The Czech Republic's Fake News Problem
In the country’s parliamentary elections this weekend, anti-establishment parties are getting a major boost from web sites trafficking in sensationalizing stories.
In Prague, there’s a popular website with a reputation among journalists and politicians for publishing content seemingly aimed at stirring up trouble or disrupting the status quo, exaggerating facts, and blasting out sensational headlines. Dramatic articles about the dangers of refugees and Islam pop up frequently on the site. Populist-leaning politicians quote its stories, and often grant interviews to its writers or author guest posts. Its content is frequently shared across social media.
Though it may sound like a Breitbart offshoot, it’s not: It’s a Czech news site with a monthly audience of about 8 million users called Parlamentní listy (or, “Parliamentary Letters”). It publishes interviews with politicians, alongside more sensational content that exaggerates facts, seemingly with the intent to sow discontent with the government or the political establishment. But the comparison to the far-right American web site is a valid one: As the debate in the United States over the impact of so-called “fake news” during the 2016 election and beyond continues, the phenomenon appears to be thriving in the Czech Republic.
It’s hard to gauge the impact of what those in the Czech Republic refer to as “alternative news” or “alternative information,” or to draw clear links between the phenomenon and the rise of anti-establishment parties here. But the profusion of such sites here seems to reinforce some Czech voters’ skepticism of the existing political system—and, by extension, could serve as an indirect boon to its anti-establishment political parties.
In the Czech Republic, some of these sites publish sensational content that appears designed solely to garner clicks and revenue. Others traffic in “disinformation,” or fake or misleading information allegedly supplied by Russia. And though Parlamentní listy is by far the most prominent example, dozens more such sites—of varying levels of professionalism and legitimacy—are churning out misleading articles that reach a significant portion of the Czech electorate.
This weekend, voters in the Czech Republic went to the polls to elect a new parliament. Andrej Babiš, a businessman with populist leanings, and his ANO (“YES”) party came in first with just under 30 percent of the vote. Babiš, one of the Czech Republic’s richest men, has been frequently labeled a “Czech Donald Trump” by English-language media—and while the comparison is far from perfect, Babiš’s victory has observers concerned that his ascendance could signal a shift away from the West. What’s more, several other anti-establishment parties, including the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) and the Pirate Party, also made gains. All told, anti-establishment parties won almost 60 percent of the vote here.
These parties focus on issues relating to immigration and the country’s membership in the European Union, both of which are frequent topics on Parlamentní listy, or on even more radical alternative news sites like AE News, Lajkit.cz and Protiproud. “It seems to me that the overall effort is more to foment mistrust in institutions, in traditional parties, in sort of traditional institutional sources of authority,” Ondřej Ditrych, a professor at Charles University in Prague, told me. “It doesn’t seem to me that there would be a unified or orchestrated effort [among the sites] to support this or that political party or movement.”
Concrete information on who owns and operates many of the alternative news sites in the Czech Republic is hard to come by, making tracking down allegations of explicit ties to Russia difficult. But Ondřej Kundra, a journalist at the Czech news organization Respekt who has researched Russian connections to Czech media and government officials, said the proliferation of these sites began after the Russian invasion of Crimea. “Some of them are anonymous, some of them perhaps have some links with Russia, but it’s hard to find data for this,” he told me.
Unlike in some other European countries like Germany or France with elections this year where Breitbart-esque sites fizzled out or never quite materialized, the alternative news business is thriving in the Czech Republic. “Individually their outreach is not that huge, but they’re amplifying [each other’s] messages … they create this kind of echo chamber,” Veronika Víchová, an analyst with the European Values Center, which publishes a weekly “Kremlin Watch” newsletter and studies disinformation across Europe, told me in Prague. The circle of people who run these sites is small, and they will often share each other’s social-media posts and re-publish each other’s articles simultaneously, she added.
Spokespeople for President Miloš Zeman, for example, are known to link to or quote from a range of them; and Zeman, who Víchová called these sites’ “strongest ally,” has granted numerous interviews to Parlamentní listy and others. The far-left Communist Party has a specific page on its website devoted to “Alternative information,” featuring near-daily links to suggested reading. (“Information that proves that there is more to the world than what you can read in the mainstream,” the page’s tagline reads.)
Experts are split on just how influential these sites are, and on how big a problem fake news is for the Czech Republic. Most tend to believe that they reinforce anti-establishment views in voters who are already so inclined, rather than drawing new true believers. In other words: They are more a symptom of pre-existing cynicism or tendencies rather than a successful persuasion tactic. “People who are disenchanted with the general line are drawn to these sites,” Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, told me. “There’s very little evidence that these sites actually change people’s opinions.”
That said, research indicates these organizations do have significant reach within the Czech Republic. Polling conducted in 2016 by European Values, a think tank, found that a quarter of Czech voters read and believe alternative news sites. And a survey earlier this year by Ipsos Czech Republic found that 35 percent of those who regularly read alternative news sites only care that the sites “tell the truth,” not whether the pages are funded by or related to Russia.
Politicians from the country’s non-populist parties, especially pro-EU ones, see these sites as damaging to the overall political discourse. “Here in the Czech Republic it’s a big problem,” Petr Kučera, campaign manager for the pro-EU TOP09 party in Prague and a candidate for parliament, told me. Many of these sites, he added, “are completely trying to split the society.”
The Czech government clearly agrees. In 2016, Czech counterintelligence officials warned in a report that Russia was working to disseminate information aimed disrupting the status quo, including “weakening the strength of Czech media … promoting inter-societal and inter-political tensions” and propagating “disinformation and alarming rumors defaming the U.S. and NATO.”
At the start of 2017, the Czech government announced a novel plan to combat the problem: a 20-plus-person unit housed in the interior ministry, called the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, which would be tasked with debunking fake news. The unit runs a Twitter account that pushes back against “fake news,” though its activities beyond that are opaque. Opponents of the unit, including those who work for alternative news sites, call it an instrument of government censorship; in response, the unit created a page on its website stating that it “does not force the ‘truth’ on anyone, or censor media content,” and that it does not “remove content from the internet or other (printed) media.” (The Centre declined my request for an interview.) Outside groups, including European Values, do similar debunking work and even host workshops in high schools to teach Czech youth about media literacy.
What's still unclear, however, is whether any of these efforts can truly combat disinformation and alternative news, and change the minds of those already susceptible to disinformation. “The kind of people who are following an Interior Ministry Twitter feed are probably not the people they need to be reaching,” Galeotti said.