Voters in the Visegrad Four countries rely on increasingly blurred lines between true and imaginary information while making their choice at polling stations. However, there is no unity in the struggle for truth among the heads of Central and Eastern European states.
The victory of Miloš Zeman in the recent Czech presidential election has reinvigorated the discussion about the impact of ‘fake news’ on the rise of populism in the region. Despite being historically and economically connected and facing similar challenges in the media and information landscape, the Visegrad Four states – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – take drastically different approaches to understanding and tackling fake news.
Fake news is one of the most overused and badly defined terms in the modern political and media vocabulary. With Pope Francis declaring the spreading of fake news a sin, Donald Trump continuing to label traditional media as “fakes”, and Russia engaging in disinformation efforts in and about the European Union, there is more confusion than clarity regarding deliberate misinformation. Political elites and media can’t agree exactly what fake news is, nor how to deal with it. Researchers argue about whether fake news is content of purely political or commercial origin, whether satire can be considered as fake news, and even whether this term should be banned. Still, there is a consensus about common features that distinguish fake news from other types of biased or untrue information. First, this content poses as news and has all elements of ‘traditional’ news content. Second, it spreads misinformation. Third, this distribution of misinformation is deliberate. The University of Westminster defines fake news as “a serious and complex problem that has complex societal causes and threatens to undermine democracy.”
EU initiatives: expertise precedes action
For a long time the EU did not take an active stance on fake news. Until recently, its only official body working on the issue was the East Stratcom Task Force, formed in 2015. As its name indicates, the group focused on the Eastern neighbours of the EU (including Russia). The group had no assigned budget and its employees were seconded or paid for by willing Member States. Whether or not to fund the task force with 1 million euro per year is still under discussion at the highest levels of EU decision-making.
However, in January 2018 the European Commission organised a high-level group on fake news. Made up of 39 representatives from the media, the business world, academia, and web initiatives, this group is tasked with developing an EU communication plan on fake news. While the group contains many tech and media experts, curiously there is only one representative of a Visegrad-based institution, journalist Konrad Niklewicz from liberal Polish think-tank Civic Institute. Unlike East Stratcom, the group is not approaching the fake news issue exclusively from a foreign policy point of view. Instead, fake news is addressed as part of the EU’s Digital Single Market portfolio, the EU’s umbrella strategy for all things digital and online.
Another international initiative on the European level is the Finland-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. The centre acknowledges “influencing information” and “increasing insecurity” as part of a range of methods and tactics used in hybrid warfare. Among the founding governments, the British government takes the lead in building communities of interest around ‘hybrid influencing’, while Finland is responsible for ‘vulnerabilities and resilience’. 11 EU countries participate in the centre, as well as the United States, the EU itself, and NATO.
Visegrad Four: a dissonance of voices
According to the Kremlin Watch memo published by the European Values think-tank in October 2017, a significant portion of the overstaffed 140-strong Russian embassy in the Czech Republic may be engaging in spying activities. European Values, a non-profit organisation set up in the Czech Republic in 2005 by Jakub Janda, specialises in the analysis of Russian influence and disinformation campaigns in the Visegrad countries.
The Vulnerability Index, published in April 2017 by Slovakia-based organisation GLOBSEC and US National Endowment for Democracy, states that “Russia, as the main regional actor operating outside of the EU-NATO framework, is projecting its power in Central Europe region by means of diplomatic activities, energy and economic policy, information warfare and support to domestic political forces (both mainstream and fringe) sympathetic to the Russian narrative, with the overall aim of restoring its influence in the region and weakening the EU and NATO”. The index puts Poland as the least vulnerable to Russia’s informational warfare attempts (Poland’s vulnerability is rated as 30 out of 100) and Hungary as the most vulnerable (with a 57 of out 100 rating).
A tendency to see fake news as an external threat while turning a blind eye to the peddling of misinformation by their own ruling elites.
Visegrad countries – despite being the target of numerous hybrid warfare attempts – do not have a consistent or coordinated policy on fake news and misinformation campaigns. There is a general lack of coordination and a tendency to see fake news as an external threat while turning a blind eye to the peddling of misinformation by their own ruling elites.
Czech Republic and Slovakia: common threats with opposite answers
All Visegrad countries, but especially Poland and the Czech Republic, consider fake news as first and foremost results of actions of hostile or unfriendly third parties. In the Czech Republic, fake news is part of the mandate of a 20-person-strong Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, a body affiliated to the Ministry of Interior. The very name of this body demonstrates how fake news is considered as within the scope of external security.
The history of fake news in the Czech Republic started with the growing popularity of politicised online platforms like ParlamentniListy.cz, which boasts a monthly audience of 600 000 users. The platform, thought to be linked to the President Miloš Zeman, spreads anti-migrant and anti-liberal messages. Examples from early February 2018 include ‘statistics’ about crimes against Christians by migrants living in Germany and apparent EU ‘censorship’ of Muslim-related stories – very similar messaging as that coming from Russian state media. Zeman himself uses this rhetoric quite often. Both Zeman and editors of Parlamentni Listy share attitudes to the conflict in Ukraine, referring to it as a ‘civil war’ and denying Russian involvement. Despite frequency with which the president adopts fake news-style narratives, the body entrusted with tackling fake news does not look at internal political involvement but concentrates purely on external players and threats.
It would be too simple to just blame politicians for the flourishing of fake news in the Czech Republic. The International Press Institute’s analysis of the country’s media scene has found that for many online media outlets, pseudo-journalism and half-truths in the tabloid style are a successful business model. No wonder there are about four dozen Czech-language websites spreading fake news.
For many online media outlets, pseudo-journalism and half-truths in the tabloid style are a successful business model.
While the Czech Republic recognises fake news as an external threat and has dedicated resources to it, Slovakia – despite being targeted by the same propaganda (the Czech and Slovak languages are largely mutually intelligible) – takes a different approach. No special unit has been formed within the government, nor does Slovakia participate in any specialised international bodies. As the Vulnerability Index states “transactional and opportunistic attitudes towards the EU and NATO, widely shared by the political elites and the public, persistent energy ties to Russia and political elites’ naive perceptions of the Kremlin’s geopolitical goals in Central Europe put Slovakia in a very vulnerable position.”
However, two organisations, GLOBSEC and Seesame.com, a commercial company, are taking an innovative approach to the potential reputational damage facing companies whose adverts appear on fake news sites. A special ethics commission that they manage updates a list of websites with dubious content, be it conspiracy theories, deliberate misinformation, or just poor-quality reporting. This list of websites can be downloaded as a database and used to filter Google and Facebook advertising settings. In this way, businesses that currently have little influence on where their ads will be shown can forbid their brand from being associated with such webpages.
Hungary: no sign of struggle with fake news
Unlike the cases above, the Hungarian government does not take an active position against the spread of fake news. Hungary, criticised by the European Commission for violations of rule of law in recent years, is ruled by populist and pro-Russian Viktor Orbán who himself is not shy of spreading conspiracy theories and fake news. His ‘archenemy’ is Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros who apparently – in the eyes of Orbán – is involved in a sophisticated campaign against his motherland. The government has sponsored anti-Soros billboards and Facebook advertising. In October 2017, Orbán suggested that European spy agencies investigate a “pro-Soros web” that supposedly wants Hungary “condemned, stigmatised and forced to change its migration policy”.
Observers notice that while in 2013-14 most of the disinformation spread in Hungarian media came from pro-Kremlin sources, in 2015-16 fake news increasingly came from closer to home. This shift came about for two reasons. First, the arrival of refugees into the EU, often crossing through Hungary. Second, the intensification of Orbán’s personal vendetta against George Soros. The situation in Hungary is worsened by the fact that both the government and main opposition parties take firmly pro-Kremlin and anti-EU stances. A 2016 investigation disentangled Hungary’s web of pro-Kremlin niche websites and found that many had lost readers and ceased publishing. International Press Institute’s experts explain that this change happened not due to a lack of support for their messages but because “mainstream media outlets that are supported by or are dependent on public money have taken over their role and audiences.”
Poland: hard outside, soft inside
Poland is one of the founding members of the above-mentioned hybrid warfare centre and is the only Visegrad country represented there. In 2017, a Russian citizen was arrested for building a nation-wide Polish network on social media that spread controversial messages about Ukraine and refugees. However, in the national media narrative, fake news is often mentioned in the context of political struggle between the ruling Law and Justice Party and the opposition. For instance, in January 2018 the government’s spokesperson described a report by new well-known outlet wPolityce.pl stating that Poland would give shelter to 500 Syrian children as fake news. In turn, the pro-opposition OKO.press accused then-foreign minister of Poland Witold Waszczykowski of spreading fake news when he mentioned in an interview with Germany’s Die Welt the possibility of “humanitarian corridors” for asylum seekers in Poland.
Fake news is often mentioned in the context of political struggle between the ruling Law and Justice party and the opposition.
Experts agree that authorities in Warsaw probably have less to fear from Russian influence than elsewhere in the region because Polish society is quite resilient to pro-Kremlin propaganda. Yet the ruling Law and Justice Party’s increasing Euroscepticism and denial of any criticism from Brussels, which initiated rule of law violations procedures against Poland, make Polish voters vulnerable to Hungary-style or Donald Trump-style propaganda. On 18 January 2018, Polish president Andrzej Duda praised Trump’s ‘Fake News Awards’, a stunt that accused traditional media of spreading false narratives. “Poland experiences fake news power first hand. Many European and even US officials form their opinions of Poland based on relentless flow of fake news”, wrote Duda on Twitter. Poland is also following in Orbán’s footsteps by considering limiting foreign ownership of local media, a move which may silence one of the biggest independent TV groups, TVN.
The real victim: liberal democracy in Europe
While the term fake news is being used and abused by political elites, media figures, and experts, the information provided to 64 million EU citizens living in Visegrad countries is becoming less clear and more biased. To help people better understand and distinguish quality information and news sources, civil society initiatives are emerging, such as V4 Think Media’s media literacy campaign that will carry out educational events in 2018.
However, without governments acknowledging and acting upon both the acuteness and the external-internal nature of the fake news threat, the public in these countries will continue to be polarised and base their choices on deliberately misleading information. This trend makes for a less democratic environment both in the region and in the EU as a whole. Such divided media-political landscapes serve only the interests of third parties, be them governments or business interests, who wish to manipulate confused nations for their own benefit.
With the EU parliamentary elections in 2019, the focus of fake news campaigns may increasingly shift towards anti-EU messaging to boost support for extremist anti-establishment (and often pro-Kremlin) political movements. The year 2018 is the last opportunity for Visegrad governments and the EU to tackle fake news before it is too late. If not, the new EU parliament may be composed of an increased share of anti-liberal and populist politicians, elected with the help of fake news.