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The Disinformation Conundrum

Despite expectations, fake news appears to have played a relatively minor role during the recent Czech presidential elections. But that doesn’t mean the popularity of such “alternative” sites should be ignored or the reasons why so many Czechs are willing to take the bait.

by Jonas Syrovatka 28 March 2018

It was no secret – even months before the January 2018 presidential elections – that disinformation would be a factor during the campaign to challenge the incumbent, Milos Zeman. As early as July 2017, a full six months before the elections, the media reported on the spread of rumors that Jiri Drahos, the leading challenger in opinion polls, had cooperated with the Czechoslovak secret police (StB) during the communist era. Zeman’s pro-Russian orientation – including his statements questioning Western policy toward Russia and his penchant for choosing advisors with close ties to Moscow – heightened fears of external interference.

 

In the end, Zeman successfully defended his presidential seat over Drahos in the second round, leaning heavily on a populist, anti-immigration platform. Given the relatively low margin of victory (around 175,000 votes), it’s worth taking a look back to assess the major themes of disinformation, their spread, and their possible influence on the outcome of the elections.

 

Three Main Narratives 

 

My organization, the Prague Security Studies Institute, analyzed how six major Czech sites known to spread disinformation covered the presidential candidates during the two months preceding the elections. Through the course of this project – “The Czech Elections in the Era of Disinformation” –  we reviewed the sites: AC24, Aeronet, Parlamentni listy, Protiproud, Sputnik CZ, and the Facebook page of Zpravy.cz. Their significance lies not only in their large audiences, but also in their creation of original content. We employed an analytical tool called > versus <, which the International Republican Institute developed within its Beacon Project, allowing us to see if (and how much) various themes, weaponized by disinformation, spread across the internet. The use of > versus < let us monitor (by searching for particular keywords) the content of these articles, as well as the discussions under the articles, and on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Frequency of keywords 'Drahos' and words related to disinformation campaigns on selected Czech sites known for disinformation, searched using the versus tool. Courtesy of PSSI research.

 

The hypothesis that these platforms would be the main source of disinformation was confirmed during the research. The website Aeronet, which publishes texts mostly signed with pseudonyms and which has an unclear ownership structure, produced the majority of the disinformation that appeared before the elections.

 

The main topics on which the public was misled can be divided into three groups. All types of disinformation, except one, clearly tried to rally support for Zeman (either directly, or through criticism of his opponents, usually Drahos). Most disinformation campaigns combined several of these topics.

 

The first narrative centered on the allegedly close cooperation of Drahos with backstage elites. These powerful puppet masters supposedly did not just support the weak and inexperienced Drahos (the former head of the Academy of Sciences, with no political experience) – they also directly controlled him. Claims surfaced that the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros had paid for Drahos’s campaign (in the original text published on Aeronet in December, Drahos was not mentioned, but internet discussions quickly reached the conclusion that the “Soros puppet” was, indeed, Drahos). A related allegation accused Drahos of supporting the plans of the Club of Rome (which AC24 mentioned, for example, in a commentary published in January). According to the accompanying conspiracy theories, the members of this think tank have been trying to gain control over global events (with one of their goals to introduce birth control to fight overpopulation).

 

These two slurs became more common on the internet after the announcement of the results of the first round of elections (when it became clear that Drahos and Zeman would square off in the second round), as the chart below indicates. However, their frequency dropped off during the week as rapidly as they had initially skyrocketed, in all likelihood because the mainstream media, especially the business daily Hospodarske noviny, debunked both theories, impeding their spread.

 

A similar theme then took off and dominated the disinformation space in the following weeks – the allegedly cozy alliance between Drahos and former Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek. Highly unpopular due to financial cuts in state spending made on his watch during the economic crisis between 2011 and 2013, Kalousek has also been the subject of a number of (unproven) accusations of corruption over the years. According to an article published on Aeronet on 16 January, Kalousek would be appointed prime minister if Drahos won the presidential elections. The frequency of the articles mentioning the words "Drahos" and "Kalousek" grew steadily between the first and second rounds of the elections (however, this number also includes articles that were not necessarily based on this piece of disinformation, but reported that Kalousek openly supported Drahos).

 

The second disinformation narrative revolved around made-up stories to discredit Drahos personally. He allegedly cooperated with the StB, the communist-era secret police (according to comments and interviews on Aeronet and Parlamentni listy); he had supposedly engaged in pedophilia; and he had an affair that resulted in an illegitimate child. According to investigative journalist Jaroslav Kmenta (who referred to sources within the BIS, the present-day Czech secret service), the disinformation linking Drahos with the StB was based on high-quality falsifications of official documents. Just like the previous topic, the number of cases of disinformation also increased after the first round of elections, but then dropped off again.

 

Low-Hanging Fruit

 

The third topic used for disinformation purposes was migration, an easy choice given that the issue has bitterly divided Czech society for the past few years. The theme of migration, however, was not simple a vehicle for disinformation, but a major campaign issue given the widespread hysteria among a good part of society over a possible “invasion” of Muslim migrants from the Middle East (an infamous billboard read: “Stop immigrants and Drahos. This land is ours! Vote Zeman!”). It was actually another presidential contender, former Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who first distorted Drahos’s views on the subject, calling him a "welcomer" (in Czech “vitac”) of migrants, already at the beginning of January 2018, well before the first piece of disinformation linking the issue of migration with the elections appeared.

 

Here, the disinformation focused specifically on refugee quotas, which the Czech Republic, among other Central European countries, has refused to accept. Aeronet, for example, claimed on 19 January that a victory for Drahos would lead to the acceptance of thousands of migrants according to the quota scheme. It is difficult to estimate the spread and influence of this particular instance of disinformation on the elections. This phenomenon certainly contributed to migration becoming a key topic, but it was definitely not the decisive one. The number of texts and comments dedicated to migration grew mostly as a result of a debate between the candidates on the Prima TV channel, which aired on 23 January (the word “migration” was mentioned in January 2018 in about 25,000 texts, out of which 6,800 appeared on that very day).

 

Two other cases of disinformation are worth mentioning. On the Friday before the elections, Parlamentni listy published a story with a headline proclaiming that the Czech pop icon Karel Gott had endorsed Zeman. The main text, however, only mentioned Gott’s vision of the general characteristics that a president should possess. Zeman himself later repeated news of this supposed endorsement, which Gott's spokeswoman later debunked, leading Parlamentni listy to change the title of the article to better reflect its content. Even though several other articles asserted that Gott had only indirectly supported Zeman to avoid criticism from the liberal elite, this argument did not receive much attention, and the affair was soon forgotten.

 

In the only major incident that targeted Zeman, a leaflet appeared in mailboxes before the elections, informing the president’s potential voters that they did not have to participate in the first round because their candidate would move to the second round automatically. The origin of this claim is slightly bizarre, since it first appeared as a joke in the satirical show “Stastne pondeli” of journalist Jindrich Sidlo. Given the rapid (and fully justified) reaction of the state authorities and the relatively obscure form of this attempt at disinformation, there is no reason to believe that its influence was significant.

 

To sum up, even though there were instances of disinformation aiming to influence the course of the Czech presidential elections of 2018, their impact should not be overestimated. Their influence on public debate may have slightly increased in the short period just after the first round of elections, when the topics that were the focus of disinformation were mentioned more frequently. That being said, disinformation did not bring new topics into the public debate. This happened partly because some of the allegations (Drahos’s cooperation with the StB, the financial support of Soros) were quickly debunked, and others (especially those related to migration) were already being discussed.

 

The research structure, admittedly, has its limitations. We were unable to evaluate how other, less important platforms disseminating disinformation, or the mainstream media, reported on the campaign. Nor was it possible to evaluate whenever the monitored platforms have prepared the ground (for example, through biased reporting about migration) for a certain type of candidate over the longer term. We also could not identify disinformation that did not mention any of the candidates by name, but could ultimately have helped or supported one of them in some way. Lastly, it was impossible to evaluate the pro-Zeman chain emails that flooded the inboxes of Czech citizens, particularly of senior citizens, and likely had a large impact on the election, as older people were much more prone to vote for the incumbent.

 

Disinformation and the Wider Context 

 

In the end, then, our research has demonstrated that, despite expectations, disinformation was that all that widespread. Not only did two of the monitored platforms (Sputnik CZ and Zpravy.cz) not publish any at all, but among the rest, their “disinformation” articles, combined, represented only a negligible percentage of their overall content (13 of 1,352 texts). When the platforms favored some of the candidates – on websites such as Aeronet, Parliamentni listy, Protiproud, and the Facebook page of Zpravy.cz – it was done largely by other means than disinformation.

 

Some of these platforms openly endorsed Zeman. Others backed Zeman indirectly through the  phrasing of their articles, and their framing of particular subjects (which is particularly noticeable on the Facebook page of Parliamentni listy). Uncritical reporting of news about Zeman, exaggerated criticism of his opponents, and generally selective and manipulative reporting about the electoral campaign were very frequent, and therefore it was likely to have a stronger impact on readers than the above-mentioned instances of outright disinformation. It also worth noting that even though the number of topics connected with disinformation rapidly increased in the week after the first round, Drahos (who was their target) still led in opinion polls. He started to lose popularity during the following week, when disinformation appeared less frequently, and the monitored platforms focused mainly on the presidential debates (where Drahos had a more difficult time than the veteran Zeman, especially during the raucous and virtually unmoderated debate on TV Prima).

 

The findings of the analysis suggest that it would be more accurate to call the platforms that we analyzed ideologically profiled rather than disinformative (with the exception of Aeronet, which represents a sui generis case among the platforms spreading disinformation). If we accept this definition, we must also change the way these platforms are assessed. What defines them is not the fact that these platforms spread disinformation, but that they represent ideological positions connected to certain parts of society.

 

Along these lines, while it is obviously important to debunk disinformation and to prevent it from spreading into the media mainstream, more attention should be paid to the ideological positions that those platforms represent (often inconsistent with the notion of a liberal democracy), and why some social groups identify with such attitudes. A more precise analysis of these contentious topics, meant to increase division within society, could point to the next wave of inspiration for the perpetrators of disinformation. That knowledge would enable us not only to react, but also to proactively formulate positive narratives that would support social cohesion and contribute to the solving of actual problems that frustrate some people. By taking such an approach, it is possible to build a more resilient society whose citizens will not listen to disinformation.

 

Lastly, the outcome of the 2018 Czech presidential elections should not be understood as evidence of the high influence of disinformation on current sociopolitical events, but rather serve as a warning about the large number of Czech citizens who are willing to listen to such platforms –which (occasionally) spread disinformation. In many cases, they trust them more than they trust official institutions or the mainstream media – despite almost 30 years of freedom and relative prosperity.

Jonas Syrovatka is a project coordinator at the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI). The full report is available on the PSSI website.

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