Date: 23 March 2024, Author: Adam Kratschmer

Disinformation in the Czech Republic (from): Foreign Perspective

The Czech Republic has been confronting a significant challenge with the rise of disinformation, especially regarding critical international issues such as the war in Ukraine, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the circumstances surrounding the death of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. This disinformation seeks to influence public opinion and policy by distorting facts and manipulating narratives related to these pivotal events.

                                                                                                                                                                         Photo via iStock/Pawel Gaul

The disinformation surrounding the war in Ukraine primarily aims to mislead public perception and impact the Czech stance on the conflict. Similarly, misinformation about the Israel-Palestine situation attempts to skew public understanding and influence the country’s diplomatic posture. Regarding Alexei Navalny, disinformation campaigns focus on obscuring the facts of his case and the broader human rights concerns in Russia, thereby affecting Czech public opinion and foreign relations.

Russian invasion on Ukraine

In the Czech Republic, the spread of disinformation regarding Ukraine persists as a significant issue, continuously shaping public perception and discourse. This phenomenon is not merely a reflection of global geopolitical tensions, but also a testament to the powerful influence of misinformation campaigns. These campaigns skillfully exploit social media platforms and other channels to disseminate false narratives, thereby exacerbating existing societal divides and fostering unwarranted skepticism towards Ukraine.

The persistence of these disinformation efforts highlights a crucial challenge for media literacy and the need for concerted efforts to debunk myths and present factual information to the public. Through addressing these falsehoods, there is an opportunity to foster a more informed community, capable of critically assessing information and resisting the divisive tactics employed by those aiming to manipulate public opinion. It is crucial to highlight that, according to Czech Elves [1], Ukraine remains a predominant theme in the spread of misinformation.

 

Karviná as an example of the spread of disinformation in Czech Republic

In the event held in Karviná featuring Minister of the Interior Vít Rakušan, a myriad of disinformation narratives was brought to light, showcasing the depth of misinformation entrenched in public opinion and its influence on societal views. Among the prevalent misconceptions was the unfounded claim that the Czech government vehemently supports a “fascist Kyiv regime” to the detriment of its own citizens. This assertion is flawed on multiple levels, particularly in its ignorance of the substantial aid provided by the Czech Republic to Ukraine—a support that, as governmental envoy for Ukraine Tomáš Kopečný indicated [2], ultimately benefits the Czech economy by fostering more returns than the initial outlays.

Another widespread yet debunked narrative is the portrayal of Ukraine as a fascist state, a false claim propagated by long-term Russian disinformation efforts aiming to justify aggression. In reality, international comparisons of democratic standards consistently rank Ukraine above its aggressor [3], debunking the myth of prevalent fascism, which, as shown, often relies on manipulated images. It’s essential to note that like many countries, including the Czech Republic, Ukraine has its share of far-right representation, which does not, however, render the country fascist.

The discussion also highlighted accusations of preferential treatment towards Ukrainian refugees, alleging they exacerbate crime rates—a claim contradicted by data from the International Organization for Migration [4], which shows Ukrainian refugees are in a less advantageous position compared to Czech citizens, lacking access to certain benefits. Furthermore, the debate touched on freedom of speech concerns, with some participants questioning its extent in the Czech Republic. It’s crucial to understand that freedom of expression has its legal limits, particularly when it comes to preventing hate speech and illegal activities, as outlined in the criminal co

 

Disinformation about benefits for Ukrainians

A piece of disinformation widely circulated on social media claims that Ukrainians receive approximately twice as much in social benefits as Czechs. This narrative includes various “calculations” of benefits for Czech and Ukrainian families, suggesting a deliberate effort to create better living conditions for foreigners than for the native population. However, this claim is debunked as manipulative and misleading by Jakub Augusta, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs [5]. The assertion fails to clarify the method used to calculate the alleged benefit amounts and overlooks the individual assessment of child benefits based on the child’s age and the household’s income. Importantly, it is emphasized that Ukrainian refugees with temporary protection cannot claim child benefits at all, contradicting the misinformation’s insinuations.

Instead, Ukrainians with temporary protection are primarily eligible for humanitarian aid for sudden and specific situations, with state social support benefits like maternity benefits, parental allowances, or funeral grants remaining inaccessible. Even when discussing humanitarian aid, the disinformation gets the facts wrong. The Labor Office states that the aid amount has been set at five thousand Czech crowns per person for five months since obtaining temporary protection, a figure misrepresented in the misleading posts.

Moreover, the narrative fails to acknowledge the comprehensive support system in place for Ukrainians, including housing contributions for those housing refugees and the adjustments made to account for living costs in the Czech Republic. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs clarifies that Czech citizens are entitled to a broader range of benefits than Ukrainian refugees, further dispelling the false narrative of preferential treatment [6].

 

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The war in Israel has unleashed a “disinformation hell” [7]. One of the Czech experts, Jaroslav Valůch, head of the media education programme at Transitions, told the audience of the Spotlight discussion programme that “the current conflict between Israel and Hamas is unprecedented” [8].

As Valůch also points out, however, such information is not new and the conflict has been used in the Czech disinformation space, especially by well-known faces of the disinformation scene. Figures like Lubomír Volný have leveraged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to spread disinformation and align themselves with Russian propaganda efforts [9]. Despite his failure in the latest parliamentary elections, Volný continues to vie for the public’s attention, adopting the guise of a journalist to disseminate his misleading narratives.

 

New-old faces: Volny has resurfaced with new Ukraine-Hamas narrative

In his communications, Volný ventures into the realms of fabrication and absurdity, making outrageous claims about the international political scene, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His approach reflects a broader strategy employed by certain Czech disinformation actors, who exploit sensitive geopolitical issues to sow discord and confusion. These efforts are not isolated incidents but part of a concerted effort to manipulate public opinion on a range of topics, including the complexities of Middle Eastern politics.

Building on the discussion of disinformation in the Czech Republic related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the narrative takes a further dive into the complexities of misinformation through a recent example. A disinformation campaign claiming that Ukraine was supplying weapons to Hamas [10], thereby indirectly attacking Israel, has been making the rounds on social media. This narrative, while baseless, points to a broader strategy employed by Russian propaganda to sow discord and manipulate public opinion on international affairs.

Investigations by foreign journalists and scrutiny by experts have largely traced the origins of such claims back to Russia, suggesting a concerted effort to deflect attention from its own actions and to weaken support for Ukraine amidst its ongoing conflict with Russia. The narrative exploits the real concerns about the black market for weapons [11], which emerged as a significant issue during the conflict in Ukraine. Europol and other security experts have acknowledged the challenge of weapons from conflict zones ending up in the wrong hands, including those of criminal and possibly terrorist groups [12].

However, the leap to claiming that these weapons have directly armed Hamas for attacks against Israel is a step too far, lacking credible evidence. Such assertions fit into a pattern of disinformation that aims to create false equivalences and to obscure the realities of geopolitical conflicts. The narrative around Hamas being armed by Ukraine, with alleged connections to the West’s military aid, is debunked by the lack of substantial proof and the inherent improbability given the close monitoring of such aid [13].

Moreover, the suggestion that Western-supplied weapons intended for Ukraine’s defense against Russia could end up in Gaza [14] reflects a misunderstanding of the complexities involved in international arms trafficking and overlooks the rigorous oversight mechanisms in place for such aid. This example underscores the importance of critical media consumption and the need for vigilance against disinformation campaigns designed to mislead public opinion and influence geopolitical perceptions.

As these narratives unfold, it becomes evident that disinformation remains a potent tool in the arsenal of state and non-state actors seeking to advance their agendas on the international stage. The case of the supposed arming of Hamas by Ukraine, propagated by Russian sources, serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing information warfare and its implications for international relations and public understanding of global conflicts.

 

BIS and the state of disinformation of Israel-Palestine in Czech Republic

Expanding the discussion on disinformation in the Czech Republic, the narrative deepens with insights from the recent conference in Prague titled “Ready to Fight?” where Michal Koudelka, the director of the Security Information Service (BIS), addressed the current state of disinformation activities in the country. According to Koudelka, while the Czech Republic experiences a significant share of disinformation efforts, the impact of anti-Israeli propaganda from groups like Hamas or countries like Iran has not been as pronounced in the Czech Republic as it might be elsewhere [15]. This, however, does not diminish the broader concern over disinformation campaigns originating from Russia and China, which have been more prominent and pose a greater risk to Czech society.

In the case of Israel, he identified Hamas and other Palestinian organizations, as well as Iran and its supported Hezbollah, as primary sources of hostile propaganda [16]. These efforts are part of a global attempt to sway public opinion, demonstrating that democratic countries, including the Czech Republic, are not entirely immune to such influence, though the impact remains relatively minor compared to other forms of disinformation.

The BIS director underscored the ongoing challenge posed by Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns, which have intensified following the Czech Republic’s support for Ukraine. These campaigns often focus on anti-government propaganda or criticism of the Czech Republic’s support for Ukraine, with a significant impact on the perception of the conflict’s economic repercussions on Czech society.

By aligning with such narratives, these individuals contribute to a distorted view of the conflict, often echoing Kremlin-backed positions that aim to undermine Western perspectives and foster a sense of division. The perpetuation of these falsehoods not only misleads the public but also exacerbates tensions by presenting skewed interpretations of international events. This tactic of exploiting geopolitical conflicts underscores the challenges facing societies in combating disinformation and highlights the need for increased media literacy and critical thinking among the public to discern truth from manipulation.

Navalny’s death

In the landscape of disinformation, the manipulation surrounding the murder of Alexei Navalny marks a chilling advancement of Russian propaganda efforts. Navalny’s assassination is not just another crime attributed to Vladimir Putin’s regime; it has become a focal point for spreading falsehoods that serve to deepen the discord sown by anti-vaccination narratives [17]. These narratives, once peripheral to hybrid warfare tactics against the West, have now been co-opted to exploit Navalny’s death, illustrating a sinister evolution in misinformation strategies.

Russian disinformation channels, like Aeronet, have propagated egregious lies, suggesting Navalny’s death was caused by vaccination-related complications – a blatant falsehood aiming to discredit Western vaccines and sow discord. This narrative falsely claims Navalny died from myocarditis and acute thrombosis, insinuating a direct link to COVID-19 vaccinations [18]. Such baseless assertions not only disrespect the memory of a prominent opposition figure but also aim to fuel vaccine hesitancy, leveraging a public health crisis to further political agendas.

The connection between anti-vaccine propaganda and Russian disinformation efforts has never been more apparent. Initially, these narratives might have seemed disconnected from geopolitical maneuvering. However, the misuse of Navalny’s murder for anti-vaccine propaganda vividly demonstrates the Kremlin’s intent to exploit any opportunity to undermine trust in Western institutions and medical advancements. This strategy not only targets the cohesion of Western societies but also attempts to deflect attention from the Kremlin’s own failings, including its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine development.

The exploitation of Navalny’s death to propagate vaccine-related hoaxes is a stark reminder of the lengths to which disinformation campaigns will go to manipulate public opinion. It underscores the critical need for vigilance and critical thinking among the public to discern truth from falsehood in an era where misinformation can easily masquerade as fact. The tragedy of Navalny’s assassination and its aftermath is not just a reflection of the Kremlin’s disregard for human life but also an alarm bell for the international community to combat the spread of harmful disinformation that threatens public health and democratic values.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Czech Republic faces a significant challenge in combatting the spread of disinformation, particularly concerning Ukraine. The persistent falsehoods circulating within the public sphere, as evidenced by events in Karviná and widespread social media misinformation, underscore the pressing need for enhanced media literacy and proactive countermeasures. The Czech government and civic organizations must intensify their efforts to debunk myths and provide clear, factual information to dispel the unfounded skepticism and false narratives surrounding Ukraine and its relationship with the Czech Republic. By fostering an environment of critical thinking and fact-based discourse, it is possible to bridge the societal divides exacerbated by disinformation and build a more resilient and informed community. This endeavor is crucial not only for maintaining democratic integrity but also for ensuring the cohesion and security of Czech society in the face of divisive external influences.

In this context, the rise of disinformation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as highlighted by the misuse of narratives like Ukraine’s alleged weapon supplies to Hamas, further complicates the Czech information landscape, demanding a more nuanced response. The Czech Republic must adapt its strategy to address evolving disinformation campaigns, particularly those exploiting international conflicts to deepen domestic divisions. Strengthening collaborations between the government, media professionals, and educational institutions to develop more effective media literacy programs and public awareness campaigns is essential. By clarifying complex international issues and debunking widespread myths, particularly those propagated by figures like Lubomír Volný, the Czech Republic can enhance its collective resilience against misinformation, ultimately safeguarding its societal cohesion and supporting its democratic values and international standing.

The intensification of Russian disinformation tactics, as exemplified by the manipulation surrounding Alexei Navalny’s murder, represents a critical juncture for Czech efforts against misinformation. This troubling trend, intertwining anti-vaccine misinformation with geopolitical narratives, presents an alarming escalation that transcends traditional boundaries of propaganda. For the Czech Republic, addressing this multifaceted challenge means not only focusing on localized disinformation campaigns but also understanding and responding to the broader, global context of misinformation. The exploitation of Navalny’s death by Russian disinformation outlets to undermine confidence in Western vaccines exacerbates the urgency for the Czech public and policymakers to foster a deeper, more discerning engagement with information sources. Confronting this new wave of disinformation requires a concerted effort that combines the rigor of fact-checking with a comprehensive educational approach that empowers citizens to critically evaluate the veracity and motives behind the information they encounter. By integrating these strategies, the Czech Republic can fortify its defense against the corrosive effects of disinformation, safeguarding not only public health but also the foundational principles of its democratic society. This concerted effort is paramount in maintaining societal trust and unity, especially in times when foreign entities aim to exploit vulnerabilities through sophisticated disinformation campaigns.

Sources:

  1. https://cesti-elfove.cz/wm_2024_01a/
  2. https://www.irozhlas.cz/zpravy-svet/ukrajina-pomoc-penize-valka-obnova-tomas-kopecny_2312211111_pj
  3. https://www.seznamzpravy.cz/clanek/domaci-zivot-v-cesku-ukrajina-neni-fasisticka-a-seniori-netrpi-vyvracime-lzi-z-karvine-244307
  4. https://www.seznamzpravy.cz/clanek/ekonomika-finance-chodi-do-prace-plati-najem-data-ukazuji-kolik-penez-ukrajincum-zbyde-244198
  5. https://www.irozhlas.cz/zpravy-domov/overovna-dostavaji-ukrajinci-defacto-jednou-tolik-co-cesi-na-sitich-se-siri_2401140500_job
  6. Ibid.
  7. https://www.seznamzpravy.cz/clanek/zahranicni-uverili-byste-s-valkou-v-izraeli-vypuklo-dezinformacni-peklo-239083
  8. https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/spotlight-rozhovor-jaroslav-valuch-zpravy/r~0c0202dc7d5011eea9eeac1f6b220ee8/
  9. https://www.reflex.cz/clanek/komentare/121183/kolaborant-volny-blouzni-o-izraeli-a-ukrajine-ted-jede-na-konferenci-do-ruska-snad-tam-i-zustane.html
  10. https://www.denik.cz/ze_sveta/denik-proti-fake-news-ukrajina-hamas-izrael-valka-rusko-zbrane-munice-lzi-iran.html
  11. https://www.ft.com/content/bce78c78-b899-4dd2-b3a0-69d789b8aee8
  12. https://factcheck.afp.com/doc.afp.com.342G9HL
  13. https://www.newsweek.com/russia-false-flag-western-weapons-gaza-ukraine-1833115
  14. https://www.ceskenoviny.cz/zpravy/2452847
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. https://www.forum24.cz/ruska-propaganda-zneuziva-vrazdu-navalneho-zlocin-vysvetluje-lzi-kterou-uz-pred-lety-rozvracela-zapad
  18. https://ct24.ceskatelevize.cz/clanek/veda/prodelani-covidu-ani-ockovani-proti-nemu-nemuze-za-umrti-mladych-sportovcu-ukazala-analyza-343378

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