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DISINFORMATION RESILIENCE DIALOGUE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE E-LEARNING

Introduction

European Values Centre for Security Policy organized Disinformation Resilience Dialogue: Lessons learned from Central and Eastern Europe project supported by Erasmus+ EU’s programme to create e-learning for youth under 30 years focused on media literacy and disinformation resilience.

The project offered a unique opportunity for young people to meet decision-makers and create e-learning, which describes lessons learnt, best practises, and case studies from their counties (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, and Georgia).

The aim of the project was to contribute to greater involvement of young people in democratic life in Europe at various levels, in particular with regard to their political participation and the strengthening of their digital competences and media literacy.

Project partners

  • European Values Centre for Security Policy, Czech Republic
  • Institute of Strategic Policies n.o. (STRATPOL), Slovakia
  • Warsaw Institute Foundation, Poland
  • Europäische Akademie Berlin, Germany
  • Internews Ukraine, Ukraine
  • Georgia´ Reforms Associates, Georgia

The project included study trips to Berlin, Bratislava, Brno and Warsaw associated with visits to institutions focused on security issues.

  • Brno ( March 2022)
  • Warsaw (June 2022)
  • Bratislava (October 2022)
  • Berlin (November 2022)

E-learning

  • Learning Time: 8 hours
  • Website: europeanvalues.cz
  • Language: English
  • Contact: [email protected]
  • Objectives: increase media literacy and disinformation resilience of youth under 30 years old
  • Content and structure: lessons learnt, best practises, and case studies from the Czech Republic, Germany, Georgia, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine

Czechia

Introduction

Websites and other media spreading untrue or skewed information in support of Russia are not a new phenomenon. Many have been around since before 2013, but the Ukraine crisis of 2014 brought a new, hardened and more intense wave of pro-Russian discourse. The ultimate goal of the pro-Russian disinformation campaign is the destabilisation and weakening of its host country and the shifting of public opinion against the democratic institutions and mainstream media in it. Russia then acts as the only viable saviour.

Since 2014, the disinformation scene has had many opportunities to create its own pro-Russian narrative out of twisting and retelling facts and real events. The annexation of Crimea and the events of Maidan in Ukraine, the migration crisis which peaked in 2015, the covid-19 pandemic and the new findings around the 2014 Vrbětice ammunition warehouses explosions became the origin and springboard of many misleading and false narratives. The consequences of the following information fog can be found in real-world events – the polarization of Czech society manifested itself in the increased support of pro-Russian and anti-Western among the population. Some political actors actively benefited from the panic which surrounded the migration crisis, such as the SPD political movement, the current Czech president Miloš Zeman and the ANO party, from which Andrej Babiš, the previous prime minister, rose. Falsehoods spread about the use of masks and the covid-19 vaccine directly led to some people not taking enough precautions and furthering the spread of the virus, resulting in deaths. And finally, the case of Vrbětice gave perfect footing for the defence of Russia against Western democracies who expelled Russian diplomats and for an overall escalation of the events and diplomatic consequences.

In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, disinformation websites share some common characteristics. They show no interest in ethical or objective journalism. They are often non-transparent as they tend to hide their organizational and financing structures. However, they also tend to differ in the type and frequency of the content they publish, and the audience they are able to pull in.

There are about 40 relevant disinformation websites in the Czech Republic. Chain emails and social media also contribute to the spread of misinformation. Some politicians often participate on disinformation websites by giving them interviews or writing articles – this is a key characteristic of the Czech disinformation scene. It gives many sites more credibility than they would have without the support of publicly known figures. In 2021, Tomio Okamura, the leader of the SPD political movement, was the most active contributor, with Trikolora’s Zuzana Majerová Zahradníková behind him. Higher standing political representatives have also played their part in the spread of misinformation – especially when it came to the events in Vrbětice – namely the Czech president Miloš Zeman, the previous prime minister Andrej Babiš, and others.

SWOT

On the following lines, a so-called SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) describing the approach of the Czech Republic towards disinformation is introduced.

1. Strengths of the Czech Republic

Although the Czech capabilities to defend itself from the constant streams of disinformation are far from perfect, there are several stable pillars on which the Czech Republic can build its defences, which would protect its society against the mostly pro-Russia malign narratives. These pillars include a relatively strong civil society actively tackling the disinformation problem and producing a large amount of analysis about the local disinformation scene, several state institutions dealing with the problem, such as the Centre Against Hybrid Threats (CHH), and finally, experience with propaganda from the Soviet era and current awareness of the issue.

Civil society organizations dealing with disinformation

After the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the consequent start of a massive disinformation campaign, civil society slowly became the major player tackling the disinformation problem, despite the fact that there most probably wasn’t any organisation dealing with this issue before 2014. Since the state response to disinformation had been very weak for a long time, NGOs had to fill the vacuum and supply the role of the state, in which they have been relatively successful.

As a result, there are several quite known organisations with decent expertise in the area of disinformation that try to cover all its aspects and problems that emerge along with that. Namely, the European Values Centre for Security Policy (EVC) which is focused generally on Russian and Chinese influence and was among the first organisations that started to tackle disinformation. EVC produces weekly newsletters mapping the current disinformation narratives in the Czech Republic and other countries or annual reports on the state of the Czech disinformation scene.

There are the Czech Elves, focused solely on mapping and debunking popular disinformation narratives, including those appearing in the infamous chain emails or Demagog, which fact-checks political discussions and generally politicians’ quotes but also Facebook content, i.e., disinformation that appears on Facebook. Then there are also organisations focused on teaching media literacy, such as Fakescape or Zvol si info, and many others dealing with different aspects of the disinformation issue, such as NELEŽ, the Association for international affairs (AMO) or the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI).

State centre and parliamentary commission against hybrid threats

While the state response to disinformation has been quite slow and weak, non-negligible progress has been made. In 2017, the Centre against hybrid threats (CHH), dealing among other things with disinformation, has been created within the Ministry of the Interior. Since then, it has become a respectable institution with a lot of expertise in the subject, producing public analysis about current disinformation narratives and trends.

Since 2020, the topic of disinformation has been also tackled on the parliamentary level by Permanent Commission on Hybrid Threats, which can push for solutions on a political level and urge the government to adopt measures related to disinformation. Finally, the hybrid threats have been partly tackled by the Ministry of Defense, which has introduced the National Strategy for Countering Hybrid Interference and, consequently an Action plan with specific goals for strengthening endurance against hybrid threats, such as disinformation campaigns.

General experience and awareness of the disinformation issue

Due to the 40-year-long experience of communist rule, as well as Soviet invasion and occupation, part of the Czech society has a relative resilience against certain foreign disinformation narratives and perhaps propaganda in general. Together with the work and findings of the NGO and state sector about disinformation, there is a general awareness about the problem, at least among the more educated population and country elites, also thanks to the media.

2. Weaknesses of the Czech Republic

Czech Republic’s strategy to tackle disinformation has several weaknesses and vulnerabilities emanating from the ambiguous approach of the Czech political elites, which generally did not give the topics the attention they required over the last couple of years. Therefore, certain unpreparedness is observable within the legal framework, governmental institutions and educational system, which makes defeating fake narratives a major challenge.

a) Strategic communication

The Czech Republic lacks a comprehensive approach to strategic communication and therefore is unable to effectively control the information flow and rapid spread of certain harmful narratives.

There is a lack of coordination between different ministries and other governmental institutions that do not have a unified communication strategy towards the public, which often leads to intentional and unintentional misinformation both by the general public and foreign agents within the country.

b) Public and state sphere coordination

Czech governmental institutions are generally unable to coordinate their positions on certain critical issues among themselves, therefore it should not be a surprise that it is likewise unable to create close and effective partnerships with civil society organizations dealing with disinformation and related topics.

Despite being able to provide some organizations with a certain level of funding, it is not a systemic cooperation that could truly stop the influx of harmful foreign narratives to the country or  control their flow in Czech cyberspace.

Overall, the ability of the state to monitor and analyze the spread of disinformation in a reasonable timeframe is extremely limited. State institutions are able of observing different topics and officially fact-check the most dangerous narratives before they spread too far. However, expert governmental units (e.g. the CHH at the Ministry of the Interior) have a minimal following to be able to overcome major disinformation campaigns and are unable to launch effective and wide spreading counter campaigns.

c) Educational system

Despite major changes occurring in the educational sphere every few years and governmental declared focus on critical thinking and media literacy trainings, actual results are difficult to measure and, there is a massive divergence in different regions. Less prosperous ones, which already struggle in other indicators of societal progress, continue to struggle with new educational standards, which are difficult to implement and thus create further disunity within the educational system.

d) Hijacked debate on the Freedom of speech

Over the years, the actors of the disinformation scene have increasingly focused on the Freedom of speech resulting in a blurred perception of this core democratic principle by the general public. Systemic measures to tackle disinformation on a state level accompanied by a legislative change is currently an extremely toxic and dividing issue both within the political sphere and especially amongst the citizens.

The ability of the disinformation actors to hide their activities under the umbrella of the Freedom of expression limits higher public support for more punitive and harsh governmental measures against disinformation actors. Such measures are needed to limit their ability to influence public opinion especially on critical security and foreign policy-related topics.

e) Weak editorial oversight in some media

During the last couple of years, there were several instances in which the media spread a false story that reached tens of thousands of people. It is a result of a systemic change in the media landscape – many media nowadays prefer speed and quantity over objectivity and quality, which means less editors and fact checkers and more reliance on information provided by external actors (various organizations, press agencies, PR press releases, …). On the other hand, this preference of speed and even opinionated public journalism is at least partially fought by several relatively new media striving to provide its readers with well researched stories. Despite tabloids (such as Blesk) and media owned by oligarchs (Economia publishing house, MF Dnes, Lidové noviny, …) still represent much larger percentage of the media market, subscriber models employed by new media (DeníkN or Voxpot) have gained a substantial following.

To add to this, a high percentage of people get their daily dose of news stories on various social media networks, where respectable media houses advertise next to those that provide significantly worse services or are downright disinformation platforms.

3. Opportunities

Due to the rise of threats mentioned above like unprecedented geopolitical escalation in the proximity of the Czech Republic and information activities of malicious foreign actors in Czech public space, it is necessary to take advantage of various opportunities with the purpose to mitigate critical vulnerabilities and external threats. Most important is the membership in an integrated international organization and the current governmental willingness to improve the situation.

Government’s commitment to tackle disinformation

Despite issues regarding the state’s effectiveness in countering disinformation (like limits in strategic communication), there is a clear desire to increase the effectiveness of governmental efforts in this area. This effort started with the previous government and the adoption of Action plan for the National Strategy for Countering Hybrid Interference at the end of 2021. The current cabinet of Petr Fiala then seems more determined in this field, considering the new strict attitude towards Eastern powers and the Policy Statement of the Government, where disinformation resilience holds an important position.

Moreover, the “new government” is not dependent on the parties where at least some politicians have an unfavorable attitude towards countering disinformation (like the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia which possessed some influence in the former Parliament). Therefore, the commitment to increase digital resilience promises a supply of resources for the near future and represents a critical opportunity for the Czech Republic.

Progress in the institutional framework

Because of the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, certain positive dynamics exist in positions responsible for countering disinformation. In March 2022 the government created the office of special representative for media and disinformation with an agenda consisting of coordinating efforts of various administration branches in his competence as well as strategic communication. Although some view this move as insufficient (the newly established Department of strategic communication under The Office of the Government will have only four clerks for now), it is without a doubt that the new office would help increase cooperation on the axis state – society.

Western support

Being part of the Western world is probably the most important opportunity the Czech republic has to counter disinformation and many other issues in these times of uncertainty. NATO is well aware of (for example) Russian Hybrid warfare and experiences shared at the alliance level could provide invaluable help for the Czech Republic. The EU is also willing to tackle the spreading of disinformation, investing €50 million between 2015-2020 (which the European Court of Auditors sees as “relatively low”). The focus is to increase media literacy, the ability of the private sector to tackle disinformation and raise awareness among the population. The Union resources could be critical in strengthening the domestic anti-disinformation budget and in negotiations with global social network operators.

New legislation

Another potential lies in adapting the country’s legislation to current reality, which will provide the necessary legal framework and authority to the various branches of apparatus of the state. And this process is already in motion, as was stated before. We can mention the changes in the Military Intelligence Act (2021). It empowers the Czech military intelligence service to monitor data in cyberspace and also holds it responsible for cyber defense. This year (2022) the Ministry of Interior also prepared a bill against spreading disinformation. The New law will potentially allow the state to block or ban disinformation servers or fake news. In combination with other supportive measures, these changes could enhance the resilience of the Czech Republic as a whole in the future.

4. Threats to the Czech Republic

Based on its history and geographic proximity to currently hostile countries like the Russian Federation, the Czech Republic faces a relatively large number of threats, including disinformation. Furthermore, there are significant political powers that are not willing to see those threats or even try to weaken civil society to their advantage. Hence, it is desirable to name some of the main threats in this issue.

Potential growth of panslavic sentiment

In light of the latest developments, it is clear that one of the leading threats to liberal democracy in the countries of the European Union comes from Russia. Similarly to other Central and Eastern European countries, the Czech Republic is vulnerable to narratives which are in its way modern varieties of panslavism – the idea greatly popular among elites of Bohemia in the 19th century, that all Slavic people should live together in one big and powerful Slavic state. Unlike the original panslavism, narratives spreading its modern versions promote Russia as the savior from German (or generally Western) imperialism based on the role of the USSR in WW2 and also as the protector from Western decadence and multiculturalism. Such narratives still resonate enough to mobilize part of the Czech society, which consists mostly of older and less educated people.

Possible change of political orientation

The currently ruling government is fully composed of parties that declare their “pro-western” orientation in foreign policy. But it is not even one year by now since the populist PM Andrej Babiš (ANO 2011) was receiving tacit support from KSČM (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) one of the main antisystem parties, very often criticizing Czech presence in structures of NATO and EU. It is impossible to rule out the return of now opposition leader Andrej Babiš (ANO 2011) to the PM chair in the future. The only other opposition party which made it over the parliamentary electoral threshold in 2021 was the SPD (Freedom and direct democracy) – a far-right anti-European and arguably pro-Russian party. It is questionable what decisions regarding foreign affairs would the possible government of Andrej Babiš with the SPD – and potentially once again KSČM – make.

Rising importance of China

The influence of Russia might be significantly weakened by its latest killing of civilians and breaking international norms on a huge scale. Nevertheless, there is one more actor in the disinformation scene worth your attention – China. The Chinese regime is building its influence in Czechia in the long run. For example, the CEO of Chinese company CEFC China Energy Ye Jianming even became a special adviser to Czech president Miloš Zeman in 2015 and stayed in this position until he disappeared in 2018. It became known later that he was detained by the ruling regime. Chinese state also gained leverage through its “mask diplomacy” applied all over the globe, without the exception of the Czech Republic throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Appearance of social-economic topics easily exploitable by disinformation actors in public debate

Last but not least, we should not forget to mention a window of opportunity for disinformation actors in increasingly crushing social-economic situations. As the prices of energy are rising and inflation is increasing the cost of living likewise, it will be tempting for disinformation actors to use those facts to argue that Czechia should not try to lower its dependence on Russia in a similar manner as Hungarian PM Viktor Orban is already doing.

Georgia

Introduction

Georgia has long been a testing ground for Russian hybrid warfare. During the 2008 August war, Russia piloted its hybrid warfare and disinformation tactics, which Russia later successfully adopted in Ukraine and beyond. Since then, apart from Russia occupying 20% of Georgian territory, pro-Russian and anti-Western groups have continuously disseminated malign disinformation and propaganda in Georgia, attacking its pro-Western foreign policy, NATO and EU integration aspirations, and liberal democracy. Apart from targeting Georgian citizens with anti-Western and pro-Kremlin narratives, Russian disinformation has consistently spread tailor-made campaigns for different societal groups in Georgia. Russian disinformation campaigns have intensified since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. In Georgia, there are Russian state-controlled outlets (Sputnik and NewsFront) and proxy websites, even TV channels, and some pro-Russian/anti-Western political parties (of which Alliance of Patriots and alt-right Conservative Movement are the most prominent) who spread anti-Western disinformation.

As Russia has been waging a hybrid war against Georgia, there have been quite a few initiatives in Georgia to address this threat. Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS) and Media Development Foundation (MDF) have launched fact-checking platforms – Factcheck Georgia (GRASS) and Mythdetector (MDF). They have been producing debunking articles and related content.

Factcheck Georgia and MDF are partnering with Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking program, which means that they are fact-checking content spread on FB (the most widely used platform for spreading disinformation in Georgia) and labeling manipulative or false posts, which reduces their reach. Labeling the content also reduces the viewership of propagandistic outlets on the social media platforms, ultimately limiting their audience. The program has proved quite effective, especially during times of crisis, elections, and the pandemic.

GRASS, MDF, and other organizations are conducting media-literacy campaigns, providing training to youth, students, teachers, representatives of ethnic minorities, etc.

ISFED, GRASS, and MDF monitor and regularly produce reports describing Georgia’s disinformation scene, actors, and narratives. Such reports are useful for research purposes, as well as for decision-makers. The media has also more or less covered those reports, thus raising public awareness on the issue.

ISFED and DFR Lab of the Atlantic Council have been conducting extensive research on coordinated inauthentic behavior of disinfo sources on Facebook. They have then communicated their findings to Facebook, which has removed the pages, accounts, and groups engaged in inauthentic coordinated behavior. Such removals are immensely effective as they degrade disinformation infrastructure, although malign actors create new pages, groups, and accounts every time. Nevertheless, the removals limit their effectiveness and reach.

Sovlab and the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) conduct research that addresses the historical narratives of disinformation. Ifact conducts investigative journalistic activities about actors engaged in disseminating propaganda. IDFI, in partnership with the University of Georgia, has developed a course for students (and not only) in disinformation and propaganda issues. Tbilisi State University also has a class about the information wars and propaganda in the BA program of International Relations.

Lessons learnt

The Georgian government acknowledges the threat of propaganda and disinformation in its strategic documents but has not done much to counter it. There have only been sporadic cases when the government representatives countered Russian propaganda with strategic communication.

It’s noteworthy that the parliament has conducted a thematic inquiry into anti-Western propaganda and adopted the report containing numerous recommendations. However, since the report’s adoption, there has been almost no progress, and the parliament has not been active in pushing the government to implement the recommendations.

The government has established strategic communication departments in the foreign ministry, interior ministry, ministry of defense, and government strategic communication (in the chancellory of the Prime Minister). Strategic communication is an excellent tool to counter disinformation; however, the work of these departments has been controversial. They have not done much and certainly not enough against pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, while the Facebook pages of the stratcom departments have mainly focused on countering the opposition-affiliated media and those critical to the government.

To effectively counter disinformation campaigns in Georgia, the parliament must proceed with its report and implement recommendations; the government’s stratcoms must focus on the imminent threat stemming from Russia’s disinformation campaigns, and government, civil society, media, and all other relevant stakeholders must work together to address this issue.

The coronavirus pandemic has proved that disinformation can have devastating effects not only in Georgia but all over the world. Government’s ignorance has paid off and Georgia has experienced the actual on the ground impact of disinformation and malign information operations. The ineffective campaign against disinformation led Georgia to concrete severe consequences which had significant impact on Georgia’s political, social and economic agenda:

Rise of alt-right proxy groups resulting in extremist violence

Alt-info, a radical group, notorious for its violent actions and hateful, threatening and violence-inciting statements, conducts propaganda against Georgia’s allies and against its constitutionally recognized Euro-Atlantic foreign policy course. It accuses the West of interference into Georgia’s domestic issues, colonialism, and of undermining Georgia’s traditions and its Christian faith. Alt-info considers that Georgia does not have an European future, seeks to end liberal democracy in Georgia and cut off relations with the West. As an alternative Alt-Info suggest to start negotations with Kremlin with the aim of aligning with Russia. Apart from acting as a long-standing source of anti-western propaganda, the radical Alt-info group was behind the violent events of July 5, 2021, which led to the physical assault of 53 media representatives. Particularly, Alt-Info employed its propaganda tactics and to organise a violent rally with the aim of not letting the Pride March to take place. As the Pride March did not take place, the extremists attacked reporters and cameramen, resulting in massive organised violence in the centre of the capital Tbilisi, with the police not able to stop the extremists.

Threat to economic and energy security

Alt-Info and other groups organised a massive campaign against building a massive hydro power plant. The protest started with some legitimate questions but then it was dominated by propaganda and disinformation. Eventually, the propagandists managed to halt the project and investor left the country resulting in economic damage and the missed opportunity to achieve energy-independence because as consumption increases in Georgia it is necessary to generate more energy locally in order not to get dependent on imports from Russia.

Security threat

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020 constituted a threat to Georgia’s security, as there was a serious risk of the conflict spilling over into Georgia, given that Armenian and Azerbaijani ethnic minorities live geographically close with each other on the territory of Georgia. Disinformation campaigns have tried to confuse the situation and provoke controversy. For example, disinformation messages said that Syrian fighters and weapons were transported to Azerbaijan through Georgia. These messages also called on ethnic Armenians to block the state border between Georgia and Turkey.

Germany

Introduction

The spread of conspiracy theories plays a big role in coordinated disinformation campaigns. Conspiracy theories have always existed, but recently, since the Covid-19 Pandemic, they have become increasingly popular. Since the beginning of the Pandemic Germany was one of the countries where a significant part of the population spread conspiracy theories about the virus.

This part focuses on the actors of disinformation and creation of conspiracy theories with the main goal to divide societies and destabilize the liberal democratic order. The first part elaborates on originators of disinformation, as well as countermeasures, while the second part further looks into conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Lastly, it gives an insight into the right-wing terrorism in Germany, which was influenced in the last years by long-standing disinformation campaigns by various actors.

Disinformation in Germnay - Un État actuel

Disinformation is used domestically by various actors to pursue their own political goals. At the same time, foreign actors such as states in particular are involved in disinformation campaigns to export their narratives or divide and destabilize societies. In this part, originators of disinformation, as well as countermeasures, are presented.

Non-governmental actors are normally individuals who act out of political or financial interests. Actors with political interests are anti-vaxxers and right-wing extremists which are both very effective in spreading disinformation as a study from the Center For Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) shows. According to the study, in 2022 65 % of the disinformation content on Twitter and Facebook about the vaccine was spread by only 12 individuals. Climate crisis deniers are mainly found in the extreme right spectrum, such as the far-right politician Alice Weidel (AFD) who has regularly spread the disinformation that the sun is responsible for “climate change” to negate the human-made climate crises. Other actors do not pursue political but purely economic interests by spreading disinformation. Organizations associated with important anti-vaxxers operate with annual revenues of at least 36 $ million and the followers of anti-vaxxers on social media could be worth up to 1.1 billion in annual revenue for big tech giants like Facebook.

The most important governmental actor in spreading disinformation in Germany is currently the Russian Federation. However, China, Iran, and Turkey are mentioned as well in the constitutional protection report 2021 (Bundesministerium des Innern, 2021). Nina Schick describes in her book “Deep Fakes” profoundly how Russia has built up structures and organizations in the state apparatus over decades to use disinformation as a weapon. For this purpose Russian disinformation purposefully uses fears to weaken the population’s trust in democratic and state institutions.

The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE) pursues the goal of preventing and responding to disinformation. The European Union faces the threat of disinformation by providing a high level of transparency. Therefore,the center for strategic communication and information analysis provides a weekly report which detects and informs about the actors and mechanism of disinformation that is directed against EU member states or simply occurs inside their media environment. The aim is not to eliminate disinformation but rather to enlighten society about the networks and strategies of the originators. The report is published weekly at: “euvsdisinfo.eu. “ . On the national scale, the defense is organized in a cluster of governmental and non-governmental organizations. The potential threat of disinformation has led to a concentration of resources in the interagency Cyber AZ which is an interagency cooperation platform to detect, tackle and prevent cyber-threats like disinformation.

Actors of disinformation in Germany can be divided into state and non-state actors. Non-state actors act out of political (anti-vaxxers and right extremists) or economic interests (anti-vax industry and influencers). State actors are primarily Russia, but also China, Iran, and Turkey, with the aim to weaken trust in democratic institutions and divide democratic societies.

Conspiracy Theories and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Conspiracy theories are usually based on a secret plan: Someone aims to attack society and has developed a strategy to execute the plan. Conspiracy theories are often associated with an anti-Semitic structure, not because they specifically target Jews but because they follow the same patterns as anti-Semitic myths like the ” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. This was especially observable during the migration crisis, when it was reported in many circles that chancellor Angela Merkel was pursuing the plan of “repopulation”. Oftentimes studies are reinterpreted, taken out of context and presented as “plans”, although their content has nothing to do with the conspiracy theory.

Some scholars argue that the phenomenon is not new and has existed since time immemorial. Conspiracy theories relating to vaccination are also not new. Because vaccination represents the interface between society, the state and one’s own body, it has always been particularly controversial. Already in 1874, with the smallpox vaccination, opponents within society formed a fierce resistance to vaccination campaigns.

Being anti-vaccination and right-wing extremism often go hand in hand. The rhetoric is usually the same: The state, the media and scientists have united and are fighting against the “people”, who must now save democracy. Just as these three groups pose a danger to the “people” (which is seen as homogeneous), those who think differently or are part of minorities also pose a threat to the “people” because they have malicious ulterior motives. This quickly leads to racism and anti-Semitism.

In 2020, conspiracy theories spread rapidly, primarily via social networks. There are now task forces within the social media corporations whose job is to find methods of using AI to delete false information or provide warnings to content that is probably misleading. The problem, however, is that the corporations are taking on the role of independent regulators, which is not without controversy. The federal government and local administrations have also taken steps to combat conspiracy theories, which might (especially when it comes to misleading medical advice) lead to severe injuries, and have created portals to help users identify fakes. Below we have compiled a list of most conspiracy theories that popped up during the pandemic.

Name

Description

Time (estimates)

Avoid infection

Warm temperatures can kill the virus

Beginning of the pandemic

5G

5G is responsible for the COVID infection

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Virus manmade and bioweapon

Virologist Tasuko Honjo said the virus is manmade. Virus is used as a bioweapon, mainly by the USA

April 2020

Vaccination

Vaccination is deadly, and mandatory

undefined

Masks are counterproductive

Masks are ineffective or come with negative side effects.

undefined

Comparison with flu

Covid is just like the flu

November 2020

Bill Gates

Gates patented the virus and already has a vaccine which he wants to sell. In addition, he was aware of the pandemic before it hit

undefined

Drink water

Drink water with salt or vinegar kills the virus

March 2020

Hydroxychloroquine and Chlorine dioxide

Hydroxychloroquine and Chlorine dioxide are remedies against the virus (by Trump and Musk)

March 2020

Helicopters

Helicopters spray pesticides and disinfectants on infected areas

April 2020

Deadly Propaganda: Right-wing disinformation environments in Germany

On June 2, 2019, Walter Lübcke, local politician of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is shot in his yard. The perpetrator, a neo-Nazi, will later admit to killing Lübcke for his welcoming stance toward migrants during the influx of asylum-seekers in 2015/16. The assassination was preceded by an online hate campaign based on a misleading video and fueled, among others, by a member of Parliament of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The murder of Lübcke would be the first in a series of deadly attacks committed by right-wing extremists against a synagogue in Halle (killing two) and Germans with foreign background in Hanau (killing nine). The close succession of these events has spurred debate in Germany about the influence toxic online environments have on radicalizing individuals.

Socio-cultural background

Against the historic backdrop, Nazism and the far-right are sensitive topics in Germany, making the public react strongly to extremist positions and accusations of racism, antisemitism, or xenophobia. This is institutionalized in Germany’s “defensive democracy” (wehrhafte Demokratie) allowing the state to intervene – and even restrict fundamental rights – when its liberal-democratic order (freiheitlich-demokratische Grundordnung) is threatened. This includes policing of speech (e.g. Holocaust denial) or the surveillance and prohibition of political parties. While these measures are meant to prevent the installation of a dictatorship by democratic means, they do fuel claims of censorship that can be exploited by disinformers.

While Germany has largely come to terms with its past and education on the Nazi regime and the Holocaust are an essential part of Germans’ lives, antisemitic and racist convictions are still widespread. Studies show that about 21 % of Germans agree completely or in part with antisemitic and 29 % with anti-Islam statements. The most widely held prejudice, however, concerns asylum-seekers, with about 77 % agreeing completely or partially with denigrating statements. Those preconceptions are a nurturing ground for disinformation.

Far-right disinformation narratives in Germany

Conspiracy narratives

Among the most popular conspiracy narratives among the German (and international) far-right is the Great Replacement narrative, claiming that a (Jewish) world conspiracy is plotting to eradicate white populations in “the West” by enabling the mass immigration of non-Whites. It mobilizes both, xenophobic and antisemitic attitudes. Some of those believing in this narrative consider themselves to be on the brink of a civil war with a cosmopolitan leftist elite wanting to destroy the German Volk. This can justify violence as self-defence or encourage some to try to spark a civil war, with the goal of installing a fascist regime even sooner (accelerationism). This logic has inspired the Halle attack as well as numerous exposed terrorist plots.

Another specifically German conspiracy narrative is that of the so-called Reichsbürger (citizens of the Reich) claiming that the Federal Republic is illegitimate or non-existent, as the Third Reich continues to exist in its pre-war borders. While authorities and the public shrugged off the risk for years, violent acts (including the murder of a police agent) and its considerable mobilization potential during the pandemic have increasingly drawn attention to the topic.

Disinformation campaigns

Conspiracy narratives are often the foundation disinformation campaigns are built upon. In Germany, right-wing disinformation often seeks to discredit the political opponent, including minorities, and to sow distrust toward democratic processes and institutions.

  • In 2015 and 2016, when over a million asylum-seekers arrived in Germany, the internet was flooded with sensational reports of crimes (often rape) allegedly committed by asylum-seekers. While some did commit crimes, hundreds of these stories were found to be invented. The campaign was only successful because it catered to existing prejudices about asylum-seekers while referring to narratives like the Great Replacement. Together with the often-invoked myth of the “lying press” (Lügenpresse), that allegedly covers up migrant crime, it confirmed and strengthened distrust in government and mainstream media.
  • During both the 2017 and 2021 federal elections, online rumours spread claiming that votes for the far-right AfD were discarded or that election boards had received instructions to declare AfD votes invalid. In 2021, inspired by Donald Trump, AfD politicians inflated the dangers of mail-in ballots. All claims were unfounded, but eroded trust in elections and questioned the legitimacy of democratically elected governments.
  • During the 2021 election campaign, Annalena Baerbock, Green chancellor candidate, became the main target of several disinformation campaigns. While some aimed at discrediting her personally (e.g. through fake nudes or falsely attributed quotes), others linked her to the so-called Great Reset, claiming she is the puppet of a Jewish world conspiracy. Again, the motive of the lying press was used, implying that the mainstream media had an unfair Green bias. This shows how easily conspiracy narratives can be recycled and applied to new contexts.

Disinformation actors and environments

The disinformation scene in Germany is diverse. It comprises classic neo-Nazis, the “New Right”, preppers and Reichsbürger, esoteric people, vulnerable individuals radicalized online, but also political parties, youth movements (e.g. Identitarian Movement) and celebrities (who often function as knots in networks as they pick up disinformation and accelerate their spread to their trusting followership). According to studies, bots have so far not played an important role in Germany’s disinformation environment.

Right-wing disinformers thus have a large target group to cater and adapt their messages to. For example, the “New Right” has professionalized their communication, working with subtle messages and modern marketing strategies on social media. In addition to that, leaked documents illustrate their strategy to hijack online debates and flood social media with right-wing opinion (e.g. by making hashtags trend or by placing their messages in unconnected, harmless online trends). The goal is to get these picked up by mainstream media and presented as legitimate talking points.

While popular social media platforms, in particular YouTube and Facebook, are often starting points for radicalization due to their algorithms, deplatforming efforts and legislative obligations, such as the German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), obliging platforms to remove illegal content within a given period of time, have pushed disinformers to other sites. Especially Telegram has been at the centre of scrutiny in Germany, because it does not moderate content, cooperate with German authorities, and, as a messenger, does not fall under the NetzDG. Yet, it is  an incubator where narratives are developed and tested,  a connector between right-wing actors, a ground for planning attacks, and  a disseminator for propaganda to a wide audience.

However, police and prosecutors in Germany struggle to ensure systematic monitoring of these sites. It is telling, for example, that the spectacular plot to murder the Minister-President of Saxony, planned in late 2021 on Telegram, was not uncovered by the police, but a group of journalists.

Other so-called counter-publics like imageboards (e.g. 4chan or 8chan, where right-wing terrorist attacks were announced, livestreamed and celebrated) platforms like Reddit or Gettr or serious-looking news websites and magazines (e.g. Compact magazine) are just as much breeding grounds for radicalization. However, Telegram is the most accessible one.

Best practises

  • Do not shrug off far-right conspiracy narratives, even if they might sound ridiculous. They radicalize individuals which can and will lead to violence.

 

  • Far-right disinformation flourishes because of widespread negative attitudes towards minorities. The fight on disinformation will only be successful if we fight antisemitism and racism as well.

 

  • Distrust in governments and democratic processes contribute to the success of disinformation campaigns. Governments that want to fight disinformation will have to first regain the trust of their citizens.

 

  • Create awareness for modern extreme-right communication strategies.

 

  • Legislation on online hate speech can help to make propagandists’ lives harder, but they will find other platforms on which they can spread even more problematic messages.

 

  • Law enforcement must get better at monitoring the most problematic platforms and channels. This includes providing the necessary organizational and financial capacities and proper education on the matter.

Poland

Introduction

Russian disinformation effort in Poland Due to its location, Poland is a country that is on the direct frontline of destabilising activities in the European Union and NATO. For this reason, the government and the public sector must be aware of the threats mainly caused by the Russian Federation. Destabilising actions have intensified with the Belarusian artificially created hybrid migration crisis, which began in 2021. Poland and the Baltic States have recently experienced a border crisis caused by the Minsk and Moscow regimes working together. The crisis mainly manifested in the creation of an artificial migration route, which manifested in the bringing in of economic migrants from Middle Eastern countries.

The victims of the crisis were mainly European residents of the nearby border belt, who experienced a sharp drop in the security level. Tackling the accumulated crisis required decisive action on the part of Poland and the Baltic States. In addition, in their attempt to stabilise the situation on the eastern border, Poland and the Baltic States were victimised both by regime TV stations from Russia and Belarus and by some western medias trying to blame Poland and the Baltic States for the crisis on the border.

In addition, the victims of disinformation were the financial migrants from the Middle East, who believed that Belarus would help them get into the European Union for a fee. That was why Poland launched an extensive information campaign in the Middle East and Turkey. The launch of a full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022 showed that the migration crisis was only a test for the Polish security system. From February 2022. Poland unconditionally admitted 7 million people who crossed the border, of which about 3 million Ukrainians remained in Poland. With the wave of war refugees, Poland allowed people without EU passports to cross the border even when they might have been suspected of forcing the border in the Belarusian.

Over time, accusations of alleged racism and double standards were levelled at the Polish border guards by the foreign media. These accusations were not substantiated and were denied by the Polish side. For many years, Poland, due to its difficult history, has remained an advocate of a rational policy toward the Russian Federation. This approach has been heavily criticised, particularly by countries such as Germany, which have become dependent on Russian energy resources. Despite the changing attitudes of our Western partners, Russia continues its disinformation activities, which are both domestically and internationally directed.

Activities to combat disinformation in Poland

Actions to combat disinformation in Poland are taken at the governmental and non-governmental level. The former relate mainly to strategic communication activities. The latter mainly relate to the activities of non-governmental organisations in this regard.

Strategic communication in Poland

In practice, strategic communication tasks are carried out in Poland by individual units working within various ministries. However, there is no common plan of action at the general level. As a result, there are problems with efficient cooperation and achieving the full synergy effect. Currently, there are no structural solutions at the inter-ministerial level, which would allow for effective coordination of activities within the whole state, and not just individual sections of its activities.

The Ministry of National Defence (MoD) is responsible for creating and conducting information policy on defence, including the fight against disinformation. Within the Ministry of Defence, the Operations Centre of the Minister of Defence is specifically responsible for ‘defining challenges and coordinating strategic communication activities’.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is also involved in strategic communication initiatives. A Strategic Communication Desk has been established in the Office of the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This unit operates within the framework of the Rapid Alert System European cooperation network and is reported to deal with “disinformation in relation to Poland’s foreign policy priorities”. However, there is a lack of official information on the establishment of the group and the objectives and modalities of its functioning. In addition, there is also a Department of Public and Cultural Diplomacy within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to information on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “public diplomacy” uses mechanisms from the field of soft power and is defined as “activities of a strategic, coordinating and executive character, which through shaping public attitudes and public opinion abroad are aimed at gaining understanding and support for the Polish raison d’état and foreign policy of the Republic of Poland”.

Activities in the field of strategic communication and counteracting disinformation also involve, among others, representatives of the National Security Bureau and the Ministry of Interior and Administration.

It is also worth mentioning the Territorial Defence Forces (WOT). The Strategic Communication Division of the Territorial Defence Forces (WOT) operates as part of the WOT. Since the first decisions concerning their formation, the Territorial Defence Forces have started active anti-disinformation activities. However, the inclusion of the WOT in strategic communication activities seems to be a solution that may be controversial due to the volunteer and territorial character of this type of Armed Forces.

Poland is also involved in international undertakings in the field of strategic communication and counteracting disinformation. These include, above all, the East StratCom Task Force of the European External Action Service and the NATO Strategic Communication Expert Centre (NATO StratCom COE).

The Academic Centre for Strategic Communication (ACKS) also plays an important role. This is a think-tank that conducts activities to enhance soldiers’ practical communication skills. ACKS will also lead the public debate on strategic communication issues (StratCom). The Centre will also participate in the preparation of strategic communication training programmes for the needs of the Armed Forces in cooperation with other units of the Ministry of National Defence. Moreover, ACKS will conduct close international cooperation with institutions dealing with StratCom issues, e.g. with the NATO Strategic Communication Expert Centre. There are plans to launch a NATO-certified course on strategic communication conducted in English.

On 28 January 2022, the Operations Centre of the Ministry of Defence and the Academic Centre for Strategic Communication of the Military Academy also launched a social campaign announced during the conference “Independence of Information” under the slogan #Fejkoodporni. It will help to raise awareness of what disinformation and fake news are, what threats they pose, how to defend against them and how to protect yourself and your loved ones.

The “Fejkoodporni” information campaign was aimed at the soldiers of the Polish Army, but also at the general public to remember the nature of these threats.The inauguration of #Fejkoodporni was accompanied by a spot showing the nature of the phenomenon of disinformation, exposing the intention of their sources and encouraging people to oppose fake news. A report on vulnerability to disinformation was also presented during the event. The presentation was accompanied by panel discussions with the participation of experts: representatives of public administration, the Polish Army, the world of science and research centres, as well as the media. In the first part, the speakers took up the topic of knowledge and assessment of credibility of information about the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border. The second panel discussed, among other things, sources of information about Poland and the world and a model of media consumption.

The aforementioned report, commissioned by ACKS and prepared by the Foundation Institute for Market and Social Research (IBRiS), was aimed at investigating the susceptibility to disinformation in various situations and places. The research was conducted between 6 and 10 December 2021, i.e. just after the end of the state of emergency introduced in parts of Podlaskie and parts of Lubelskie provinces. The same questions about the perception of both fake news and true information on the situation at the border were asked to people living in the area covered by the state of emergency and other regions of Poland. The degree of trust in media messages, knowledge of the situation on the border, perception of potential security threats were also examined and in-depth interviews were conducted among residents of the state of emergency on their perception of the conflict on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Activities at the non-governmental level

Activities to combat disinformation at the non-governmental level are primarily undertaken by fact-checking organisations. They combat disinformation in various ways, in particular by checking the credibility of individual pieces of information and publishing analyses on the subject. They also focus on refuting false information. Some organisations also cooperate with social media, especially Facebook. As part of this cooperation, false information found on this platform is debunked. Efforts to combat disinformation can also take the form of educating the public and increasing resistance to disinformation, such as through media education workshops. Below, we will present different fact-checking initiatives in Poland that deal with disinformation.

Demagog.pl

The oldest fact-checking organisation in Poland, operating since 2014. It belongs to the IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network). The association conducts wide-ranging activities: it checks the statements of politicians, enables Internet users to submit reports, and provides educational materials as part of the Fact-checking Academy.

Konkret24.pl

Project launched in October 2018 by the TVN Group. Journalists check not only politicians, they also verify information in seven categories – Poland, World, Politics, Science, Health, Entertainment and Myths. Internet users can also report fake news. The project received funding from the Google DNI Innovation programme, which supports the development of quality journalism on the Internet.

Demaskator24

Project launched in November 2018 by Agencja Informacyjna AIP24 (Polska Press Grupa). Journalists and editors check controversial news stories and statements by politicians. Readers also have the opportunity to report fake news. The project also includes the Demaskatora Academy, which teaches how to verify various materials on the Internet.

Antyfake

Fact-checking portal run by HGA Media. The website was created as an indirect effect of a journalist investigation which revealed that portals owned by HGA Media published and disseminated false information. At the time, the owner announced the launch of a fact-checking platform. Antifake has been operational since April 2019.

AFP Sprawdzam

AFP started its fact-checking activities in France in 2017. Since then, it has become a leading global fact-checking organisation, with specialised journalists working in numerous countries, from the United States to Myanmar. It also operates in Poland and is dedicated to debunking false information.

FakeHunter

FakeHunter is a social project for verification of content published on the Internet, launched by the Polish Press Agency together with GovTech Polska, which aims at unmasking false news concerning the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Slovakia

Introduction

The need for information has always been a vital point of the existence of society throughout history. People act according to the messages they receive from the environment. This kind of situation creates a desire to manipulate the news the subjects receive. If the emitter of the message wants the society or the individual to prosper, he tends to pass positive news which stimulates the subject to great deeds which lead to prosperity. On the other hand, if there is a wish to exacerbate the power of the nation, negative news is going to be spread – the actor is thus creating disinformation to destabilize and weaken the whole society.

According to our experiences the master of this craft of producing catchy narratives with poisonous effects on the recipients is Russia and to a limited part the People’s republic of China. But the principal champion is without a doubt  Russia. It is given by the fact that Russia is much closer to our “sphere of existence” and China has not been mastering this craft as long as Russia has.

Russia has strong historical connections with Slovak citizens. According to the legends our nations once were one group which separated then into smaller units which started to wander through the European continent. This theory is strongly supported by the fact that our languages are quite similar and one can understand the spoken language of another to a limited extent.      

Although historical ties between Russia and the Slovak nation are not only formed merely by this. In the historical mind of our nation, Russia has served as the saviour and preserver of world orders. Russian forces have marched through our land during the process of liberating Europe from Emperor Napoleon I.

Russia maintained its role as a great companion and friend also during World war I due to the fact that it fought a war against the Habsburg dominion, thus contributing to the cause of bringing down the hated monarchy and playing a part in granting freedom for the nations within e.g. Czechs and Slovaks.

Russia gained ultimate prestige during World war II when it managed to be perceived as the nation that has a pivotal role in tearing apart Nazi oppression in Europe. Nowadays Russia uses all its historical achievements to yield as much support from the population of Middle Europe as it can.   

Unfortunately due to the geographical and geopolitical realities, western Europe has not found such strong relations with our nation throughout history as Russia did. This shifted to the advantage of the Western block just recently, after the fall of the iron curtain and predominantly after Slovakia joined the EU and NATO.

Russia puts its narratives and disinformation predominantly on its rich historical bond that it once had with our nation. Due to strong tradition and “historical longevity” it is quite successful in gaining support from the elderly and middle-aged population who carry in themselves the notion and memory of those times when Russia acted as a role model. That time also carries their recollection of their youth and childhood. This fact somehow psychologically strengthens the positive picture of Russia in their imagination.

Narratives

One of the ways to effectively spread false and misleading information in public is the use of narratives that are easy to understand for everyone, but at the same time embellish the reality in favour of one side. Russia used these techniques long before the invasion of Ukraine.

However, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, we have had the opportunity to observe the strengthening of pro-Kremlin rhetoric directed against Ukraine and NATO. While Russia increased pressure on the West with its declarations of retaliation, Slovak disinformation websites supported pro-Kremlin narratives.

One of them is the alleged genocide of the Russian-speaking minority by the Ukrainian side, with which Russia justifies its so-called “special military operation”. This narrative of “genocide” appeared in the Russian media as early as 2014, after the Maidan protests, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Russia propagandistically calls Ukrainians a brotherly nation and that they have the duty to liberate them and “denazify” their country.

Another frequently used narrative is closely related to the previous one. Russia claims that it was forced to invade Ukraine because it is threatened by NATO and the West. In the disinformation sense, the universal initiators of the conflict have always been Ukraine, NATO or the EU (sometimes all actors at the same time). They were repeatedly accused of escalating tensions and provocations by Russia, which, on the contrary, was placed in the position of a victim.

They also claim that the annexation of the Crimean peninsula was necessary because it was one way to prevent the expansion of NATO and did not allow the US to build its bases in Ukraine.

However, because these reasons are not enough to justify an unjust invasion of the territory of a sovereign state, Russia has resorted to defaming Ukrainians in its state media, calling them Nazis and Fascists, in an attempt to overthrow the government and install its pro-Russian government. People in Russia, therefore, believe that the war in Ukraine is actually a liberation mission and they mostly support this war.

A relatively new narrative is the idea that the West is waging a hybrid war against the Russian Federation. This is undoubtedly an attempt to reverse the perception of reality, when the Kremlin practically applies the elements of hybrid action against the West but tries not only to cover up this fact but also to transform it into a form in which it appears as a victim of this strategy.

While one of these narratives seeks to portray the Russian Federation as a victim oppressed by the West, the other creates an image of the Russian Federation as a fearless superpower that dominates its rivals. These specific narratives represent a clear example of long-term propaganda by the Russian Federation. That narrative is primarily based on the presentation of modern Russian military technology and technology that may or may not be compared to Western, mostly American technology. In any case, it is an attempt to show that Russia is one step ahead and has an answer for all types of potential threats. Within this narrative, it is worth noting the fact that Russian propaganda likes to use statements in Western, especially American media, where commentators or military officials recognise the qualities of Russian weapons, while again spreading these statements in a greatly exaggerated way as part of the described narrative.

At the same time, it is possible to say that the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in its implementation did not correspond to this narrative, and perhaps that is why the Russian side began to threaten nuclear weapons in the information space.

Disinformation actors in the Slovak information space

There are numerous types of active disinformation actors in the Slovak information space. They mostly share similar narratives, but all of them have different motivations.

The most influential are politicians who seek to gain political points and increase their popularity. It is not a coincidence that Slovak politicians who spread disinformation are the ones who use social media in their campaigns the most. Politicians use the algorithms of social media, which are known to favour negative and false information, to get as much attention as possible. Having hundreds of thousands of followers and sharing “their own truth” on their social media profiles persistently has had the potential to get themselves a large number of supporters. Gaining peoples’ trust is then just one step from gaining their votes in the next election. Apart from using social media, mostly Facebook, they also spread disinformation at their own press conferences and some are handing out posters and their own newspapers. The most influential political subjects in Slovakia are far-right and far-left extremists and pro-Russian leftists.

Apart from politicians, fake news in Slovakia is spread also by a large number of disinformation outlets, whose main motivation is money from advertisements displayed on their websites. Some of the most influential are Hlavné správy, Hlavný denník, Slobodný vysielač, Bádateľ, Infovojna and others.

However, there is a number of non-governmental outlets which are supported, controlled, managed or in other ways connected to political subjects. An example is Magazín 1 which is managed by a far-right party called Kotlebovci – Ľudová Strana Naše Slovensko.

Others are also connected to foreign governments, mostly the Russian. For example, an author contributing to disinformation outlet Hlavné správy has been known to be paid by Russian spies. Their main goal is to increase Russian influence in Slovak society and therefore politics.

The strategy of disinformation outlets in Slovakia consists of publishing articles on their websites and sharing them on their social media profiles afterwards. That is why Facebook pages are the next most influential disinformation actors in Slovakia. A number of them have tens of thousands of followers and their posts get hundreds and thousands of interactions (likes, comments and shares). Some of the most influential are Informácie bez cenzúry, Armáda Ruskej Federácie, nocomment.sk, DAV DVA and many others.

Apart from Facebook, some are also using other social media platforms like Youtube where they mostly share interviews with pseudo-experts full of disinformation and propaganda.

After Facebook started deleting some posts and even profiles, many are migrating to other social media which do not have any rules against fake news. These are for example Telegram or a Russian social media platform called VKontakte.

Manipulation techniques

Disinformation actors use several manipulation techniques that help to convince their audience about their “alternative truth” and perpetuate disinformation on the Internet. In recent years, their tactics have become more sophisticated which makes it harder to spot fake information. Those who spread disinformation became much more professional and their disinformation is not so shallow anymore. The same trend can be, however, seen not only in Slovakia but all around the world.

Malign actors heavily rely on emotional manipulation since strong feelings, such as anger, outrage, or fear, increase the likelihood that people will believe in disinformation. Apart from expressive words, in many cases, they accompany their messages with photos that create strong emotional responses. These images or videos are often either taken out of context, they are not related to the discussed matter, or they are edited to serve their purpose.

Another important manipulation tool of disinformation actors is the oversimplification of difficult topics and cherry-picking of the evidence. Complicated problems are presented as black-and-white matters without the full context which can easily lead to misunderstanding and wrong conclusions.

To give credibility to disinformation claims, disinformation actors in some cases back up their statements with the words of experts and authorities. However, their arguments are in many cases either taken out of the context, these opinions are regarded as incorrect by other academics, or they are completely made up. Closely connected to this tactic is the usage of studies and reports which were rejected by the academic community or experts, or official studies whose results are being misinterpreted. Moreover, disinformation actors often create fake debates in which they position science and pseudoscience on the same level which is from a factual point of view incorrect.

Similarly, disinformation actors often present opinions (either opinions of their own or opinions of those who agree with them) as facts that significantly distort reality. In some cases, they try to convince their audience that many people actually believe in given disinformation. In this regard, they count on the bandwagon effect which is a tendency of people to accept ideas and opinions are being held by the majority.

Besides, disinformation actors use in their speeches, articles, and posts contain several manipulative argumentation tools. Among the most popular in Slovakia is the so-called “whataboutism”. The main aim is to deflect criticism by creating a false parallel with a similar but unrelated phenomenon. It is an attempt to discredit the other site by accusing them of hypocrisy without actually reacting to criticism.

Furthermore, Slovak disinformation actors use, for example, a slippery slope argument that forces people to believe that small steps will inevitably lead to a chain of very negative consequences or they use a misleading vividness when explaining their arguments which evokes strong emotions from the recipient, etc.

In some cases, disinformation actors do not spread disinformation themselves but they use ambiguous language which leads the recipient of the information to the wrong conclusions. Similarly often, they present so-called loaded questions that hide a certain narrative to which are the recipients manipulated to believe.

Above this, disinformation actors repeat their lies so often and people get so familiar with it that after some time for many of them it becomes the truth. They rely on a simple well-known fact that the repetition of information significantly increases the likelihood that people will start to believe it.

Best practice examples

As the above-mentioned text presented, Slovakia has plenty of experience with coordinated disinformation campaigns, mostly originating from Russia. Therefore, state and non-governmental actors came up with countermeasures on protecting citizens and constitutional order from foreign influence activities. The following part will present a few examples of good practices in how the Slovak republic fights disinformation.

Firstly, there are some successful activities of state institutions. The president of the Slovak republic has launched a series of educational videos where experts present facts on how social media work, how are they designed to evoke emotions and are an easy tool for manipulation. The aim was to raise awareness and media literacy. In the area of debunking disinformation and warning the citizens about online fraud, The Police of the Slovak Republic have a Facebook page, where they are very active. The Slovak government has special institutions that are responsible for the monitoring of hybrid threats (including disinformation), they were established under the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defence and the Government Office. Recently revised media law enhanced the competencies of the Council for broadcasting and retransmission, where online media are to follow the same rules as the traditional ones.

Secondly, the non-governmental sector is very active in this area. NGOs participating in the research are GLOBSEC and ADAPT Institute. Debunked disinformations are provided by Antipropaganda.sk, Konšpiratori.sk or Infosecurity.sk, where they are focusing also on revealing coordinated disinformation campaigns. Strengthening media literacy is the primary target of the NGO Zmúdri and they are publishing educational materials for pupils and teachers.

To add, the company Gerulata has developed an online tool for enhanced monitoring of the spread of disinformation, which is a helpful tool for researchers and government institutions.

Ukraine

Media literacy and information security in Ukraine

General comments

The manipulation of public opinion in Ukraine is a complex problem. It consists of the existence of a significant number of internal and external stakeholders, whose aim is to create disinformation messages to achieve certain goals. The main one (in terms of the threat to the existence of Ukrainian sovereignty)  is the influence of russia and its agents in our country (parties, public organizations, “useful idiots”, etc.). However, no less harmful are other political forces inside Ukraine. Their struggle for the electorate before and between elections is also accompanied by the spread of fakes and biased messages.

Best practices

In Ukraine, we have a lot of projects, voluntary initiatives, non-governmental organizations and state authorities who care about increasing the level of media literacy awareness in different ways:

  • “StopFake”, “Voxcheck”, “По той бік новин” (“On the other side of the news”) – projects whose goal is to produce best practises in fact-checking. They promote information hygiene on their pages in social networks, as well as by cooperating with the media. Another area of their work is to hold events aimed at raising awareness of media literacy.

  • “Інститут масової інформації” (“Institute of Mass Information”), “Детектор медіа” (“Detector of Media”), “Texty.org” – organizations working in the field of media monitoring and improving journalist skills. They create professional analytics and research on a number of topics related to the observance of journalistic standards.

  • “Як не стати овочем” (“How not to become a “vegetable””), “Нота єнота” (“Raccoon’s note”), “Мінзмін” (“The Ministry of Change”) – relatively young organizations and initiatives that develop original approaches to information hygiene training. “How not to become a “vegetable”” attracts a wide range of Ukrainians, trying to avoid focusing on age or professional groups, as well as specializing in corporate training. “Raccoon’s note” combines fact-checking and game development with media literacy. “The Ministry of Change” engaged in teaching children cyber security.

  • ”EdEra”, “Prometheus” – online learning platforms that host free courses on information hygiene. In particular, those that are needed to improve the skills of teachers, educators.

  • “EdCamp”, “Освіторія” (“Osvitoria”) – main target audience of these NGOs is teachers. They don’t work directly on media literacy issues. However, they include this topic in regular trainings, conferences, etc.

  • We also have a number of grant organizations that conduct trainings and seminars with young people, teachers, journalists, etc.

The state authorities of Ukraine also work in the field of information security. Mainly in the field of strategic communications. For example:

Shortcomings

  • Lack of trust in government.
  • Self-confidence of the population in media literacy skills (50% vs 3%).
  • The gap between propaganda funding and counter-propaganda funding.
  • Focus on individual target audiences. Issue with a lack of national programs.
  • Issues of real impact and audience reach.
  • Fact-checking VS media literacy.
  • Media literacy seminars – to add as an additional course in schools, or other higher education institutions.
  • Lack of understanding of the difference between traditional media and the digital age.
  • Political manipulations and financial fraud.

Interested to learn more? Check out game “How to filter propaganda. Russian edition”.

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