Sensationalized Information and the Anti-Populism Protests in Czech Republic
Kremlin Watch Program, European Values Think Tank
What are the Protests?
Recent weeks have seen a record number of protests in the Czech Republic’s capital city of Prague. The protests are the largest that the small Central European nation has seen since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and are calling for the resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, due to his appointment of a close ally Marie Benešová to the position of justice minister. This occurred immediately after Czech police stated that Babiš should be charged with EU subsidy fraud involving 2 million euros, and it is widely presumed that Benešová will try to weaken the justice system to support her political boss Prime Minister Babiš.
The current anti-Babiš protests are organized by the “Million Moments for Democracy” movement which was founded by university student Mikuláš Minář. The movement appeals to broad quarters of society, although particularly to young Czech citizens. Recently, a variety of disinformative articles have been published targeting the uprisings and portraying them in a negative light.
The Czech media scene is hosting a variety of “disinformative” news outlets which are known to spread disinformation and cater particularly toward societal groups that support Babiš and the Czech president Miloš Zeman. These news sources have spread distorted and sensationalized information about the protests, and consequently the polarization of Czech society is increasing.
The recent rise of Czech Populism
The rise of populism, conceived by Andrej Babiš, his bipartisan ANO party, and Czech president Miloš Zeman has significantly altered the Czech political scene over the past five years. Populist politicians alongside their far right and far left allies the SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy Party) and the KSČM (the Czech communist party) respectively, gained significant power in the Czech political scene at the expense of moderate parties. Zeman is widely perceived as a controversial persona because of his pro-Russian political views, and Babiš harnessed widespread discontent with the corrupt nature of the Czech political system and rose to power. As a billionaire, Babiš has demonstrated that he is not afraid to use his wallet to gain influence over the public through his acquisition of several different Czech media outlets that now portray him in an exclusively positive light.
The Protests and the “Disinformative” Czech Media Scene
The Czech media scene contains approximately forty disinformation and manipulative online sources, amongst the most notable are Parlamentní listy and Aeronet; these media outlets brand themselves as being “alternative” and “unbiased” news organizations when it is notable that the mainstream media in Czech Republic is rather neutral in its reporting. On these disinformative media sites, 70% of the articles pertaining to Minař and the protests portray them negatively. Parlamentní listy contained a “long” commentary by Czech actor Ivan Vyskocil, who spoke critically of the protests, and also contained an article revealing that Zeman recommended Minař to graduate university and, “do some normal job, because he cannot live by organizing demonstrations”. These statements by high profile Czech figures were subsequently distributed to other disinformative websites and to chain emails sent largely to older Czech citizens.
Many different disinformative new sites contained content saying that the individuals in the protests were being paid 200 Czech Crowns by Minař as an incentive to be present. This disinformation was attributed to one individual—Frantisek Kudlaček. When asked about his claim Kudlaček said everything was merely described to his former wife by an anonymous individual through a chain email. When asked why he believed this information to be true, without fact checking it, Kudlaček said he simply went with his gut feeling. Kudlaček forwarded said chain email, and one of the recipients Břetislav Olšer (an editor of a disinformation website) relayed to the content and posted the claim on Facebook. Consequently, the Czech communist party, who had connections to Olšer, shared this false information on their Facebook page.
The Protests and Conspiracy Theories
Many disinformative sources note that the protests are so large in scale that it must be difficult to fund them. Thus, they conclude that the protests must be financed by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros since he is seen by some Czechs as the scapegoat for the problems in Czech Republic and other V4 nations despite his heavy investment in their development. This conspiracy concludes that Soros globally “finances coercive organizations”, therefore it is logical that he too is funding the protests. Aeronet, the most radical Czech disinformative source, even went as far to claim that Soros is funding a coup to overthrow Babiš because he wants to destroy the economic success of the Czech Republic.
Another article spreading disinformation claimed that the Czech protests are being funded by Sudeten German political groups in Germany. These individuals are the descendants of Germans who lived in the Czech Republic but were expelled following the Beneš decrees. It was claimed that the protests are not actually about Babiš, but rather about the Sudeten Germans, so they can return and take their homes back from the Czech families who settled in these houses after Germans’ expulsion following World War II. The article referenced a speech by Bernd Posselt, a German politician, where he declared that a Czech patron saint (St. John of Nepomuk) is in fact the patron saint of the Sudeten Germans. The article emphasized that Posselt was a member of the European Parliament for 20 years, although he was opposing the Czech ascension to the EU without the repeal of the Beneš decrees, which is a known fact.
Disinformation and the Polarization of Society
The consequences of such a variety of disinformative claims, each of which reflect mistrust of outside influences—a typical theme in Czech political thinking – are quite negative. The fact that disinformative media sources such as Aeronet and Parlamentní listy almost exclusively portray the protests in a negative light, ensures that their audience is automatically biased against the protesters. Claims that the Sudeten Germans are funding the protests, however bizarre, contain distorted truthful information, such as the anti-Czech quote by Posselt. This successfully provoked the article’s audience and made them more likely to perceive that the protests are a negative occurrence. Miloš Zeman’s dismissive statement that Minař should graduate from university and conduct a normal job instead of organizing protests, provokes many populist supporters who are often lower-class uneducated workers who likely feel trapped in a cycle of low wages and discontent.
Disinformative sources also link the protests to George Soros, who is perceived as a scapegoat for the Czech Republic’s problems amongst the nation’s older and more conservative individuals, similar to today’s Hungary. Without critically reading the poor logic behind the claim, much of the audience defaults to the negative conclusion. The belief in these distorted information and similar conspiracies increases the polarization of Czech society and reinforces the position of supporters of Babiš and Zeman. Thus, while a significant section of society opposes the questionable activities of Babiš and the pro-Russian tendencies of Zeman, an equally significant portion of society continues to support them.
Lack of Information Transparency
The fact that the Czech Communist Party posted on their Twitter page the rumour that Minař was paying individuals to protest is rather alarming as it was carried by chain emails which are likely to contain distorted information. This situation shows a lack of informational transparency in Czech society, and the unwillingness of certain Czech political parties to fact check their sources.
The disinformative chain emails, a phenomenon with major relevance in the Czech Republic, oftentimes with anonymous sources pose an issue because certain demographics of Czech society – mostly older individuals – believe the contents of the emails despite the fact that the origin of their information is unknown. According to researchers, 90% of Czech pensioners received disinformative emails pertaining to the protests. This reveals that individuals and disinformation sources are willing to take advantage of Czech seniors’ limited technological expertise in an attempt to control how they perceive global and domestic Czech issues.
The distorted information presented in disinformative news sources influences certain sections of Czech society to the detriment of the nation’s political views as a whole. A common trend with disinformation in the midst of the protests was that they all provided distorted information to distract their audience from why the protests are actually happening, and subsequently blame these negatively perceived individuals or groups. This reveals that fact checking and public awareness campaigns are needed to reduce the influence of chain emails, disinformation websites, and the individuals behind them. This can be accomplished through mainstream news articles disproving the claims of disinformative websites, and the investigation of authors who are known to spread disinformation. Special subject of the inquiry should be information from the anonymous sources.
In addition, the news sources should be required to publicly disclose the origin of their funding. The pressure needs to be applied to the owners of websites such as Parlamentní listy to give the required information to the fact checking organisations in order to counter the increasing disinformation claims on their webpages. Lastly, political parties need to be held accountable when spreading the information by their supporters as often they post false information linked to anonymous sources.