Disinformation and the Youth: the Case of Slovakia

Viera Zuborova

In modern technological environment, we consume enormous quantity of information with various content and quality. In this information fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation can spread easily. We can argue that they constitute a security threat to our societies’ future. The impact of disinformation campaigns on the societies depends on various factors such as the nature, level of critical thinking and education, the stereotypes and prejudices, conspiracy thinking, citizens’ strong authoritarian inclinations, anomalistic behaviour of the society.

Slovak society is vulnerable to these negative trends more than any other Central European country. This is the reality despite the fact that recently foreign and domestic media displayed Slovakia as a country, which is able to generate people with strong, liberal and democratic values. However, the attitudes of the society changed. People demand change and new political alternatives that differ from the existing mainstream. Importantly, far-right political movements and authorities, that are becoming stronger and stronger every day, represent one of the alternatives. In addition, their electoral segment is characterised by strong participation in political processes and is becoming more mobilised.

Various alternative and conspiracy media outlets (mainly online) support these groups. Notably, this is the major problem – how to protect those individuals from fake news and conspiracy theories, who arguably are vulnerable towards this content and have predisposition for consuming it. To fight against  disinformation, the media, individuals and relevant stakeholders must change their view on the education of the young people. However, this might not be enough, if we cannot successfully target younger generation – the most vulnerable segment in Slovak society. It is difficult to target this generation when conspirators, far-right authorities and disinformation-spearing media are using youth as the main tool of sharing such information. They know that young people are the most powerful socialisation agent in the process of political socialisation. Also, with the impact of social media, they are able to produce a massive “cocktail”, that has enormous impact on the attitudes, opinions and expectations of future generations in Slovakia.

The Youth: Most Vulnerable Generation Online?

According to the latest studies, the level of education in Slovak republic is lower than OECD average  in each PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranking indicator. The same negative trend is observed in the field of critical thinking which has a crucial impact on Slovak younger generation’s behaviour and participation culture.

We are living in an era of technological revolution, where the environment is saturated  by enormous quantities of information while many of them are disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracies with low-quality sources. Younger generation without the capability of sort out the fake news is lost in the information flood, which they cannot filter. They often consume information that are visually appealing, short and placed in the social media. According to the latest Globsec (2018) research “68% of Slovaks aged 18-24 years encountered disinformation on social media. However, only 9% of all Slovak social media users who encounter inappropriate content report it”. The vulnerability of younger generation towards fake news and conspiracy theories is conditioned by the belief that the freedom of expression is unlimited, every opinion counts, is relevant and must be heard out. Considering this predispositions, it can be argued that younger generation is the segments most vulnerable to such misinformation. Moreover, if somebody of their age is spreading this information, their credibility is seen to be higher than usual.

After the parliamentary election of 2016 far right, fascist Kotleba Party entered the parliament. Following to this event political discourse changed, and some people had the feeling that shadow forces received voice in the society. Some people might argue that legitimization of Kotleba Party with open political and societal discourse, constitutes calling for fight against elitism, intellectuals, liberalism and open society.

Some Slovak young people promote xenophobic attitudes, call for the protection from modern neoliberal ideas, LGBT community and multiculturalism. Livia as student from high school became a popular Slovak vlogger after her first public YouTube appearance where she reacted on a controversial commercial of the alcohol brand. Her video reached more than 227 000 viewers and the content focused on the criticism of multiculturalism, liberal authorities, public intellectuals and gender issues. However, the content was not the main issue. Similar statements can be found on a daily basis in „alternative“ media. The problem lies in the potential to influence others in the process of socialization. Peer to peer socialisation is the most powerful method after family socialization. Protagonist was able to promote these “values” with a calm and trustful language towards masses of young people who do not have relevant information and lack the sense of critical thinking. This young woman is not the only one who calls for “cultural war” and portrays minorities and foreigners as the main threat to national identity. There are many “lone wolves” operating via internet and spreading fake news, conspiracy theories and misinformation of various content and political background. Nevertheless, they have one thing in common – supporting Marian Kotleba’s extreme right political party. Her activity is mainly conducted on the video blog called “Kulturblog” with 4,5 thousand followers and 17,8 thousand average viewers. According to other monitoring initiative, the Kulture blog has 8 643 “fans”, 26 212 post shares and 161 comments. Therefore, this medium has a crucial potential of socialising with the youth. We should not underestimate this media due to the low engagement numbers – the reality is that they are growing.

Youth Vulnerability

The vulnerability of younger generation in Slovakia is visible and the “mixed cocktail” is addictive. Among all of the citizens, the Slovak youth might have the most trust towards the future. Nonetheless, according the latest studies, also the most depressive one. The younger generation also differ from older generation with their values, attitudes and expectations from the future. On the one hand, they are willing to consume everything that modern system provides – they are completely open towards any information available online. They can be compared to Swedish table without ideological barriers and gender-neutral worldview. However, the problem is that openness makes them vulnerable to any contact or impulse coming from this environment and the media. If the authorities are not able to help them, youth resilience towards disinformation will remain on the same or lower level (trust towards the mainstream and “alternative” media is the same – around 40%) that will trigger problems in the future.

Conclusion: Countering Fake News

There is no universal guideline on how to counter fake news, conspiracy theories and misinformation. Slovakia’s problem is rooted in educational system, which instructs student to memorize materials and does not provoke independent thinking. Reforming education sector is the main challenge. Slovakia currently has the most depressive, positive, gender-neutral generation, which is not ideologically driven. The society has to guide them in this information era in order to defeat disinformation and fake new. However, what if the society is anomalistic at its core? Than we have a problem with the fight against fake new and conspiracy theories.

The Article is prepared in the framework of the project “EaP&V4 Countries Countering Disinformation” with the financial support from the International Visegrad Fund. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not in any way represent the views of International Visegrad Fund or the partner organisations.

The project is implemented by the Europe-Georgia Institute and Civil Development and Research Institute. 

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