Disinformation turns to official political reality

Slovakia, September 2023, two days before the parliamentary elections. An audio recording of Michal Šimečka, the chairman of the Progresívne Slovensko party, speaking with Monika Tódová, a journalist for Slovak newspaper Denník N, has emerged on social media. The two voices in the recording claim that the party has allegedly secured the manipulation of the election results. The recording instantly circulates all over the Slovak internet. It is shared extensively, especially by political supporters of the Slovak populists and the populist politicians themselves. If such a conversation between a politician and a journalist actually took place, it would of course be a debacle and both actors would have to be charged with at least attempted criminal offences. However, no such thing happened. The recording was a so-called ‘deep fake’, i.e. AI generated false information content, the true nature of which is difficult to discern. Therefore, instead of Šimečka and Tódová, those who created the deep fake recording should face prosecution. The impact of their actions probably influenced the election results. However, the perpetrators of this and similar lies are aware of their almost guaranteed impunity: it is very difficult, and usually impossible, to trace them. The people who subsequently spread this manipulative lie cannot be charged, even if they did so deliberately. Moreover, they can always claim to have believed in the authenticity of the content.

I am writing about this for several reasons. The main one is the context in which all this is taking place, which is not only about the situation in Slovakia. On the contrary. In terms of the framework of disinformation and the closely, symbiotically linked political populism, we can see that similar schemes are being repeated in various countries in Central Europe, not excluding the Czech Republic.

If we take a look at the rhetoric of the current Prime Minister of Slovakia, the staunch populist Robert Fico, we can easily discover a number of disinformation theses (narratives). For example, Fico makes no secret of his adaptation of the Kremlin's propaganda arguments in relation to Russian aggression in Ukraine. This attitude is reflected, for example, in his recent successful appeal for the removal of an active pro-Kremlin agitator, Jozef Hambálek, from the EU sanctions list. He has also repeatedly sought to discourage Western allies from helping Ukraine. According to Fico, or rather the Kremlin front he follows, the war in Ukraine was in fact caused by the West, by whom Putin is demonized.

NGOs as a “foreign enemies”

In addition to this, Fico has adopted other theses from the repertoire of common disinformation content, including a persistent effort to create the impression that the so-called "political NGOs" are operating in the country. Their aim is allegedly to promote foreign interests by influencing politicians and the media at the expense of the interests of the Slovak public. This is not an original narrative; a similar one has already been formalized in Hungarian politics by the long-serving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose instructions Robert Fico is systematically following. To show how serious the threat of 'political non-profits' is, the populist government in Slovakia has initiated legislative changes under which any such organization or individual could be denounced as 'foreign agents'. Yet the method of interpretation can be highly arbitrary. Indeed, the purpose of this legislative weapon is precisely to eliminate activities in civil society that are inconvenient for populists. We can see the consequences of similar legislative changes in Russia, whose model was first followed by Orbán and now by Fico, who has perfectly adopted Orbán's disinformation rhetoric. They are trying to convince the Slovak public that, through these NGOs, the country is controlled by the long fingers of the 90-year-old George Soros, who is supposedly insidiously influencing political events in the country. Fico adopted this rhetoric years ago and is now boldly continuing it. What does it matter that these lies have been refuted many times? Society generally does not care whether a statement is true or not since social reality is constructed and evolves over time. It also depends on the extent to which a certain group of people can be persuaded to accept the claim. And digital communication tools and echo chambers have made this possible precisely through disinformation and conspiracies.

The problem is particularly relevant for human rights organizations or organizations that touch on politically sensitive topics such as history. For example, the internationally active organisation People in Need has encountered problems in the countries mentioned. In Slovakia, after the political changes, for example, the Post Bellum, an organisation, which is engaged in collecting testimonies of witnesses of contemporary history (the second half of the 20th century and the period of totalitarianism) and is actively involved in collecting aid for war-torn Ukraine.

Historical roots of belief that civil society is a threat

We can confidently conclude that efforts to promote similar political attitudes towards the influence of "Western agents" allegedly hidden behind NGOs can be observed in the Czech Republic, where the same pattern is repeated as in Slovakia or Hungary. The joint effort of the disinformation scene and the populist part of the political representation in the Czech Republic is based on a narrative rooted in modern democratic history, whose most visible protagonist was and is the former Czech Prime Minister and President Václav Klaus. Mr Klaus promoted the attitude we see today, yet in a much more active and destructive form, in Orbán and Fico, long before the emergence of the digital disinformation scene. In Klaus's case, it was mainly a construct in which democracy takes place in a relationship between the voter and a political party that participates in political competition and, on the basis of the vote, receives a mandate to represent the voter in political decisions. According to Klaus, there is no place in this relationship for the organised civil sector, which thus, in his view, interferes without a mandate. The view that civic activism is undesirable for political decision-making has been promoted by Klaus in Czech social discourse for decades. I recall one of Klaus's remarks when he said that if a non-profit organisation wanted to clean up a forest, that was fine, but if it wanted to speak on political issues, it was an unwanted interference in the democratic process. It is no great surprise to me that almost the same statement was recently repeated by the Slovak Prime Minister, Mr Fico.

From the point of view of a real democracy, this is demagoguery. Whether it is on the subject of human rights, the environment, social or health care, or education, the non-profit civic sector in developed democracies has always played an important role in communicating public interests and the need for political representation. This is the official declaration of the US government, considered the cradle of contemporary democracy. The idea that it could be the other way around is absurd. There is no functional democracy where the civil sector cannot actively engage in political debate. Let us look at Russia, for example, whose interests are currently being defended very openly by Klaus, a former leading Czech politician. However, this is nothing new under the sun; he was already doing this in 2014 after Russia's violent occupation of Crimea.

Calling for democracy, praising totalitarianism (only)

Another reason why disinformation attacks democratic civil society is the very nature of disinformation and its stable targeting. Calls for democracy and freedom, or accusations of totalitarian practices such as censorship or other forms of discrimination, are common in disinformation casts. What is interesting about them, however, is that they always accuse democratically oriented institutions, organisations or personalities with a pro-Western orientation. Even Progresivní Slovensko, which was mentioned at the beginning of this article, is this type of political party.

What you don't encounter in disinformation content is a genuine support for democracy. In all of the more than six years of activity of the civic initiative Czech Elves, which is engaged in mapping disinformation, there is not a single content in the collected findings that truly and credibly supports democratic principles. On the contrary, when it comes to concrete examples, the disinformation narratives highlight those who blatantly suppress democracy, in some cases quite brutally. That is particularly the case of the Russian autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, whom the disinformation narratives portray in one of two ways. Either in a value-neutral way as a capable statesman and politician who skilfully defends the interests of his country, or directly as a friend or ally with whom it would be tactless to not maintain good relations. In a similar way, they use Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán or current Slovak Prime Minister Fico as examples of good political practice.

It is important to note that this targeting of disinformation activities is inherent in their very nature. The systematically created and disseminated disinformation content has long been based on Russia's aggressive efforts to wage a hybrid conflict, and is primarily aimed at deepening polarisation in the environment of democratic debate. By exploiting controversial issues and creating political antagonisms towards democratic concepts among as many voters as possible, disinformation contributes to increasing political demand, to which populists readily respond. Although this process may subsequently emancipate itself from direct Russian influence, its targeting persists. By its very nature, it is impossible to change it, because pro-democracy theses and narratives would lose their appeal to those voters who have been deliberately manipulated into consciously or unconsciously anti-democratic positions. In other words, whether Russia or other actors, such as totalitarian China,make an effort or not, the disinformation and populist symbiosis will retain its anti-democratic and anti-citizen character.

We can predict all the future disinformation surprising discoveries

This is linked to the high degree of predictability of disinformation attitudes towards particular topics. For a long time, disinformation has waged a culture war against the human rights agenda, which it portrays as discrimination in reverse and an effort to devastate European and, by extension, North Atlantic civilisation. We probably do not need to explain at length why this is so. Russia is one of these countries that actively suppresses human rights, and populist politics in democracies likes to create bogeymen out of minorities on a pseudo-moral level (for example, the term "inadaptables" for the Roma minority in Czech populist discourse). Narratives attacking human rights are particularly linked to immigration, with immigrants demonised in disinformation casts as carriers of criminality, disease or abuse of the welfare system. In a very similar way - i.e., in an insidious and manipulative way - they also thematise ethnic minorities (in the Czech Republic, especially the Roma) or groups with different sexual orientations.

Similarly - and quite logically - we can talk about the constant attacks on the European Union and European integration. The EU is clearly one of the biggest and most frequent targets of disinformation attacks in the Czech disinformation environment. It is associated with everything that disinformation portrays as bad, whether it is immigration, COVID, negative economic development, energy, agriculture, education, etc. For external actors, especially Russia, weakening European integration is a condition for maintaining limited operational capacity in situations such as the war in Ukraine. For domestic disinformation and populist actors, the EU is an easy scapegoat that cannot defend itself effectively, whatever it is accused of. The same applies to a lesser extent to NATO.

Knowing the disinformation goals, principles and strategy, it is not surprising how the scene treats the topics related to climate change and the need to decarbonise. In line with the above-described attitude towards the EU, the so-called Green Deal is portrayed by disinformationists as an attempt to damage countries with 'well-developed energy infrastructure' (the Czech Republic is of course also portrayed as such). The narratives speak of imposing technologically useless solutions where everything works perfectly, and see the solution in a bilateral agreement to buy fossil fuels from Russia. It should be added that in this respect they are significantly trying to be a sort of more sophisticated version of the same media by Daniel Křetínský (co-owner of the media house Czech News Center), whose energy group Energetický a průmyslový holding (EPH) owns a number of fossil fuel power plants in Europe. It is significant that in this case, too, the argumentation of the "rejectionists" of sustainable solutions can be linked to the Klimaskeptic theses of Václav Klaus. Other oligarchical-owned media outlets often use topics such as immigration or the EU as a cheap target for attacks, which contribute to strengthening populist sentiment. This trend is particularly evident in the media house Mafra, which was until recently owned by the oligarch and populist Andrej Babiš.

Mind the technology: deepfake fully deployed

Another reason why I mentioned the fake disinformation recording from the end of the Slovak election campaign in my introduction is the fact that technological progress gives new and very effective tools for creating and spreading information manipulation. User behavior is also changing, leading to significant changes in the spread of disinformation.

In 2018, a deep fake video featuring former US President Barack Obama was created. At the time, the availability of technology and the cost of creating similar content prevented such manipulative content from being exploited for disinformation purposes on a mass scale. However, as is often the case in the technological world, technology, driven by demand, is rapidly becoming cheaper. Today, deep fake technologies are widely available and have become part of organized digital crime. You may have seen videos of fraudulent investment offers yourself, exploiting the face of Czech President Petr Pavel and other famous people. Similar campaigns have swept through several European countries in recent months, and the scenario is always the same: a famous face claims there is a new investment offer that is great and safe. The arrangement of the deep fake video looks like part of a serious media interview, from which the footage was created.

It is not just about financial frauds. A rather successful attempt at a deep fake is a video in which Czech Interior Minister Vít Rakušan cynically talks about his visits to regions where he tries to talk openly with citizens. In the deep fake, however, the voice and image of the Czech Interior Minister claims the opposite. We must prepare ourselves for this scenario to be repeated in various forms, especially during election campaigns. Among the possible scenarios are Czech pro-democracy politicians who falsify election results in secret meetings, sell Czech sovereignty to the EU, plot with evil NGOs, or commit serious criminal or immoral activities.

The problem with deep fake disinformation is not just that the nature of the content in question is not easily discernible at first glance, but the overall increase in chaos and uncertainty that a possible increase in the production of deep fakes will bring. Consequently, real recordings that have inadvertently become public can be claimed to be deep fake. The intensification of information chaos will lead to an intensification of a phenomenon that can already be observed in digital space today: many people purposely surround themselves only with constructs that suit their perception of the world. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in his book The Morality of the Human Mind, the Internet is the perfect way to feed our own moral elephant, the inner intuition that guides our attitudes. Reason in these cases serves mostly to justify these attitudes, not to validate them.

What does this imply?

For civil society and democracy in particular, the situation is not going to change anytime soon. Effective regulation of information chaos is not in sight and disinformation practices will continue to pursue the same goals. Democracy and civil society therefore have no choice but to mobilize the very resources that democracy relies on: civic power, the ability to focus on important issues of public interest and pressure on political representation. Equally crucial is the strengthening of a sufficiently solid and as broad as possible bloc of active, value-oriented pro-democracy people who care about our common future. Let the examples of Hungary and Slovakia serve as a deterrent to how far civic lethargy can go.

Author: Bohumil Kartous

Background illustration by: Bits and Splits

This piece was published in partnership with VIA Association