Disinformation and the Visegrád group

By Pavel Nikolic

The current rapid technological advancement has given key importance to events and actions within the information space. Obviously, the power of information is not a new phenomenon and it has been weaponized for long. However, the means of modern technology has made the use of disinformation both easier and more dangerous. We have a considerably growing amount of data and pieces of information at our disposal, with greater availability and easier access to them. This also provides opportunities to infiltrate these communication channels by intentionally conveying misleading and false messages. The goals of these measures vary, including attempts to induce doubt, uncertainty, and chaos, manipulate opinions, alter, attack or discredit ideas and values for various political, economic, ideological or even military purposes. Indeed, false news and the spread of false information have the capabilities to influence matters on a worldwide scale.

Regarding disinformation techniques, common tools are the so-called ‘4Ds’ that refer to ‘dismiss’ (open disregard or denial of facts), ‘distort’ (deliberately twisting the reality, falsifying the accounts of events), ‘distract’ (by presenting numerous alternative stories and diverting the attention via other false narratives) and ‘dismay’ (the use of threats and intimidation). There are many types of what could be considered a piece of misinformation or disinformation. The chart below is a handy tool when it comes to distinguishing the different kinds of contents.

7 Categories of Information Disorder (Credit: Claire Wardle, First Draft)

To illustrate the dangers of false information, MIT researchers analysed Twitter content from 2006 to 2017 and found that false stories spread significantly faster, farther and more broadly than the truth. False rumours and fake news simply reached more people than the true ones; they were 70% more likely to be tweeted than true stories. The researchers also discovered that it takes true stories about six times as long as false stories to reach 1,500 people. The reasons for these include that false content is often more interesting, feels more relevant, confirms previous biases and thereby it is more easily shareable.

In Central and Eastern Europe, four countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia form the so-called Visegrád group. Of course, these countries are different in many ways, but there are also similarities, sharing a common Communist past and a strong commitment after the end of the Soviet occupation of transforming their countries into Western democracies and becoming part of the Euro-Atlantic integration. Another commonality is that all four have been targets of pro-Russian disinformation campaigns in recent years. Channels that distribute misleading information have emerged in the “national” cyberspace of all the Visegrád states. The issue is considered mainly as “results of actions of hostile or unfriendly third parties”, especially in Poland and the Czech Republic. Slovakia and Hungary apparently take less active positions on the matter.

If we look at pro-Kremlin disinformation, a shared characteristic of these countries is that the main targets are the public opinion and the support for the European Union and NATO, the institutions and the democratic foundations of these countries. But moving on to the ‘demand’ side, to see how disinformation affects, influences and impacts the opinions and actions of the audience, first and foremost we have to look at and understand the audience. If we consider pro-Kremlin Russian disinformation, the European Union’s East Stratcom Task Force already reported in 2016 that pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign had been intensifying in Central

Europe with a more targeted focus on local audiences. Within these societies, the most susceptible groups to disinformation include youth and elderly people, as well as minorities and citizens with radical views.

The differences between the four countries, with regards to their political and economic orientation, the landscape and values of political parties, the situation and diversity of media actors, the overall public opinion on the country’s strategic orientation and the population’s receptiveness to the messages of pro-Kremlin disinformation are all important factors that define and distinguish the the characteristics and means of disinformation campaigns in the V4 .

Overall, according to a study by Slovak think tank GLOBSEC on current dynamics in Central Europe, Hungary was found to be the most vulnerable to subversive foreign influences, Slovakia ranked second, the Czech Republic third, while Poland was found the least vulnerable. The focus of the report is Russia, which is the biggest actor in the neighbourhood of the Euro- Atlantic integration with potentially disruptive political purposes.

Public attitudes towards the EU, NATO or Russia are diverging in the four countries, too, as seen from the GLOBSEC study. Pro-Russian sentiment in the society is the strongest in Slovakia, where the support for NATO is also the lowest. Meanwhile, it is the Czech Republic that could be labelled as the most Eurosceptic of the V4, where the EU is the least popular. The Hungarian population’s pro-Western stance can be observed from the high support for both the EU and NATO. Finally, sharing a border with Russia in Kaliningrad and having historical mistrust towards it, Poland is the “most Euro-optimistic” and pro-NATO (and pro-US) country in the region. This shows the variety of audiences in the region, which explains why pro- Kremlin disinformation becomes country-specific regarding its tools and messages.

Finally, when it comes to countering disinformation, media literacy is key. One of the reasons why disinformation is so effective is the lack of media literacy of a population in a given country. According to Eurostat, 80% of people aged 16-29 use the internet and social networking sites on a daily basis in the EU. With plenty of unreliable and distorted information, it all depends on the judgement and awareness of the users to identify and reject false stories and disinformation. Improving media literacy helps with learning critical thinking, becoming a smart and conscious consumer of information, creating media responsibility, and becoming aware of, and resilient to, attempts of disinformation on a personal level.