Charlatan Page Bádateľ Also Spreads the Propaganda of ĽSNS, Linking Its Party Leader With Vaccination Rumours
Slovak media outlet Denník N published an investigative article on the connections of a far-right party and websites spreading misinformation in Slovakia. The story is based on the findings of the report on Slovakia in our Business of Misinformation project. This English translation is published with the outlet’s permission. You may read the original article (published on February 4, 2020) in Slovak here.
We have compiled a list of websites and Facebook pages that help Kotleba’s party, despite they do not officially support it.
Author: Vladimír Šnídl
Translation: Zuzana Habsudová
The Facebook page Bádateľ (Researcher) officially attracts its readers by posting “interesting facts from the world of health”. Now, without warning, it started sharing articles about Milan Kotleba (the leader of the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia – ĽSNS) and his version of what happened during the street protests [on January 31 in Trnava, when the gathering of ĽSNS campaigners and anti-extremists escalated – ed. note).
“PS/Spolu [coalition of the Progressive Slovakia and Together parties – ed. note] brought the ANTIFA terrorist organization to Trnava,” was the news Bádateľ page spread this weekend without any evidence.
The Bádateľ webpage has 60,000 followers. Until now, it has been apolitical, focusing on the spread of medical hoaxes that scare people with vaccination rumours, discourage women from mammogram screenings, and claim that cancer can be treated with beetroot and cannabis.
Next to its “traditional scope”, a few weeks before the [parliamentary – ed. note] election, it started to promote the ĽSNS party. This means that Kotleba can spread his message to the people, who initially did not care for it, they only “liked” the Bádateľ page years ago.
“In our monitoring of charlatans, Bádateľ is the third largest site in the number of followers. Despite it’s been recycling the same delusions for several years, its posts always receive plenty of interactions and shares,” said Blbec.online (Dummy.online), a page that monitors misinformation sites.
Under neutral label
Last year, the daily newspaper Denník N highlighted a new tactic that has been growing more apparent with the ĽSNS. It no longer spreads its message just through the official websites with the brand of Kotleba’s party. It is increasingly being supported by networks that are not officially linked to Kotleba.
Quite a large coverage, for example, has the Kotleba’s supporter and regular hoaxer Mário Vidák, who runs a seemingly neutral label, Magazín 1 (Magazine 1). The pro-Kremlin misinformation website Hlavné správy (Main News) also supports Kotleba without criticism.
For instance, two weeks ago, it spread the allegations that the Roma population in Levoča threatened the ĽSNS candidates during their gathering, which was officially rebutted by police.
According to the transparent account, the Kotleba’s party ordered an advertisement for nearly 6,700 euros from Heuréka Evolution, whose CEO, Robert Sopko, is the editor-in-chief of Hlavné správy.
WHO HELPS KOTLEBA
• Magazín 1 (Magazine 1) – A misinformation website that daily attacks liberals and spreads hatred of Roma, migrants and homosexuals. It is run by the unsuccessful ĽSNS candidate [in regional elections – ed. note] Mário Vidák. ĽSNS ordered “advertising and marketing services” from Vidák for two thousand euros.z
• Prehľad správ (News Overview) – Same as Magazín 1 tries to hide behind a neutral brand, it actually openly promotes Kotleba’s party. In autumn, it was managed by Kotleba’s long-time companion and ĽSNS member Marcel Urban.
• Kulturblog – A media project linked to the ĽSNS, which used purpose-edited shots to portray the demonstrators against Kotleba in the worst possible light. The Kulturblog civic association was co-founded by ĽSNS former MP, Milan Mazurek. The main face of Kulturblog, student Lívia Garčalová, participated at the People’s Youth events.
• Hlavné správy (Main News) – Pro-Kremlin misinformation website, which helped Kotleba before the 2016 election. During the presidential campaign it temporarily supported Štefan Harabin, now is back with Kotleba. The ĽSNS ordered an ad for 6,700 euros from a company close to this website.
• Slovenské správy (Slovak News) - An anonymous website that started sharing articles from Kotleba’s party member Vidák. The Infosecurity.sk portal found that it is run by Marek Polacký from Dolné Vestenice.
• IdemVolit.sk (IamVoting.sk) – This influential Facebook page leads a negative campaign against all political competitors of Marian Kotleba. The news portal Aktuality revealed that it is run by doctor Radoslav Čičala from Považská Bystrica.
• Sila pravdy (The Power of Truth) –An anonymous Facebook page followed by 68,000 people. It shares any pro-Kotleba content without criticism.
• Ľuboš Hrica –A Slovak living in Italy, who got popular on Facebook by sharing videos from Matteo Salvini’s gatherings and migrants rampaging. Last year, he questioned the findings of journalists about Robert Fico’s links to Antonin Vadala. Today, he helps to spread pro-Kotleba content.
• Bádateľ.net (Resercher.net) –The charlatan Facebook page, linked to the website of the same name, began to spread posts blaming the PS/Spolu politicians for the violence in Trnava five weeks before election.
• Báječné ženy & Báječný lekár (Wonderful Women & Wonderful Doctor) –These websites of tabloid and charlatan character shared an article from Kotleba’s Magazín 1, which abused the Roma minority, in early January. Since then, they haven’t published any ĽSNS propaganda. According to Infosecurity, both sites are linked to Marek Polacký, who runs the Slovenské správy website.
Charlatans supporting ĽSNS
Some sites have been linked to Kotleba’s party for several years. For example, the Hlavné správy website supported the ĽSNS before the 2016 elections and continued to do so during this parliamentary term – with a short break before the presidential elections, when it promoted Štefan Harabin (a presidential candidate).
The Bádateľ portal, however, is a completely different story. This website has avoided politics so far, chiefly focusing on the spread of charlatan articles it took from similarly conceived websites abroad. It only started working in favour of Kotleba after mid-January, five weeks before the elections.
Bádateľ is officially an anonymous website with no information regarding its publishers. Until recently, it was associated with businessman Jozef Buzgo, who promoted his online store with nutritional supplements through this portal.
Buzgo is currently distancing himself from Bádateľ and claims that he has nothing to do with supporting Kotleba. The news portal Aktuality (News) found out that the site’s official administrator is Vladimír Uhlár, who does business with Buzgo in one of his companies.
Denník N asked the Bádateľ administrators why they started supporting Kotleba. They replied that their new agenda was unrelated to the elections, and rejected the propaganda in favour of the ĽSNS.
“There is no campaign for any particular party on (our) Facebook page. We started to share this type of articles after PS/Spolu began to disrupt meetings of other political parties. It has nothing to do with the date of the election,” replied one of the Bádateľ administrators, who refused to reveal his name.
ĽSNS: They’re not our responsibility
Denník N repeatedly wrote about Bádateľ. It is one of the charlatan websites that contribute to the fact that some oncological patients refuse to cooperate with doctors, which in extreme cases can lead to premature death.
Here are a few headlines from recent years: “Cannabis treats cancer and the state institutions have always known this.” “Pharm [Pharmaceutical – ed. note] companies hide this – Everyone should know of the fruit that treats cancer”, or “Do you know trees can heal? Your oncologist won’t tell you this.”
These articles have mainly been carriers of online advertising for nutritional supplements. “It’s a dirty business with human tragedy,” said oncologist Štefan Korec.
Denník N asked Kotleba’s party, what do they say about being supported by a site that can potentially jeopardize their voters with medical nonsense. “We’re not responsible for the content of other sites, nor do we investigate who is behind them,” replied ĽSNS spokesman Ondrej Ďurica.
Vaccination as Mengele’s experiments
Kotleba’s party is close to similar websites at least with their worldview. The Bádateľ site, like other projects of this type, has long been scaring parents with vaccination. Last March, it released a Facebook article about triplets in the US who allegedly got autism after vaccination.
The article had over 1,200 shares, despite the causal link between vaccination and autism has been disproved many times.
Similar vaccination rumours are also spread by the ĽSNS politicians. In 2017, Kotleba and four of his parliament members submitted a bill to stop compulsory vaccination. In the explanatory report, they argued that “there are at least very legitimate doubts as to whether vaccination is necessary and safe as officially stated”.
They even compared the current vaccination practices to the “inhuman experiments of Nazi criminals.” “Conducting dangerous medical interventions on people without their voluntary consent was a common practice of the Nazi criminal Dr. Josef Mengele during his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp,” said Kotleba’s party.
The misinformation website Hlavné správy (Main News) provided data about its readers to Štefan Harabin’s political party Vlasť (Homeland). This allowed the party to target its Facebook ads more effectively. The readers of Hlavné správy webpage were totally unaware of this.
The code of www.hlavnespravy.sk website contained a special code, the so-called Facebook Pixel. This collects information about the readers and sends it to the social page Facebook.
This would be nothing unusual though. Many news sites, online stores and other companies use a similar system. They use this data collected via Facebook Pixel to target their ads better.
For example, the media can target their campaign and offer a subscription discount to those readers who have previously visited their site. They are more likely to accept this offer than people who have never been to the site before.
E-shops attract the potential customers with an ad that offers discount on the product they previously viewed or placed in the basket, but for some reason did not complete the purchase.
The Hlavné správy web, however, did not use this function only for its own benefit, it also helped the political party Vlasť. A code with an ID number of 412544302777737 was inserted into the page’s source code. The same code that the Vlasť party uses on its website stranavlast.sk.
These codes cannot get onto a web by chance, the administrator needs to physically insert them there.
100,000 euros on Facebook ads
Since March 2019, Štefan Harabin and his Vlasť party have invested more than €100,000 into advertising on Facebook and Instagram. Almost €80,000 went to support the party’s leader, more than €20,000 boosted the party’s Facebook page and the website of Monika Sofiya Soročinová, the seventh candidate on the party’s list, who received at least €1,600.
Soročinová also uses the Facebook Pixel pinned to the Hlavné správy website. She targets her ads to the site visitors over 18 years old, who are eligible to vote.
The Hlavné správy praised her with commendable editorials. “Harabin’s candidate Soročinová gripped TA3 [viewers of Slovakia’s private news channel – ed. note] with her opinions,” read the headline two weeks ago. Another positive text was released a day later: “The cultivated speech and pleasing appearance of Monika Sofiya Soročinová has alarmed liberal activists.”
Soročinová, the candidate for Vlasť, then advertised both texts on her Facebook. Another positive contribution of Hlavné správy showed her boxing. Harabin commented that “she could have easily grounded any Bratislava café loafer“.
Media keep their data from politicians
Similar to Soročinová, the former judge and justice minister Harabin also targets his Facebook ads. He makes sure his messages are displayed to the readers of Hlavné správy, as part of them may be his voters.
The Vlasť party has not replied to Denník N’s questions.
The fact that Hlavné správy provides information about its readers to a political party is very unusual. It is one thing, when media offer politicians their advertising space to attract voters. But it is completely different to send out the data about their readers, so the parties can target their campaign more accurately.
Independent media do not provide data about their viewers to politicians, as this would count them as part of their campaign.
We asked the editor-in-chief of Hlavné správy, Róbert Sopko, for his statement and explanation. He has not given it yet. However, after submitting the questions, they removed the Harabin’s Facebook Pixel from their page code.
The web viewers are not notified about the fact that their information can be used for a political campaign. The website’s terms do not inform about such use of their data.
Only some want ads on Hlavné správy
Vlasť is one of the few parties that intensively advertise on Hlavné správy. Most politicians do not buy ads on misinformation sites. This can damage their reputation and would support the running of sites that share false and unverified information.
The Slovak National Party (SNS) is the chief buyer of advertising on Hlavné správy, spending over €14,000. This statement was taken from the party’s transparent account. Kotleba’s ĽSNS party bought advertising on the web for €6,696.
Vlasť party, according to the transparent account, spent nearly €4,300 for advertising on Hlavné správy. Smer officially did not purchase an ad on this site.
Hlavné správy are the most popular misinformation website in Slovakia.
Kočner also used Hlavné správy
Marian Kočner described himself as a silent “shareholder” of Hlavné správy, in communication with the Nitra businessman Norbert Bödör through the Threema application.
“Do you read Hlavné správy? They have 90-100,000 daily readers and are read by 700,000 individuals per month. An interesting medium,” wrote Kočner on February 24, 2018. “I have been their ‘shareholder’ since March 1. This info is only FOR YOU,” he said, adding that he only works “incognito” for Hlavné správy.
Kočner had a direct impact on some of the articles published on this site. The website also promoted his show Na pranieri (In the Pillory), in which he tried to discredit Slovak journalists.
The editorial office refuses allegations of being linked to Kočner.
Least transparent campaign
Harabin’s party has the least transparent campaign and half of its sponsors are unknown, says Transparency International Slovakia.
“Patrik Puček is another mysterious benefactor of Vlasť. Last week, he donated exactly one hundred thousand euros to Štefan Harabin’s party. He is the fourth person, who has donated or lent such a sum to this party. No other party in the campaign has so many donors with a hundred thousand euros,” wrote the NGO, which controls the transparency of elections.
“So far, Vlasť has spent one million euros on the campaign, but only revealed the origin of half of the finances. These are mostly loans, but even behind these are publicly unknown people. No other party with such small preferences has as many generous donors as Štefan Harabin,” Transparency added.
PS/Spolu also did a problematic campaign
The PS/Spolu (coalition of the Progressive Slovakia and Together parties) also made a controversial decision. It targeted its social network ads to the followers of President Zuzana Čaputová, who ran for the presidency as their candidate. Transparency International said that the reason they could set up an ad like this was because they had the administrator rights to her page.
“Without this, you can only target demographic or other general user characteristics, which is, of course, more expensive and less effective. It would not be possible to target the president’s website now, even if they had controlled it in the past, the Facebook told us,” Transparency informed.
PS/Spolu explains that they use the same agency for setting up online advertising, as they used in the presidential campaign of Zuzana Čaputová. “We target the Facebook advertising to a large number of end users, depending on their interests and demographics. It was an error that Zuzana Čaputová’s current followers were used. After we got aware of this error, we asked our supplier to remove the targeting of her site’s followers,” the party spokesperson explained.
“The presidential office had no knowledge that any political advertising was targeted to the followers of Zuzana Čaputová’s site. She did not give access or consent to anyone. If it happened, it was without the knowledge of the presidential office and the president considers it an unethical act,” said the president’s spokesperson.
“Since the president assumed the office, the president’s office has not sponsored social media posts, used any social media advertising tools, and has not even set up a new Facebook advertising account. Following the notification by Transparency International, we have removed the old access rights to the unused ad account from the advertiser, with whom the campaign team had worked during the election campaign, and which remained linked to the president’s Facebook profile. The current administrators of the Facebook page are two employees of the presidential office,” the spokesperson added.
The leader of PS/Spolu, Michal Truban also targeted advertising to the followers of his business book, which he published in 2016. The Personal Data Protection Act prohibits the contacts acquired for a certain purpose to be used for something else.
The article is part of the Business of Misinformation project, run by the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University. The project was supported by the Independent Journalism Program from Open Society Foundations.