Almost every election or popular vote taking place in the past several years—the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine, the vote on Brexit, the US presidential election, the French presidential election, the referendum on Californian independence and many others—were marred by concerns that their results would be influenced by disinformation. The idea of the popular vote, which is at the very heart of present-day democracies, is based on the assumption that people are rational beings able to choose those who will represent their interests the best. The spread of disinformation distorting the truth, appealing to emotions and paralyzing the public debate seriously undermines this mechanism. Although Russia is seen as the main actor using this tool against Western democracies, various domestic anti-democratic actors — ranging from fringe extremists to mass populist movements — have added this tool to their political arsenal. This was (and is) also the case in the Czech Republic.
Disinformation campaigns have appeared periodically in Czech politics. The prime examples are, among others, false accusations of collaboration with Communist Secret Services that terminated several successful political careers in the early 1990s and fabricated stories about the sympathies of presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg’s ancestors towards Nazi Germany that played a role in the 2013 presidential election. However, in recent years, an increasing information disorder in the Czech media space, the political transformation symbolized by the decline of the traditional parties in favor of populist ones, and an increasing hostility in the international environment facilitated the dissemination of disinformation. In this text, we will describe two election campaigns that illustrate the conditions helping disinformation spread in the information space (or, on the contrary, hinder it).
The 2017 general election was, to a certain extent, influenced by the “lithium affair,” a story about allegedly corrupt members of the Social Democrats wanting to sell off Czech lithium stockpiles (that were described as some sort of a magical solutions for all Czech economic problems in the article) to foreign corporations. The story was first published by the notorious disinformation website Aeronet, whose editor is anonymous and calls himself the Master of the carousel (available information suggests that he is an indebted businessmen hiding in Slovakia), and quickly started to circulate in the alternative media scene. This is unsurprising, as the story skillfully played on the reminiscence of the shady privatization deals of the 1990s, in which corrupt politicians also played a role. This is the first condition— disinformation has to be related to a topic already resonating with the target audience. However, this does not automatically imply that the story would be widely circulated since Czech alternative media (including around eight dozen platforms) is separated from the mainstream media . The story about lithium would have remained unnoticed by the broader public if it was not picked up by actors having access to the mainstream media (in election campaigns, they are typically politicians). It is unsurprising, therefore, that this story was disseminated by right and left-wing extremists (that are usually on the good terms with the alternative media), but the game-changer was the fact that the populist movement ANO, led by billionaire Andrej Babiš, decided to utilize this topic in its campaign. Since then, the topic became the subject of mainstream conversations. The second condition for disinformation to spread extensively is to find the amplifier who is able to bring the story to a broader audience. The media and the Social Democrats were caught by surprise, and neither of them was able to uncover the origin of the story or pointed out its factual incorrectness, which is the third condition for the successful dissemination of disinformation. Thus, he story continued to circulate and, in the end, contributed to the poor results of the Social Democrats and the victory of ANO. However, the real victor of the 2017 elections was the Master of the carousel, whose story completely shifted the pre-election debate.
A completely different scenario took place during the 2018 presidential election. Concerns about the possible influence of disinformation (including those spread by foreign actors) were widely discussed and also articulated by several candidates. At the very beginning of the campaign, the website Aeronet published disinformation according to which the opponents of incumbent President Miloš Zeman were financed by philanthropist George Soros. Judging by the other CEE countries’ experiences, this story could have had an impact and swing the debate similarly to the “lithium affair.” However, it did not. There were several reasons why. First, the anti-Soros narrative was not really grounded in the Czech public discourse at the time, so it was not as easy to entice the audience with such claims. Second, the story was quickly debunked by the influential daily Hospodářské noviny. Third, the presidential candidates did not utilize this issue during the electoral race. This does not mean that there was no disinformation present; the debate about migration issues was certainly manipulative and some candidates were harmed by chain mails spreading false stories. However, disinformation was not a decisive factor in the campaign.
Based on these experiences and models, it is already possible to draw conclusions about the future, more specifically about the upcoming elections to the European Parliament. Is there the potential for disinformation to spread in Czech information space? Since the European Union is highly unpopular among Czechs and the debate around it is often reduced to stereotypes and oversimplifications, it is likely that disinformation campaigns related to this topic will find an audience. The spreading of false stories about European politics is not limited simply to a narrow group of extremists, it has become popular among various interest groups and the majority of political parties. Therefore, the potential amplifiers of specific disinformation to the mainstream are also present. Unfortunately, the media remains rather uninterested in this issue and there is only a handful of experts with enough sway over the public to warn them against false stories. Consequently, the prospects for the election campaign of the European Parliament in 2019 look rather gloomy. Civil society’s self-mobilization to tackle disinformation before the election will be a considerable factor in further developments. We will see in few months whether or not they were successful.
Jonáš Syrovátka is a Program Manager at Prague Security Studies Institute, working primarily on projects concerning disinformation and strategic communication. His undergraduate studies at the Masaryk University in Brno are focused on the development of Russian political system and its history.
Related publications by Jonáš Syrovátka:
Czech elections in the era of disinformation; Prague Security Studies Institute
Jackson, Dean; Issue brief: How disinformation impacts politics and publics; National Endowment for Democracy
Cederberg, Gabriel; Catching Swedish Phish: How Sweden is Protecting its 2018 Elections; Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School