Aggressive US, weak NATO, and a looming refugee crisis. How Slovak disinformation actors are exploiting the situation in Afghanistan
The rapid fall of the Afghan government and the hasty evacuation of refugees from Kabul's airport provided ample opportunity for disinformation actors and media to spread streams of anti-American, anti-NATO and anti-refugee narratives. Accordingly, disinformation proliferated in the Slovak information space regarding the recent events in Afghanistan.
As in the weeks prior, Infosecurity.sk continues to monitor the information space for malicious content and presents an overview of disinformation narratives that have been on the rise in the past two weeks:
1. The leading narrative sought to undermine the faith in Slovak membership in NATO by portraying the mission in Afghanistan as aggression and Slovak involvement as blind service to the interests of NATO controlled by the US portrayed as an unreliable partner.
2. The second narrative aims to spread fear among the population with tales of an imminent new wave of refugees from Afghanistan, deliberately abusing memories of the 2015 refugee crisis in order to spread fear and resentment and to get political points.
3. The third narrative portrays Russia as a stabiliser of the situation in Afghanistan, creating an impression that Moscow is preparing to manage the crisis while the US and NATO are withdrawing, and the EU stands idly in the face of the growing threat of refugees and terrorism.
“The Americans are fleeing Afghanistan like rats”
In recent days, the headlines of the world media have been filled with images from Afghanistan, whose territory is once again under the control of the radical Taliban movement. The rapid fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul, into Taliban hands and the hasty evacuation of refugees from the city's airport provided opportunity for disinformation actors and media to spread streams of anti-American, anti-NATO, and anti-refugee propaganda.
The leading narrative sought to undermine the faith in Slovak membership in NATO by portraying the mission in Afghanistan as aggression and Slovak involvement as blind service to the interests of NATO controlled by the US. The US itself was portrayed as an unreliable partner whose multimillion-dollar military was defeated by a group of disorganized “freedom fighters”.
This narrative was spread by Slovak far left politician Luboš Blaha whose post, which garnered widespread attention on Facebook, states that the operation was an act of aggression which ended in a “fiasco” and the “Americans are fleeing Afghanistan like rats”.
The former prime minister Robert Fico who is the leader of the social democratic SMER party, made similar comments, stating in a post that western attempts to spread liberal democracy left behind only “ruins and full pockets of American arms factories”.
A former MP Anna Belousovová, known for her pro-Russian and anti-western views, called for the Slovak withdrawal from NATO when she stated that it “is all about US interests, for which we pay a huge price”.
The intervention in Afghanistan took place after the events of 9/11, as the country became a safe haven for extremist Islamist groups during the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.
While it is unfortunately true that the main objective of the mission, such as creation of the democratic society and political stabilisation of the country, remained unfulfilled, one can argue that the foreign intervention was successful in disrupting relations between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and has enabled Afghans to live in a relatively free country for 20 years.
"I do not agree with accepting Afghan refugees"
Milan Mazurek, Milan Uhrík and other members of the far-right Republika party, are using the current situation to spread a hostile attitude not only towards the US and NATO but also towards the EU and Afghan refugees. The topic of refugees has been used widely by these actors in the past, especially in regards to the 2015 refugee crisis.
Using the slogan "I do not agree with accepting Afghan refugees", these actors spread narratives about an imminent new wave of refugees from Afghanistan approved by the EU, deliberately abusing memories of the 2015 refugee crisis in order to spread fear and resentment and to score political points.
Their narrative seems even more absurd given the fact that the Slovak Republic was willing to grant asylum to only ten Afghans who actively helped Slovak soldiers during their deployment in Afghanistan. In the end, only eight out of the ten were successfully evacuated after the Slovak military flight returned from Afghanistan.
Russia as the stabiliser of the situation
The third disinformation narrative revolves around the portrayal of Russia as a stabiliser of the situation in Afghanistan by pro-Kremlin actors. While the US and NATO leave the country in ruins after a 20-year long conflict, Russia and China are ready to help rebuild Afghanistan and protect the region from a wave of refugees and radical Islamic terrorism, the narrative goes.
The pro-Kremlin actors also give the impression that the EU is standing idly by as the threat of the refugee crisis and terrorism grows, while Moscow on the other hand prepares to deal with the crisis.
In particular, the disinformation media highlights recent exercises by Russian troops with Afghanistan's neighbours. Although this narrative was less prevalent than the previous two, there was a significant overlap between the narratives in posts made by the disinformation actors.
Data from Facebook collected by using the analytical tool CrowdTangle shows that in the last 14 days, disinformation actors had the upper hand in attracting the attention of Facebook users with regard to developments in Afghanistan.
As the chart above shows, the most popular posts in terms of total interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) on Facebook about Afghanistan came from the already mentioned politicians and contained many of the anti-refugee and anti-western narratives described in this report.
Project Infosecurity.sk organised by STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute and Slovak Security Policy Institute, which is supported by the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, continuously monitors the activities of both Slovak and foreign disinformation actors, but focuses mainly on the former. The project activities are built upon daily monitoring of emerging disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories in the online information space. This approach allows the analysts to identify disinformation posts and narratives that resonated with the public the most, as well as to find out where they originated, and how they spread and evolved on social media. The report takes the form of a bi-weekly summary of arising trends in the spread of malicious information content online. Based on that, Infosecurity.sk can warn the public about emerging and current trends in the field of disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda.
Matej Spišák is a Research Fellow at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava and Editor-in-Chief at Infosecurity.sk.
Denis Takács is an Analyst at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava.