do we introduce to our everyday lives to either expose ourselves or to protect ourselves?

“So the line is different for each of us, I would say.”