Most-shared Czech news report on Facebook in 2021? Covid-19 disinformation
The most-shared Facebook posts in the Czech Republic this year stemming from news sites, as you might well imagine, concerned the coronavirus pandemic. According to an analysis of nearly 500,000 reports, the top post, shared 41,000 times, was a bogus report by Aeronet.cz, a known spreader of pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Czech fringe and social media were full of commentary that the coronavirus was no worse than the common flu, that is was made in a lab by China or the United States and released either on purpose or by mistake – or was simply a hoax.
Two years and nearly 36,000 deaths later, disinformation on the Covid-19 continues to spread faster than the Omicron variant.
Among the most prolific spreaders of disinformation on the local scene is the shady website Aeronet.cz, which for years operated anonymously, until the public broadcaster Czech Television and investigative weekly Respekt tracked down its manager to a housing estate in Slovakia.
But exactly who funds Aeronet.cz and authors the articles published under pen names – which follow a familiar formula of mixing genuine news in with pro-Russian, anti-Western propaganda clickbait – remains unproven.
The most-shared “article” on Facebook locally this year was signed “Vedoucí kolotoče”, the pen name of the disinformation website manager Marek Pešl, which translates as the “Merry-go-round Manager”.
The article featured Czech biologist Soňa Peková “confirming” that the coronavirus had been manufactured in a laboratory – the same conspiracy theories that began circulating at the start of the pandemic.
According to the portal Investigace.cz, run the Czech Centre for Investigative Journalism, the second- and third-most shared articles on Facebook, respectively, were a story on CNN Prima News about people who had been vaccinated but were in intensive care units in Austria (31,031 shares), and, on Seznam Zprávy, about the development of Czech-made PCR tests (29,747 shares).
Josef Šlerka, a data analyst on the Investigace.cz team, says that, unfortunately, the spread of conspiratorial reports was to be expected.
“The biggest surprise was actually just how much more shared the Aeronet.cz ‘article’ was. Otherwise, of course, we knew that Czechs had been dealing with the coronavirus all year round.”
In fourth place according to Investigace.cz was yet another bogus report from Aeronet.cz, on an alleged ban on compulsory vaccination, said to have been decided by the Council of Europe.
Josef Šlerka says websites like Aeronet.cz that feature so-called “alternative news” tend to punch above their weight – that is, they serve a small audience but one highly active on social media.
“There are significantly fewer conspiratorial portals than there are large mainstream media websites. So, they also produce a lot less ‘news’. However, the associated readership shares these articles much more intensively – and more often.”
Investigace.cz studied half a million reports from 63 outlets, included conspiratorial and tabloid sites alongside mainstream media. Overall, Covid was far more discussed than any other topic, regardless the source.