The ins and outs of the Czech disinformation community
The disinformation scene in the Czech Republic is relatively developed and intertwined with some of the country’s leading politicians, including president Miloš Zeman. Nevertheless, both the government and the civil society have recognised the threat and efforts have been made to address the problem.
It has been two years since the European Values Think Tank launched the Kremlin Watch Program to investigate and expose the pro-Russian Czech disinformation community.
Ever since the number of websites and blogs spreading disinformation has been steadily growing, and today their number reaches almost four dozen (with more than 5,000 monthly clicks). With mostly hidden proprietary, personal and financial data, these sites regularly spread disinformation – a mixture of facts, half-truths and conspiracy theories, mostly in line with the Kremlin’s position.
The number of disinformation platforms in the Czech Republic is high, especially given the community’s complaints about the lack of financial resources, the limited number of contributors and a specific thematic focus, which includes topics relevant to Russian foreign policy interests. They remain active, publish new content every week and maintain a stable readership base which does not mind its poor visual and content quality or the low informative value.
The core of the Czech disinformation scene is currently composed of approximately six major platforms. These include: Parlamentní listy (in English Parliamentary Letters, however, it has nothing to do with the Czech Parliament which has distanced itself from the site); AC24; AE News (also known as Aeronet); Nová Republika (New Republic); První Zprávy (First News); and Sputnik CZ (the Czech branch of the Kremlin’s international media outlet).
Among them, Parlamentní listy is the most influential, with more than 800,000 readers per month in a country of ten million people. It is part of a whole business model that has been developed by Our Media Inc. owned by the Czech businessman and Senate member – Ivo Valenta. The medium clearly stands out within the Czech disinformation community, as other similar outlets are usually single-man projects, vitally dependent on the revenues from ads and readers’ contributions.
While there are lots of sceptical voices about the real impact of these platforms on the Czech readers, the debate has slowly turned to the question of how to reduce it. One of the possible options is to target the pages’ revenues from advertisements, which has met a strong resistance of companies advertising on disinformation sites.
A recent analysis by the Open Society Fund has found that Czech and Slovak disinformation and conspiracy pages earn approximately 0,85-1,2 million euros annually from internet advertising. Targeting the revenues seems to be a successful strategy; since its launch in 2016, Slovakian Konspiratori.sk project has prevented disinformation sites from claiming revenues from approximately 3,000 campaigns.
However, what makes the situation in the Czech Republic more complex, is that the disinformation outlets have advocates among some of the country’s leading politicians. Parlamentní listy, for example, gives politicians an option to set up an account and reach out to the public via the platform’s personal profiles. Oddly enough, some of the firm supporters of Euro-Atlantic cooperation have also joined the platform.
Other politicians go even further in their co-operation with the disinformation outlets. The Czech president Miloš Zeman is probably their most important ally. Parlamentní listy, for example, have received considerable support from the Czech president, who is well-known for his negative attitude towards journalists and the mainstream media. Yet, he has already given 40 interviews to the outlet and supplies it with exclusive information from the Prague castle.
However, it is not only Zeman´s close relationship with disinformation outlets but also his alignment with the Kremlin that raises concerns. In the past, he has repeated false statements propagated by the Kremlin on several occasions. The president is frequently used by the domestic Russian propaganda to legitimise the Putin regime.
There are also other cases of public figures adding credibility to disinformation outlets. For example, in the past two years, René Zavoral, the director of the Czech public broadcaster, Czech Radio, attended the Kramerius Prize for Independent Journalism ceremony organised by the Association of Independent Media. The association brings together personalities from various disinformation and manipulative websites and Zavoral’s presence at their ceremonies raises serious concerns.
The collaboration of public figures with disinformation outlets has a number of consequences. First, their activities gradually undermine trust in democratic institutions such as the main public broadcaster – the Czech Television. According to our research, already 24 per cent of Czechs trust disinformation platforms (especially Parlamentní listy, AC24 and První Zprávy) rather than traditional outlets, and a quarter of the population is affected by disinformation. Second, they serve as legitimators of disinformation platforms and, in consequence, also the Putin regime, which further distances the Czech Republic from the West.
Nevertheless, the Czechs are fighting back, as over the past several years civil society groups have launched a number of projects targeting disinformation. Apart from the Kremlin Watch Program, the Prague Security Studies Institute is monitoring disinformation and raising awareness, especially of the dangers posed by Russia´s influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
There are also several media literacy projects such as The One World in Schools run by People in Need, and Demagog.cz (a sister-site of the Slovak Demagog.sk) fact-checking politicians’ public statements.
In its National Security Strategy, the Czech government confirmed the need to tackle disinformation and hybrid threats. The National Security Audit, conducted by more than 120 security experts and approved by the Czech government in December 2016, found that the threat posed by foreign influence is high. Especially when it comes to its impact on public opinion and decision-making at all levels of public administration.
The report stressed that particular attention should be paid to activities of Russia, China and the Islamic State. It also recommended the creation of the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CTHH) – a specialised anti-fake news unit. It was created in January 2017 under the Ministry of the Interior.
The Czech Republic has come a long way since 2015, as disinformation has been recognised as a threat by the Czech government and the civil society. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to be done. The disinformation scene is relatively developed and intertwined with a number of high profile politicians. It is particularly important to protect the public discourse from disinformation ahead of the upcoming presidential election in January 2018, in which the current president Miloš Zeman will run for re-election. Since he is an important ally of the Czech disinformation scene, there might be some efforts to keep him in office.
Markéta Krejčí is a junior analyst with the Kremlin Watch Program at the European Values Think-Tank, Prague.