Despite being targeted by numerous hybrid efforts attempting to influence their societies, Visegrad countries do not have a consistent or coordinated policy on fake news and disinformation campaigns. While the abovementioned complex phenomena remain unchallenged in most of these states, the region is not homogeneous in terms of approaches adopted by the V4.
By Edit Zgut (Political Capital), Adéla Denková (EURACTIV Czech Republic), Lucia Yar (EURACTIV Slovakia) and Karolina Zbytniewska (EURACTIV Poland),
With the election of Donald Trump we entered the post-truth era, where the proliferation of “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories make democratic public discussions even more difficult in the West.
The essence of the post-truth phenomenon is that feelings and subjective personal beliefs play a larger role in forming public opinion than facts themselves. “The post-truth era is thus built on these alternative facts and fake news,” says social psychologist Péter Krekó, who addressed this topic in his book entitled Tömegparanoia (Mass paranoia). Krekó believes that the post-truth phenomenon is being bolstered by the high demand for the news pieces based on confirmation biases as well as the high supply, namely the activities of political actors, companies or even states aimed at disseminating such theories.
Disinformation or fake news?
First of all, it is important to clarify that disinformation and fake news are not the same, although they are closely related. All fake news are disinformation, but not all disinformation are fake news. Disinformation is a broader category that includes not only the created, but the distorted reality as well. Disinformation itself – as a part of Russia’s hybrid warfare – serves the purpose of pushing a position irrelevant of its factual basis. And sometimes, only to confuse the audience instead of persuading it. Russia’s goal with its information warfare is to manipulate the opponents’ (EU, NATO, West) military and political elite, soldiers and societies, and undermine trust in and the credibility of domestic and international institutions and processes. Due to the potential effects of Russia’s efforts in the long-term on the unity and policies of the West, disinformation can be considered a national security threat that should be countered in some way.
First Draft News identifies seven fake news categories (which is only one possible way to do so):
Visegrad: Part of the problem, part of the solution
The V4 is not united on this front: some governments became part of the problem, while others have recognized the potential risk and actively step up against disinformation efforts.
“One of the main problem is that we are experiencing such brutal and frequent disinformation campaigns simultaneously with a rapidly transforming media sector. Traditional media are withering and digital media are on the rise. That does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, the point of information transfer does not have to be a guarantee of quality content, but it is something, that pushes us to think of new strategies to tackle disinformation,” said Czech MEP Pavel Svoboda (EPP).
Vulnerability of the public: Poland and Czech Republic more resilient
The vulnerability of the region stems from the fact that, according to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), citizens of V4 countries have limited trust in mainstream media outlets. Moreover, alternative or „non-mainstream” media has become influential. When it comes to how citizens learn about major news stories and who they trust to inform them, 27% of respondents in Poland; 36% in the Czech Republic; and 45% in Slovakia said that they rely on “friends and family” rather than traditional media. Moreover, 21% in Hungary and 30% in the Czech Republic read alternative media because it is more “fun and exciting” than traditional stories.
In addition, while Hungarians and Slovaks are generally more prone to conspiracies, Czechs and Poles are less open for these theories. A massive rise of conspiracy sites and magazines in Slovakia did not cause serious harm to the business interests of “traditional” media: they remain attracting to relatively few readers, although their most successful texts may be shared by thousands.
For instance, the most successful conspiracy site today, Hlavnespravy.sk, is about ten times smaller than any of the largest Slovak news sites. In Hungary, the Orbán government not only failed to take a position against the spread of fake news, but it is actively spreading conspiracy theories and fake news itself. The Fidesz government has sponsored anti-Soros billboards as well as Facebook and television advertising campaigns about George Soros and the EU who are striving to undermine national sovereignty by importing illegal migrants into Hungary. A similar monothematic anti-immigrant campaign and fake news had previously helped Miloš Zeman to be re-elected as the president of the Czech Republic in January.
Moreover, politicians in the region often delegitimise independent media outlets critical of the respective governments as „fake news”, similarly to Donald Trump. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has done so recently when he was approached by Index.hu, the biggest online media outlet in the country, with a simple question about football. He rejected to respond because he would not „answer to fake news factories”. In Slovakia, the idea built around the untruthfulness of media has been being spread by top Slovak politicians in recent years, including former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who called journalists “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”. The outrage amongst media outlets, which – on many occasions – have been forced to play the role of investigators, spread rapidly.
However, Slovakia encountered another serious shock when investigative journalists Ján Kuciak and his fiancé were shot in their house, allegedly as a consequence of the investigative nature of his work. The social and media outrage peaked and the discussion on media freedom spread nation-wide. Politicians had to halt their fiery rhetoric targeting journalists. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Interior as well as the chief of police had to step down as a result of protests and strong media engagement.
It is also widely known that Czech President Zeman holds a negative opinion of conventional journalists. In his latest jibe, he criticized the publishing house Economia owned by entrepreneur Zdeněk Bakala, which targets the middle-class intelligentsia or businessmen. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš also criticizes journalists from Economia constantly and he is also critical of the public media. At the same time, he owns (through a trust fund) one of the largest media conglomerates in the country, MAFRA. Smear campaigns are often launched against those criticizing the government’s agenda in Poland as well.
How does the fake news media market look like in the V4?
In Hungary, the number of fake news fringe websites is around 100, their number started to increase significantly during the escalation of the refugee crisis in 2015. Most of these sites are classic clickbait sites interlinked with Facebook and related to each other, such as Mindenegybenblog. The pro-Russian media network consisting of about 100 Hungarian-language disinformation sites and Facebook profiles operated at the local level, which can be connected to Russia, are disseminating pro-Kremlin narratives coated with tabloid-like conspiracies also including news concerning alternative lifestyles, “alternative medicine” (homeopathy), etc. The main engine behind Russian propaganda in Hungary is the topic of migration; therefore, the migration panic is directly related to the geopolitical weight of Russia both in Hungary and internationally. Considering the fact that the majority of Hungarian mainstream media is under the direct or indirect control of the government, the regime is also disseminating narratives favourable to the Kremlin. Krekó believes that it has become impossible to do politics without fake news, and even in the Hungarian context post-truthism is not unilateral. The opposition is also more and more prone to disseminating various fake news because such content can be spread easily in an increasingly polarised and indignant environment and when it feels it is bereft of power – a highly prevalent perception after three straight electoral losses. At the same time, the social psychologist points out that it is unprecedented in the EU that a government is the main source of conspiracies and fake news.
One of the most important fake news websites in the Czech Republic is Sputnik CZ, which is responsible for the most fundamental fake news content. Besides Sputnik, there are about 40 to 50 operational fake news websites in the Czech Republic. The steepest rise occurred shortly after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine. “Since then, some of the websites became irrelevant, whilst new ones were created. Others are posting more than ever before. For instance, the Czech version of Sputnik used to publish an average of 600 articles a month, now this number is nearly 1600,” said Veronika Víchová, an analyst for the Czech think-tank European Values. We can also observe topical changes. “In the beginning they only covered events in Ukraine and in the world overall, but with time fake news websites began to focus in large part on the refugee crisis and now actively cover events in the Czech Republic,” Víchová said.
According to Vladimír Šnídl, a journalist specialized on fake news and the author of the book Truth and False at Facebook, Slovakia has two peculiarities when it comes to fake news. The first is the field of medicine and health. Šnídl highlights that the most frequently shared fake news on the Slovak internet are made-up stories on miraculous recipes and medicines that cure all kinds of illnesses, including cancer. “It is absolutely outrageous that a fake story – let´s say about how to cure cancer with lemons – can be written without any legal punishment and afterwards shared by thousands,” says Šnídl. According to him, medical hoaxes are being highly underestimated: “In such cases, it would be enough if one case occurs that shortened someone’s life. This would certainly generate particular attention to the topic,” Šnídl explains.
Secondly, Slovaks’ attention is being steered away from the problems that affect them. “Various websites give people the impression that the ultimate threat to Slovakia is for example the migrant influx. With the help of real, albeit inflated reports and cases of crimes committed by migrants in Western Europe, those portals omit mentions of actual crime in Slovakia perpetrated by our own citizens,” he adds.
Despite the fact that Polish society is generally resilient to Russian propaganda and its political system is the least vulnerable to the Kremlin’s influence among the V4 due to general anti-Russian views in all layers of society, the Law and Justice does not refrain from using Russian-style rhetoric about the decadent West. External propaganda in the public sphere can mainly be connected to the media inspired by Russia such as the Polish-speaking version of Sputnik. However, in the case of Russian propaganda, trolls and bots are much more effective than clumsy propaganda portals. The space for Polish independent media is being narrowed consistently: besides the fact that PiS has taken over the public broadcaster TVP, a large part of the media supporting the government has personal or business relations with the ruling party. Consequently, media outlets such as Niezalezna.pl, Gazeta Polska, wSieci or TV Republika are obviously promoting the narratives of the Law and Justice.
The good news is that there are growing number of bottom-up initiatives in the region concerning how editorial rooms could combat fake news. For instance, the fact-checking platform Demagog.cz, certified by the International Fact-Checking Network, is getting increasingly popular. It focuses mainly on verifying the credibility of politicians´ statements. However, new projects such as Manipulátoři.cz concentrate on debunking false or questionable content. A growing number of NGOs and think-tanks are also joining the fight. In Poland, the non-profit, fact-checking and investigative journalism outlet OKO.press was launched in 2016. The project, currently financed by donations from readers, aims at preserving the freedom of speech and the availability of information in Poland’s highly divided media ecosystem.
In Hungary, one of the first such projects was urbanlegends.hu established and edited by Iván Marinov, a Hungarian journalist. The site selects urban legends, rumours, hoaxes, misconceptions and myths, and shows how they came about and how they were spread. The author leaves it to the reader to rate the content based on the collected data, but his aim is to get his readers realize how irrational their fears can be and educate them to compare conflicting opinions and check other sources.
In the Czech Republic, the greatest challenge, according to Víchová, is the near-absent emphasis on media literacy and awareness not only in schools but also in the country’s political circles. President Miloš Zeman as well as other politicians (especially MPs from the Communist Party, the far-right SPD but also individuals from the Social Democratic Party) echo pro-Kremlin disinformation or share fake news content on their social media profiles.
“A proper information defence mechanism that protects people and societies from disinformation and troll attacks is much needed,” says Slovak expert and a strategic analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic for Strategic Studies, Katarína Kertysová. She suggests that governments should ensure that citizens are educated on disinformation and empower civil society by providing funding for civil society initiatives and the media as well as adequate legal protection to those who challenge disinformation efforts. “Intelligence organizations can monitor and should be able to monitor outside interference in the information space and, when appropriate, share that information with citizens,” adds Kertysová.
In Hungary, the state is an unlikely source of help and accepting foreign funding leads to stigmatisation. Marinov believes that the consequence of this is that independent private initiatives are more likely to be successful. “It could be a possibility for the independent press to form a fact-checking cooperation between editorial teams that would allow for more effective, transparent and balanced work by merging resources; and it could spread the finalised contents among a larger audience. Additionally, the development of skills needed for critical thinking could be aided by corporate CSR-programs or educational ones financed from private sources,” he added.
In the Czech Republic the core body dealing with disinformation is the Centre for Counter-terrorism and Hybrid Threats, which falls under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. The Czech Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also deal with the issue at the working group level. “The Czech Republic is among the countries that have taken concrete steps and precautions, which is in itself very positive,” said Veronika Víchová, an analyst at the Czech think-tank European Values.
Although the Slovak government did not launch similar initiatives on the institutional level, the Slovak Ministry of Interior announced last year that the Slovak police will employ twelve new experts to counter Russian disinformation and hybrid threats. Moreover, the government frequently uses funds to support NGOs debunking fake news. Particularly, President Andrej Kiska commonly mentions their crucial role in today´s online world. The initiative #somtu (I am here), endorsed for instance by Kiska, brings facts into online discussions, as it calls on its members to join debates via hashtags.
The regulations concerning the freedom of expression in Slovakia do not allow for racist statements, spreading fascism or spreading deceptions that may harm others. Nevertheless, fake news has not been tackled legislatively just yet as long as such contents do not border on or pass the limits of extremism. To monitor extremism, the Slovak Police even uses a computer application, but it does not tag fake news. The Facebook page of the Slovak police often criticized for frequently using tabloid-like reporting, however, is a good example of state-run fake news debunking efforts. As the page is being followed by over 116 000 people, the social media coordinators at the Slovak police use the publicity to point out widespread hoaxes and false stories often published by conspiracy websites.
According to Jakub Kralka, a lawyer specializing in technology and the media who is also the editor-in-chief at Bezprawnik.pl, it is hard to speak about good practices in the Polish governmental sphere in terms of debunking fake news when they themselves are a negative example in this regard. What’s more, it is a delicate issue in fact, as it is connected to potential freedom of speech restrictions. The volume of fake news is growing and people, politicians, the administration, media and internet users are generally conscious of this fact. However, according to secret services and energy market expert Maciej Sankowski neither the Polish state nor the media or businesses have come up with an effective system of countermeasures. He recounts the recent example of made-up energy expert Piotr Niewiechowicz who managed to effortlessly obtain sensitive data on a strategic energy contract (concerning the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline) from people close to the minister of energy. One of the major economic news portals published his invented text about the Baltic Pipeline’s potential influence on porpoises as the lead text on the website. This situation revealed how easy would it would be not only to infiltrate Polish strategic decision-making circles but also to potentially influence it via publications in respected media outlets.
Regulating hate speech
In Germany, significant efforts have been undertaken to counter the influence of disinformation and fake news: last year the Bundestag passed a controversial law to allow fining Facebook over spreading hate speech.
According to the Polish government, the dissemination of fake news cannot be restricted by the state for example by deleting or blocking content, as it would interfere with the freedom of speech. In their view it is important that actions taken against fake news adhere to the freedom of speech and the right to information. As for the increased responsibility of online platforms the government supports self-regulation and co-regulations instead of top-down legislation and imposing new obligations.
Slovakia is one of the countries that regulates defamation in general, and its criminal law sets the highest punishment for it among EU countries, which can in extreme cases result in up to three to eight years' imprisonment. Other risks are related to hate speech. “We do not yet have an effective tool to stop extremism and hatred on the internet completely. So far, we are aware of only a few small steps that partially diminish them,” recalls Dušan Ondrušek, the head of the organisations Partners for Democratic Change Slovakia. “As regulation and policy-making is developing more slowly than social media does, for example, online extremists can afford to do far more than they could afford in another spaces,” says Juraj Rizman of VIA IURIS.
Marinov thinks that it is worth it to avoid any state regulation (censorship, ban, tying publication to obtaining a permit, etc.) that could breach the freedom of speech or the independence of the press or place the decision of what constitutes fake news and what does not in the hands of the state regardless of governmental motivations, as its results might backfire. State regulation is only recommended on technical issues such as disinformation spread by bots. How the state can help combatting fake news besides this is supporting the creation of a framework that helps developing critical thinking through educational programs, awareness-raising, supporting regular research on the topic, constant cooperation with the operators of social media platforms and supporting fact-checking activities. Marinov sees the best examples for this approach in Sweden, where they do not want to ban people from looking at disinformation but rather to teach them how to recognise and manage it.
Svoboda agreed that the long-term solution should be quality education. “A whole range of measures must be taken with the aim of fostering a confident and educated society, thus making it less prone to manipulation. Many provisions could be applied at national level,” he said.
Community methods and excellence centres
According to the Ministry of Digital Affairs in Poland, the dissemination of the fake information and disinformation is a growing challenge which should be met with an adequate response from authorities, and it says that acting against disinformation is a strong interest of the state. They add that the key factor that can boost society’s immunity against disinformation is media education focused on critical thinking and the ability to interpret diverse media coverage. Importantly, it should not focus on the education of children and students but also help adults as a part of the life-long learning process.
However, there are no effective legal mechanisms to combat manipulative information neither in Poland nor in most EU countries - said Maciej Sankowski. He also stressed that this will have to change, probably on the initiative of the EU. The European Commission has been told to set up a coalition to fight fake news with additional plans to create a so-called 'code of practice' by July. “The EU-wide guidelines on how to fight disinformation, which are to be published by July 2018, will help online platforms harmonize their approaches and provide a clear game plan on how they can operate. The establishment of an independent European network of fact-checkers should improve credibility and trust in their work by ensuring the use of common working methods, exchange of best practices and the broadest possible coverage,” commented Katarína Kertysová on the new legislation.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the East StratCom Task Force will get the much-needed boost under the newly-announced approach – she added. So far, the East StratCom Task Force set up by the European Commission has been financed from member state contributions rather than the EU budget. The group works with 11 people from Central-Europe, the Baltic and Scandinavian states. They don’t have to collect fake news alone: volunteers and NGOs help them. They publish informative materials, research, they create guidelines for journalists and help debunking Russian disinformation by sharing research material on the website and on Twitter (EU Mythbusters). According Veronica Vichová, East Stratcom is heavily underfunded and understaffed. “Only three of its employees are dealing with pro-Kremlin disinformation, which definitely is not an adequate number given the magnitude of their task,” she said.
Institutions specialising in monitoring and combatting Russian disinformation efforts such as the NATO Strategic Communication Excellence Centre based in Riga, which was founded by seven NATO members in 2014, examine the opposing (political, military) organisations’ communication concerning long-term strategic, geopolitical goals. Another centre which aims to contribute to NATO´s efforts against hybrid warfare is the Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which is based in Helsinki. It is also very telling that only Poland and the Czech Republic joined so far from the region.
According to Oxford Internet Institute, the main threat to democratic political processes right now is the “automatized propaganda” used to manipulate public opinion and extending political influence. This automatized propaganda is using programmes (bots) based on algorithms and data mining to artificially influence social media content and networks in a highly efficient manner. The main difference between opportunities for external influence in the West and the East is in local actors who can be mobilised for the cause: the Kremlin primarily has to turn to bots in the West and to politicians in the East. In Hungary, for example, the presence of Russian disinformation or information warfare is barely noticeable because there are practically no anti-Kremlin political opponents, forces who have to be fought. Additionally, pro-Russian disinformation often comes from government-organised media to the Hungarian audience.
In Maciej Sankowski’s view, Poland will be exposed to two major waves of disinformation campaigns. One will be connected to the intensive election period beginning this autumn with regional elections, followed next year by the EP and parliamentary elections, and ending in May 2020 with the presidential election. The second one – in his view - will be related to the long-term gas contract with Russia, the future of which has to be decided on by the end of 2019. He expects a wave of disinformation from the Russian side containing – among others – fake information about informal consultations between the two sides.