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September 18, 2021

 

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The disinformation pandemic: Who are the Czech "anti-maskers", and could they seize power?

5.4.2021 9:14
A demonstration by the Czech anti-masker movement calling itself
A demonstration by the Czech anti-masker movement calling itself "The Dog Has Died", 2021. (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)

Disinformation is as old as civilization itself. It is an instrument of power and of warfare, and as human society develops and technology progresses, its importance keeps growing.

In our part of the world we can recall the Czechoslovak communist politician Vilém Nový who, after the death of Jan Palach by self-immolation in 1969, alleged that Palach did not burn to death but used so-called "cold fire" to fake the spectacle of his protest. Nový was sued for defamation, but the justice system in those days took the side of the communist regime, which means that defamatory rumor about Palach's suicide remains alive practically to this day.

Another legendary case was the report of the alleged death of a student named Martin Šmíd during the November 1989 overthrow of the Czechoslovak communist regime. Secret police agent Zifčák posed as the (non-existent) dead student after the police intervention in Prague so believably that a report of this supposed death was subsequently released by the respected journalist Petr Uhl with the aid of his news agency.

News of the "dead" student had a strong impact on public opinion and was a catalyzer of the subsequent events, which would have played themselves out more slowly without that impetus (although the result would probably have been the same). However, the act of disinformation has aided in keeping alive the conspiracy theory that the events of November 1989 were prepared in advance.

Chemtrails and 5G networks

With the development of the Internet and social media, disinformation has reached the peak of its historical development. There are several factors involved here.

Traditional media outlets are receding in terms of their impact, society is fragmenting in political terms, and the postmodern world is accelerating. The previous rivalries of the 1990s between the titans of the Czech public broadcast media and the predators of newly-privatized or brand-new media outlets look like friendly, smiling jousts from today's perspective.

Today's dividing line is no longer between the commercial and public broadcast media. Simply put, it is beween those who use traditional journalistic methods of verifying information and editorial control, and those who no longer bother with such niceties.

The Czech disinformation scene has essentially evolved since the beginning of the millennium. From the year 2000 thorugh 2010, online political discussions were held on the forums run by news servers.

Those discussions looked like a confusing mess of anonymous shouting that had no greater impact on events. The one-way flow of information from the media to consumers was still functioning, and the consumer was only able to respond in a very limited way.

The alternative to the main media outlets was the fringe websites, which were known just to groups of radical activists. Some of those websites have lasted until today, such as zvedavec.org or NWOO.

The breakthrough happened after 2010, when the number of people in the Czech Republic using Facebook grew rapidly. That social media platform changed (and is still changing) what up until then had been the unshakable position of all official media outlets.

The conveyor of information has become the consumer, who is able to edit information to suit his or her own needs and then disseminate it according to his or her opportunities for virtual outreach. An unprecedented boom in Czech websites purveying disinformation happened between 2014-2015 in association with the migration crisis and the war in Ukraine.

All of these disinformation websites dedicated themselves to the subject of migration, and their messages were always the same or similar. The authors of the disinformation portrayed migration as an invasion being managed with the aim of changing the cultural and demographic form of Europe.

Frequently these authors also hinted that all of these events were the work of some sort of covert plan conspired upon by global elites. This narrative then was taken up by many politicians with great influence in the countries of Europe, who adapted their political programs and rhetoric to it.

The revolution in Ukraine and the war in the east of that country were then presented by these authors as conspiracies of neo-Nazis supported by the West against a peace-loving Russia. The peak of that military campaign was the shooting down of the civilian Malaysian aircraft MH370 which, according to international investigators, was committed by the Russian army, which was operating in the area in secret.

Russian influence has repeatedly appeared in all of the Czech domestic disinformation websites, and it takes two main lines. The first is a negative perspective on the situation in the Czech Republic - economic, political and social - and the second is a positive perspective on Putin's regime in Russia and the movements or parties friendly to him, whether in the Czech Republic or elsewhere in the world.

The negative "news and journalism" websites that peddle this disinformation concentrate on the alleged "dictatorship" of the European Union, which is supposedly smothering our country and maliciously ordering us to do different things, from accepting Muslim refugees, to depressing the fossil fuel industry, to promoting liberal values such as tolerance for sexual minorities or the punishment of those expressing racism and xenophobia. Such policies, according to the disinformation outlets, aim to destroy the nation-state and its culture and to dominate through some sort of "neo-Marxist totalitarianism".

It is no accident that Russian state media depict the EU in similar terms, always with the same finding that the only opportunity to prevent apocalypse is government by "patriotic" parties that support traditional values. The disinformation websites decide who is a "patriot" by the degree of his or her resistance to the EU and to liberalism and the degree of his or her affection for the Kremlin.

In addition to clearly pro-Kremlin subject matter, these authors concentrate on the most bizarre conspiracy theories, such as those about chemtrails (alleging that "somebody" is spraying us with chemicals using the exhaust systems of aircraft, which is why white streaks can be seen following airplanes in the sky) or that data transmission using 5G wireless networks can take control of human brains. The dissemination of this kind of disinformation aims to sow as much uncertainty as possible in the minds of those consuming it, and thereby to so uncertainty in all of society.

On the one hand, this undercuts trust in certain institutions and political trends, while on the other hand some courses of action are uncritically highlighted by the disinformers. We can define the courses of action being promoted as those that are authoritarian, demagogic and radical.

In the Czech Republic, this means support for parties such as "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SDP), the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), the Citizens' Rights Party (SPO), the new Tricolor party, and individuals or movements with radical positions such as the previously-strong group called "We Don't Want Islam in the Czech Republic" (IVČRN). The strength of this disinformation was displayed in 2017, when the Aeronet disinformation server disseminated a fake news item alleging that the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) was planning a contract for the mining of lithium and would be benefitting financially from it.

The chaos sparked by those allegations during the close finish of the parliamentary elections harmed then-Czech Prime Minister Sobotka and meant the end of his political career. As for Czech President Miloš Zeman, support for him by those purveying disinformation is a whole subject of its own.

During both of Zeman's presidential campaigns he was strongly supported by the disinformation scene, which aided him with maintaining his positive image and, at the same time, attacked his competitors quite insidiously. As the presidential electoral race of 2018 was heading for the finish line, where it would be decided by a rather close vote, candidate Jiří Drahoš was described by the disinformers as a member of a conspiratorial, secret society, or as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, or as a politician whose program supported mass migration.

Barrandov Television, the commercial channel owned by Jaromír Soukup, was very loud during that campaign and for a certain time even became a kind of umbrella platform for disinformers who were also official guests on its programs. That coordinated campaign assisted Zeman's victory, and today the Czech President is well aware of who it was that supported him so strongly, which means many people from the disinformation scene are invited to celebrations at Prague Castle.

The pandemic

The crisis of the novel coronavirus has struck all of society a heavy blow. However, the disinformation websites have grasped the opportunity with great intensity and are currently achieving their two main aims through this one subject matter.

With the aid of distorted or fake news items, the disinformers are disseminating fear, outright panic and uncertainty in the Czech Republic while simultaneously repeating that the only certainty on which we all can rely is Russia. The main disinformation line since the beginning of the crisis has been to downplay the pandemic, or to depict it as a targeted means of population control.

Once again, the alleged "control" is said to be in the interests of some imaginary "elites" hiding in the background. The incomprehensible and unknown nature of this threat provides the disinformers with many opportunities to work with this subject matter.

When the Czech Government does not manage its communications about the pandemic well, or when the state administration makes appalling procedural errors, this works in favor of the disinformers, who today are being listened to by many people with greater trust than cabinet ministers are. The division of society is therefore now proving to be even more marked than it was during the presidential elections.

Loss of trust in the apparatus of the state is being displayed in ever-increasing dissatisfaction, which is beginning to outgrow the virtual space and spill over into open conflict. This has been displayed in recent months on the streets in the form of a few demonstrations (for now).

However, these demonstrations are indicating what the trend is, and we cannot assess them just according to the numbers of people participating in them. The reality is not several hundred angry people in the streets, but hundreds of thousands of other people who support such actions either implicitly or openly in the virtual space.

The supporters of the demonstrations are absolutely heterogeneous. They have different political opinions and preferences, educations and social positions, but what connects them is their uncertainty, powerlessnes, anger and exhaustion from this lingering crisis that has not yet ended.

This ideal spawning ground is being exploited by the disinformers, who have dedicated their entire agenda to it. Another factor that is important is the fact that people are spending much more time on social media now, and the disinformation websites are therefore acquiring new consumers who previously ever even suspected that they existed.

The methods used by the disinformers have also changed, and they are using far more sources of information who are professionals (in medicine and the natural sciences), but they adapt that information to suit their needs. Many readers never suspect they are falling into the traps the disinformers have set for them.

What's more, social media users are subjected to these fake news reports when their acquaintances share them in their social media "bubbles" and reinforce their attitudes. The situation is also being complicated by some experts who, in order to gain personal prestige, have not hesitated to join forces with the disinformers and meet them halfway.

The Czech disinformation scene, therefore, is currently achieving the status of a certain seriousness these days, thanks to these famous names. The angry demonstrators, for now, are a heterogenous society, the only uniting element of which is their resistance to the Government and its measures to combat the pandemic.

An opportunity is being sensed both by longtime activists who openly support the Kremlin and by people who did not get into activism until the current situation of desperation arose. Several groups in Czech society have the ambition to control this new movement which, because it is impossible to categorize politically, is simply being called the "anti-maskers".

The Civic Dissatisfaction Movement (Hnutí občanské nespokojenosti - HON, an acronym that means "the hunt" in Czech) is one such association of traditionally pro-Kremlin activists and people from the Czech ultra-right scene, but it has already broken up. The activist Jiří Černohorský, famous for his work with HON, is establishing the Civic Movement (Občanské hnutí - OH) as a result.

Arguments over influence and money always defeat such groups, though. The initiative called Chcípl PES ("The Dog Has Died", a play on the acronym for the Government's anti-epidemic system PES, a word that means "dog" in Czech), established by a former MP for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Jiří Janeček, is currently much more likely to score voter support.

Janeček is a microbrewery owner who has quite quickly become the official face of the protests against the Government measures to combat the pandemic and is planning to run for Parliament again in the fall. The movement may be concentrating on criticizing the anti-COVID measures and their impacts on small businesses, but the people around him are unequivocally on the ultra-right, politically.

The most prominent demonstration by that initiative to date took place in mid-January and featured former Czech President Václav Klaus and the informal auspices of the singer Daniel Landa. He has been attempting political activity for the last six months through his "Blanický manifest" initiative ("The Blaník Manifesto", referring to a mountain from which legend has it that "knights" will emerge to save the Czech nation), which is actually just an uninteresting collection of phrases.

If Janeček manages to win the support of Klaus and Landa for his election, whether just symbolic support or their direct involvement on the movement's candidate lists, that could mean they will enjoy a certain amount of success. The Brno-based movement of football hooligans who call themselves "Decent People" (Slušní lidé) has joined this alliance and their adherents provided "security" for the January demonstration.

It is also significant that the Brno-based lawyer and experienced behind-the-scenes player Zdeněk Koudelka has been aiding Janeček - Koudelka is close to many top politicians and is currently a member of Tricolor. A competing project has been created by the unaffiliated Czech MP Lubomír Volný (originally elected for the SPD) called "Czech Sovereignty Free Block" (Volný Blok česká suverenita, where Volný, the surname of the leader, means "free" in Czech).

Volný has recently drawn attention to himself through several incidents in the Chamber of Deputies and has never hidden his radical opinions or affection for the Kremlin. The novel coronavirus crisis is one he is skillfully exploiting to bolster his influence, acquiring unprecedented support on social media, and he is currently the biggest favorite politician of the disinformation websites.

If Janeček and Volný were to join forces, a movement that could not be ignored would be created. A political force is being created here with the hearty support of the disinformation scene that can probably only be compared to the rise of Miroslav Sládek's Republican Party here during the 1990s (and by the way, Sládek has been doing his best over the last five years to acquire influence once again, but he is ascertaining, to his disappointment, that all of "his" subjects were appropriate long ago by other movements and parties here, especially the SPD).

It is exactly the SPD that should be greatly concerned by the current situation. According to recent polls, that movement has attained double-digit voter preference, but there are still more than six months to go before the elections.

SPD chair Tomio Okamura has comprehended the situation and has been the first to launch an across-the-board election campaign. This experienced demagogue, who has based his entire political career on sparking hatred, is suddenly getting the short end of the stick.

Okamura may be invited by media outlets and have very strong support on social media, but the disinformation websites don't like him anymore. The reasons for the conflict are not absolutely apparent, but it is likely that the Russian rapporteurs who have great influence over those websites have taken a dislike to him.

In order to make sure Okamura felt how strong the disinformation purveyors are, they turned against him during the European Parliamentary elections, sparking an artificial conflict between him and the followers of former General Hynek Blaško, who was then elected to the EP instead of Okamura. That means the SPD chair is currently in a schizophrenic situation - while he is criticizing the Government for not aiding entrepreneurs and those dependent on the social welfare system enough, at the same time, openly sharing disinformation in the same way as his apostate Volný does is not an option for him.

For many protest voters, therefore, the SPD may now appear to be "part of the Government" because it is seated in Parliament, irrespective of its opposition role, and Okamura could become overshadowed by even more radical groups. What awaits us this summer, therefore, is quite likely to be harsh competition for the protest vote and the ultra-right.

The advantage for the radical parties is that their voting group is significantly expanding because of the chaos created by the Government's response to the pandemic. It could, therefore, come to pass that in October we will have two extreme-right parties in the Czech Parliament.

The impact of the novel coronavirus crisis can be seen in the cultural realm as well. Many actors, celebrities and singers are openly espousing the disinformation websites appearing at anti-Government demonstrations.

The most visible such figure today (besides Landa) is the singer Ilona Csáková, who is not afraid to share the worst disinformation with her thousands of fans, who then echo it. In order to put her cards on the table, she has officially connected her activities with Nela Lisková, an open agent of the Kremlin who has been claiming to be the "consul" in the Czech Republic for the "Donetsk People's Republic" (Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine).

Many Czech people who are interested in a healthy lifestyle, in spirituality, esoterica or the environment who have previously not been politically involved have become new consumers and disseminators of disinformation during the past year. The disinformation websites fulfill their vision of the world because these people are opposed to vaccination, and part of the disinformation message is that all we have to do is live in a "healthy" way and the virus will pose no danger to us.

The disinformers have also quite skillfully appropriated the opinions of various authorities in the field of personal development and spirituality. This inconspicuous but numerous group of people is very radical in some of its positions (e.g., their attitude toward vaccination) and through social media the disinformers have managed to identify those who follow that stream of thought.

In addition to healthy lifestyles and spiritual subject matter, these people are also uncritically adopting a pro-Kremlin narrative. In recent weeks, however, the disinformation websites have changed their strategy and are no longer alleging that vaccination is wrong (or that through it "somebody" will be implanting us with microchips or altering our DNA), but are asserting that the only proper vaccine to take is Russia's Sputnik V.

Our future prospects in the Czech Republic are bleak, therefore. The official media outlets are losing people's trust, while the number of disinformers is growing.

With the hearty aid of Russia (and of China), Czech society is being eaten away by distrust, doubts and fear. Those who author this disinformation either hide behind anonymity or are difficult to prosecute.

The police in Prague have 60 felony cases of spreading a false alarm on the books, but proving them or perhaps bringing a case against them that would result in conviction and sentencing is all but impossible. That means the solution lies in the hands of supra-national corporations like Facebook and Google, who are able to edit the content they carry on their own.

If those companies were to decide to vigorously intervene against the disinformers, they do have mechanisms through which to do so. However, they are profiting to no small degree from this disinformation, so they tolerate it, even though such an approach contradicts the policies these firms have declared to the outside world.

That means it is up to those who us who are able to identify disinformation and refute it to demonstrate to everybody else that they have succumbed to an infection. This "virus" is one that it is very difficult to cure, but it is slowly killing our society.

DEFINITION OF DISINFORMATION AND RELATED CONCEPTS

Disinformation is the intentional transmission of alleged "news" that is untrue. State actors or their offshoots are the ones who are frequently authoring and disseminating it.

These actors are frequently opposed to the leadership in another state or its official media, so they aim to influence decision-making and public opinion there, acquiring political power in and over that state as a consequence. There is another phenomenon, that of misinformation, which is information that is incorrect or misleading.

Unlike disinformation, misinformation is not disseminated systematically and does not aim to influence decision-making or public opinion. The term "hoax" is generally used to refer to deceptive (false) information, fraud and mystification.

In the Czech Republic, hoaxes are commonly disseminated using e-mail or instant messaging and contain calls to pass the message on, which is why they are called "chain e-mails". The term "fake news" references the intentional dissemination of untrue "news" (disinformation or hoaxes) with the aim of influencing the recipient's opinions.

First published in Romano voďi magazine.

Jiří Salik Sláma, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Analýzy, COVID-19, Dezinformace, Extremism



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