Countering Fake News… with Fake Expertise?

Tr@nsit Online

The Czech Republic's Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats is billed as an institution working to counter fake news and disinformation, but is it sustainable for elites to rebut lies by setting themselves up as unimpeachable bearers of truth?

Countering Fake News… with Fake Expertise?

The Czech Republic recently established a unit tasked with countering fake news, along with other forms of “hybrid threat” and “terrorism”. The Interior Ministry’s Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats started work on 1 January this year. So far, however, it has not been particularly active – its website contains no rebuttals of disinformation (and no rebuttal of disinformation was published since January 1st also on the Center´s Twitter account), nor any further content apart from some fairly vague introductory texts, in which the Center swears that it will not “force the truth on people or carry out censorship”. This assertion is a reaction to the frenetic discussion that the Center has already managed to provoke.

The most distinctive element of the Center’s website is a yellow triangle in its header, warning that “terrorism threat level 1 is in force”. A search of the Interior Ministry’s website reveals that last January the Czech government approved four threat levels, one of which, “level 0”, is defined as a state “in which there is no knowledge of any threat, either specific or general, of a terrorist or similar attack on the territory of the Czech Republic”. This state, however, is “unachievable in the foreseeable future”, because the risk of terrorism can never be ruled out in today’s world. A certain degree of emergency, represented by a little triangle and the label “terrorism threat level 1”, thus becomes a permanent state of sorts. The triangle “draws attention to the existence of a general threat of terrorism ensuing from the international situation or the international activities of the Czech Republic, but at the same time there is no knowledge of any specific threat of terrorist activities on the territory of the Czech Republic”, which means that “general alertness” is required.

In other words, living under the permanent threat of a terrorist attack has become an ever-present characteristic of our age, regardless of whether there are any grounds to conclude that such a threat exists. If the aim of terrorism is to keep society in a state of tension and fear, such warning signs tend to encourage this. Moreover, this idea of a permanent terrorist threat then becomes the lens through which we are meant to view the other “hybrid threats” that the center has been charged with defending against.

The Center has already managed to provoke a heated debate. European Values (Evropské hodnoty), an important non-government organization, welcomed the creation of the Center and declared it a success, given that the creation of such a center was one of the organization’s long-term demands. “We have awoken our autoimmune system – the Czech state has finally begun to work seriously on its defense strategy”. European Values claims it was more than high time to react to the destabilizing effect of Russian propaganda – the think tank’s analysis has counted 39 disinformation websites and determined that around a hundred people are engaged in the production of pro-Russian fake news in the Czech media environment.

Czech president Miloš Zeman, the former leader of the Social Democrats who now takes pride in being called the “Czech Trump” and often adopts pro-Russian positions, made the Center a target of his Christmas speech: “I would not like to think that some porn actor has put together a list of troublesome or even ban-worthy internet sites”. “Porn actor” refers to European Values analyst and deputy director Jakub Janda, who at the age of 19 appeared in a pornographic video that recently surfaced in an evident attempt to discredit him. The president’s arguments were calculated and below the belt, and yet to his target group they were probably convincing (the president styles himself as the defender of “ordinary people” against liberal elites from the capital, Prague).

More serious voices than that of the president have also criticized the Center, however. Petr Uhl, a left-wing journalist, human rights activist and former dissident who signed Charter 77 and spent nine years in prison during the Communist Party’s dictatorship, has said that the establishment of the Center is a violation of the state’s democratic nature and of the constitutional principle that the state is not meant to tie itself exclusively to any particular ideology. Some Czechs created Twitter accounts parodying the Center, with one such account even being set up by the president’s spokesman.

The debate that the Center has sparked points to three questions: Does the state have the right to rebut disinformation that is apparently being spread by another state’s propaganda? If so, then how and under what circumstances should it enforce this right? And, finally, is the state and the “epistemic community” tied to it sufficiently credible for its rebuttal of lies to be convincing?

The answer to the first and second questions appears trivial: given that Russian propaganda focuses on spreading lies, it is entirely fitting and appropriate to respond to it and rebut those lies. Even more so when lies regarding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the refugee crisis and the alleged attempts of the American embassy to overthrow the Czech president (the three main themes of Russian propaganda aimed at the Czech public) are not spread only by obscure websites. Among the significant distributors of fake news in the public sphere is Parlamentní listy (Parliamentary News), a tabloid-style internet news site whose title gives the mistaken impression that it has something in common with the Czech parliament (it is owned by dubious businessman and senator Ivo Valenta, dubbed the “casino king”). The publication, which has several former far-right activists in prominent editorial positions, is now the eighth most read web news portal in the Czech Republic. It is used by a number of politicians to communicate with their voters; they pay for PR articles in it using public money. The Russian version of events, including fake news, is also spread by the office of President Miloš Zeman, often labelled an agent of Russian influence or a “Trojan horse”. One of the president’s key advisors is Martin Nejedlý, a former long-time employee of Lukoil.

When searching for the reasons why the Russian point of view has found such resonance in certain segments of Czech society, however, it would be extremely short-sighted to reduce these reasons to the effect of lies and propaganda. The sympathy for Russia felt by some of the Czech public has strong historical roots: Slavic solidarity against the German Drang nach Osten (with Austro-Hungarian participation) in the First World War, as well as the image of the Red Army as the country’s savior from Nazism, which has only partially been obscured by the image of the 1968 occupation. During the 1990s there was strong popular opposition in the Czech Republic to joining NATO, and the bombing of Serbia by NATO only a few weeks after the Czechs joined had a traumatic effect on part of the population. A pro-western orientation was further discredited by George W. Bush’s wars and the problems of American foreign policy under Obama, as well as by the economic crisis of 2008. For part of the population, Putin became a symbol that united a feeling of order and a “firm hand” against a free liberal society that had gone “too far” with a feeling of lost self-confidence connected with memories of industrial modernity. Moreover, Russian policy in Ukraine (however indefensible it is, and not only from the point of view of international law) is defended not only by Russian propagandists. It is also treated with understanding by some American “realists”, such as Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer, as well as observers who point to violence and the activities of the extreme right during and after the Maidan.

Even where propagandistic lies are clearly being spread (although in most cases it cannot be proven that they are being spread knowingly), it seems an exaggeration to frame things in terms of “terrorism”. To turn the spread of rumor into a matter of security by framing it as the main “hybrid threat”, and to make countering it the purview of a body that is meant to be dealing with terrorism, is to place paranoid bloggers, political tabloids and a populist president at the center of an epic security drama. The imaginary world of hooded fighters taking hostages, or suicide bombers, is simply qualitatively different even from the most persistent dissemination of propagandistic lies.

Conceiving of one’s own primary activity as “rebutting lies” means declaring oneself the bearer of truth. Is this position sustainable, however, and are Czech elites sufficiently credible to fill this role?

Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, a Social Democrat who has become Zeman’s chief opponent in this regard, is no liberal or friend of an open society. Like the president, he emerged from the refugee crisis as a sower of panic and assumed a tough stance towards both refugees and the western half of the EU. When the Czech Republic was considering admitting seventy Syrian refugees, he went so far as to suggest holding a referendum over even this small number. Recently he proposed granting firearm holders the constitutional right to shoot terrorists. Posing with a gun in a video, he described the proposal as being designed to protect Czech gun owners against “disarmament” by the European Union. The Center has already announced that along with devoting itself to Russian disinformation campaigns, it will also focus on the “security aspects of migration”. Under the influence of this minister (who, according to the fact-checking site, is capable of coming up with three mendacious and two misleading statements about refugees in the course of a single television debate – ) it would be fairly easy for the new center to become more a source of disinformation than a means for correcting it.

Similar doubts may be held about the think tank European Values, which played a major role in pushing for the creation of the Center and has had an influence on it. European Values has painted itself as a “frontline fighter” in the war against disinformation, but also as an advocate for a “realistic” attitude towards migration from Islamic countries. The approach it has adopted in so doing is considered by some experts to border on manipulating public opinion. According to a statement by eight academics from Charles University, the Institute of International Relations and other institutions, European Values “is capable of flooding the public debate with a huge number of ‘expert studies’ distinguished by an interpretation based strictly on (neoconservative) ideology and often failing to adhere to basic ethical standards”.

According to the authors of the statement, European Values is also guilty of manipulation in its estimation of the influence of Russian propaganda: “They frequently refer to hard data gathered by renowned research institutions, which they nevertheless subject to ideological and calculated interpretations. An example of this is the conclusions drawn from a recent STEM survey. Because 31.5% of those questioned believe that NATO expansion was a breach of a promise made to Moscow, and because this is also claimed by pro-Kremlin news portals, this allegedly shows that the propaganda spread by the Kremlin ‘appears’ to be effective. Results that do not fit with their a priori argument – such as the finding that only 4.5% of those surveyed saw the United States as a serious threat to the Czech Republic – are left unacknowledged. One of the authors of the statement, Ondřej Ditrych, points out in another article that European Values published a study outlining scenarios for 2016-19 that warned of a 60% chance that a civil war with Islam would break out in a western European state in that time period, radicalizing the “grey zone” of ordinary Muslims. The methods that were used to arrive at the above figure are, to put it mildly, dubious (a poll of experts and “experts” on the subject), but putting a number on the probability lends such scenarios the air of authoritativeness. “The immediate effect of such scenarios may thus be mainly to spread the aforementioned feelings of fear and vulnerability, and a loss of perspective, which may easily end up taking the form of bad decisions in the (near) future”, Ditrych concludes.

The state has thus set out to fight for the truth and against disinformation using untrustworthy representatives, inspired by a controversial think tank that employs problematic methods. To oppose a disinformation campaign by Russia based on spreading fake news, we have the fake expertise of a think tank that exerts influence on the state administration. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that a center that was meant to confront Russian propaganda has thus far managed only to defend its own existence, and none too convincingly.

Ondřej Slačálek works as an assistant professor of political science at the Charles University in Prague. Currently he is Jan Patočka Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.

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