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.