“Tens of thousands of US soldiers are in the process of occupying Europe” – The coronavirus fake news in the Czech Republic

Photo: memyselfaneye, Pixabay / CC0

Just as in many other parts of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has also become a topic for disinformation and fake news in the Czech Republic. According to the country’s Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CTHT) Benedikt Vangeli, fake information related to COVID-19 has had an impact on a small part of the population, but its reach pales in comparison to general media channels.

Photo: memyselfaneye,  Pixabay,  CC0

Anti-Covid disinfectant,  photo: Kristián Těmín,  Czech Radio
Only a few weeks ago, a pensioner living in a Central Bohemian care home got so terrified of catching the coronavirus that she resorted to a desperate measure.

Unable to differentiate between which news was true or not, she reached for the Anti-Covid disinfectant that had been placed in the common hall, poured 200 millilitres in her cup and drank the substance.

Thanks to a rapid response from care home staff, an ambulance was quickly called and the woman was subsequently hospitalised for two days. She has since been released.

According to Benedikt Vangeli, the director of the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, which has been functioning as the Interior Ministry’s counterpropaganda and counter-terrorism unit since 2017, this is one example of how COVID-19 related fake news can have an effect on individuals within the Czech population.

Benedikt Vangeli,  photo: Archive of Masaryk University in Brno
Mr Vangeli recently spoke to Czech Radio’s Jana Magdoňová providing further detail on the phenomenon.

“Even though the reach and readership of such fake news items cannot be compared with large media sources such as TV stations, the information they spread has influenced the opinion within parts of the population.”

In a recent survey carried out by CTHT up to a half of all respondents admitted they have difficulty differentiating between which news is fake and which is not.

One method of spreading disinformation and fake news that is particularly effective in the country are so-called chain emails sent and re-sent among large numbers of recipients who often tend to be of an older age.

Illustrative photo: 272447,  Pixabay / CC0
Combating such emails is difficult for the authorities because they have to be careful not to breach the legal principle of the privacy of correspondence.

Despite this, a civic initiative known as the Czech Elves has been trying to monitor the problem for the past two years. Only this March they detected 365 such emails.

One Elf coordinator who chose not to be named in order not to compromise his identity, told Czech Radio's Radiožurnál channel that chain emails often spread fear among the population.

“One email announced an absolutely absurd and false message that the United States had abused the pandemic to occupy Europe and that tens of thousands of US soldiers are in the process of occupying Europe.”

Veronika Víchová,  photo: ČT24
“The themes clearly come from outside the Czech Republic, but are subsequently created, adjusted and sent on by Czech actors operating within the country.”

Another actor which has been monitoring coronavirus associated fake news is the think-tank European Values.

One of its analysts, Veronika Víchová, says that such information is often focused around making the authorities look incompetent and unable to handle the threat, or for using COVID-19 as a pretext to use extraordinary powers to let in more migrants into Europe.

However, she says that the number of projects aimed at fighting fake news has recently increased. This includes a Red Cross initiative which has been providing verified and useful advice.