Sharp rise in pro-Russian disinformation campaigns on Czech social media

Bob Kartous

As Russian aggression in Ukraine mounts so does the amount of Russia-related fake news in the digital public space. Bob Kartous from the Czech Elves says the disinformation campaigns on this topic have quickly pushed out the main theme addressed by trolls in the past two years – the Covid pandemic.  I spoke to him about the fake news out there and what can be done to counter it.

“What we can see is a shift on the disinformation scene from the Covid pandemic to the Ukrainian crisis. This is very obvious and predictable, because every time that Russia raised its stakes and interests somewhere the disinformation scene massively supported Russian interests and defended the Russian position.”

Who are the people putting out fake news – are they here or abroad -and what channels are they using –social networks, mails?

“We cannot identify who exactly is behind this, what we can identify is the channels they are using, which is chain mails, social media – predominantly Facebook in the Czech Republic – and dozens of disinformation websites specializing in the spread of fake news. The system functions in a way that you have pages containing fake news, which is then picked up and spread by people using Copy-Paste via the social media or chain emails. Chain emails are extremely popular for this purpose and are used in the Czech Republic more than in any other country. I do not know of any other country where chain emails are used so massively to spread disinformation.”

So people themselves help spread disinformation themselves once it is out there?

Photo: memyselfaneye,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“What we see is that there is a small group of people –hundreds or several thousand – who professionally produce and spread disinformation. And there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people who spread this disinformation further. These people are not trolls; I would maybe call them “useful idiots” who serve to spread disinformation further in their circles.”

Who are the people targeted by trolls? Who are the chain mails sent to?

“It is predominantly older people who get these emails because for them emails are often their only way of communicating in the digital space. And the contents of these emails are also tailored to attract older people. And, it is not just about the Russian invasion of Ukraine but as regards the local political situation in the Czech Republic. In the run up to the last elections this was very evident, and the contents of these mails were designed to attract older people and get them to vote for a certain party – especially the populist parties.”

Do political parties distance themselves from fake news or do some of them abuse it?

“Some try to distance themselves from disinformation that appears on the web but others, particularly populist parties such as the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party of Mr. Okamura, use disinformation in their political marketing.  They are not alone. The former ruling party –Andrej Babis’ ANO - abused the migration theme in this way.”

If we are talking specifically about the Ukrainian crisis – what kind of information do they put out about Ukraine and Russia?

“That’s simple. The disinformation scene copies Kremlin propaganda. What we see in the Russian state media and media outlets that support the Putin regime –that’s what you see on the disinformation sites in the Czech Republic.”

Is the pro-Russian disinformation campaign stronger in the former Eastern bloc states that it is in Western Europe for instance?

“Yes, I think so. I think that in some of the Central and Eastern European countries that influence is stronger than it is in Western Europe. And that does not just concern pro-Russian propaganda. It is the same with respect to the Covid pandemic. In the past two years we saw a massive campaign against the government anti-Covid measures here in the Czech Republic supported by roughly 30 -40 percent of the population. If we compare this situation to that in Denmark or Portugal it is a very different picture, first because these countries are not exposed in such a measure to disinformation, and secondly the citizens of those states are much more resilient to the influence of disinformation.”

You say that the society in this country is more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns – do you actually see a shift in attitude confirming that?

“Yes, what we can see is a synchronizing of disinformation and a populist political agenda and we can see that as regards some topics, like migration or the Green Deal, there is a palpable shift of opinion as a result in a significant part of Czech society. During the migration crisis, migration was one of the major issues in the election campaign and there was a visible influence of the disinformation sites.”

What disinformation is being spread now and apart from the Russian-Ukrainian crisis what are the other topics subject to disinformation campaigns?

Illustrative photo: Martin Dorazín,  Czech Radio

“The main narrative on the Ukraine-Russian crisis is that Russia is a victim of Western aggression; Russia has the right to defend itself; that invading Ukraine is in fact an act of self-defense; Ukraine is a puppet in the hands of the West, especially the United States; Ukrainians are fascists; Ukrainians are terrorists and Ukraine is a corrupted country which has no right to be a sovereign country and a sovereign player in the European space.”

So the pro-Russian agenda is very strong. Is there anything similar in terms of a pro-Chinese agenda?

“No so far. I think China uses slightly different tactics and strategies. But it is true that during the Covid pandemic we did see some attempts from China to use disinformation narratives as regards the origin of the virus. But we cannot say that China is anywhere as active as Russia in this area.

So what have been the main topics subject to disinformation campaigns in the past year or so – Covid, migration…?

“Yes, Covid, migration and some domestic political issues ahead of elections. What we see coming in the near future is a shift of some of the Covid protest groups to other themes, because with the pandemic receding they will try to find new issues for their audience and most likely they will shift their attention to the upcoming Czech EU presidency.”

Should schools devote more time to media literacy?

“Yes, that is one of the measures that would have an impact in the long-term horizon. But for an imminent solution we need to take other measures such as an agreement with the platform owners such as Facebook or Google to raise awareness of social responsibility and seek better identification of profiles on the social media and the Internet itself to know who is producing the information.”

Is this being done? Are steps being taken in this direction?

“Yes, we see that the EU is striving to reach some agreements with these platform owners, but we also see how hard it is to reach such a deal because this algorithmically distributed information gives higher revenues.”

You are talking about the EU, but what about the responsibility of the Czech government –should it not be doing more to address the problem and correct of fight disinformation that appears on these channels?

“Good question. When it comes to negotiating with platform owners it is better to rely on the EU which is a stronger player, but we can do much more on our own –starting with the creation of a strategy communication center – which some other countries already have, for instance Finland, the UK or even Slovakia and also to push harder when it comes to law enforcement in the case of hate speech and other offences frequent in the digital space.”