Disinformation about international military cooperation is on the rise, harmful rhetoric towards President Čaputová intensifies
Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends that have been on the rise in information space in the past two weeks:
- The Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová is once again the main target of pro-Russian actors, who use harmful rhetoric to condemn her support for Ukraine.
- Pro-Kremlin propagandists are trying to justify the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by recycling the same narrative of NATO’s alleged aggression.
- An incident in Banská Bystrica involving an American soldier is being distorted by anti-Western disinformers who are using it to criticise military cooperation with the USA.
President Čaputová is once again being attacked by pro-Russian actors
Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová has been one of the main targets of hate speech and disinformation in the Slovak information space practically since her inauguration. These personal attacks directed at her have intensified exponentially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine when she openly began to show support for Slovakia's neighbour and condemn the actions of the Russian aggressor. Many pro-Russian actors, especially disinformation sites and more radical and anti-system politicians, now do not hesitate to use hateful rhetoric to comment on the President's activities, often justifying this with fabricated narratives.
On 28 April 2023, President Čaputová and Czech President Petr Pavel visited Ukraine as part of their first joint foreign travel. The event sparked a wave of hostile remarks against the president by numerous dubious actors who accused her of neglecting Slovak citizens and supporting an allegedly Ukrainian "fascist" regime.
Milan Uhrík, an MEP and chairman of the far-right Republika party, wrote on his Facebook page that "Čaputová ran to Zelensky again today.... I recommend politicians to solve the problems of Slovakia, not only Ukraine," suggesting that the president no longer cares about the problems of ordinary Slovak citizens. Although open support for war-torn Ukraine has no connection to this, making this false correlation has become one of the more frequently used tools to score political points in case of politicians spreading disinformation. These statements provoke negative emotions in people and at the same time undermine their trust in the incumbent government and state representatives.
The identical narrative was also pushed by Andrej Danko, chairman of the nationalist SNS (Slovak National Party), who accused President Čaputová, as well as President Pavel, of not caring about their countries and not acknowledging the needs of their citizens. This is, once again, an allegation that is unsubstantiated and attempts to show a false connection between aid to a war-stricken country and support for the citizens of Slovakia, even though there is not one.
The narrative of the President's neglect of Slovak citizens at the expense of Ukrainians was supplemented several times with accusations of serving American interests. For instance, Slavěna Vorobelová, MP who often spreads pro-Russian disinformation, has called both presidents "American collaborators", a narrative often presented by pro-Russian actors in Slovakia as factual, but never backed up by any evidence.
Additionally, Vorobelová accused President Čaputová of supporting a “neo-fascist” Ukrainian regime and went on to repeat the now firmly rooted narrative in the Slovak disinformation space that the country is ruled by warmongering fascists who worship Stepan Bandera, an Ukrainian nationalist, who also partnered with Nazi-Germany at some point during World War II. At the same time, however, Bandera fought against the oppression of Ukraine by the Soviet Union, eventually becoming a bogeyman within Soviet and now Russian propaganda.
This narrative serves as a way to undermine the global support for Ukraine as well as excuse the inhuman actions of Russia towards the country and its citizens. However, they are completely fabricated and are being repeatedly and continuously debunked.
False portrayal of NATO as an aggressive pact
The narrative that Ukraine and its partners in the West are behaving aggressively and thus provoking Russia to war has been circulating practically since the beginning of the conflict. In the last two weeks, however, we have observed an increase in this rhetoric, especially in the association with NATO.
Milan Mazurek, a member of the far-right Republika party, claimed in a Facebook post that NATO has always behaved like an aggressive military pact, allegedly pursuing U.S. political and economic interests with military force. Similarly, the vice-chairman of the SMER-SSD party Erik Kaliňák said that the Western leaders do not want peace and do not mind the destruction of Ukraine, because they would not negotiate with Russia consequently prolonging the war.
Additionally, a disinformation site Bádateľ wrote in a Facebook post: “If our prime minister warns that Russia will attack Central Europe after Ukraine, does this mean that NATO is so weak that it cannot protect it?” This post seems to contradict itself and the previous claims made by the page. NATO is being presented either as an aggressive warmongering alliance, or an organisation too weak to provide any protection to its members, which means that disinformation actors often change the narrative as they see fit.
This long-standing narrative of NATO’s aggression is part of the pro-Kremlin propaganda that aims to excuse the unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops and the war crimes they are committing against Ukrainian citizens. NATO is fundamentally a defensive military organisation, whose purpose is to protect its member states, and any statements about it provoking Russia into war are ill-founded. Disinformation attacks on NATO are perhaps the longest-lasting narrative in the Slovak info space, becoming noticeably more frequent since 2014.
American soldier falsely portrayed as evidence of the negative impact of military cooperation with the West
The negative portrayal of NATO in a broader context is also related to the distrust of military cooperation with Western countries in general, which disinformation actors are trying to spread. In recent weeks, mainly the incident in Banská Bystrica, where an American soldier stationed at a nearby military base walked around town with a knife in his hand under the influence of alcohol, has been utilised for this very purpose.
Even though the only person who got injured was himself and he did not get charged with disorderly conduct by the Slovak police after the incident, dubious actors still used it as evidence of the “flawed” military cooperation with the Western countries.
The most active on this issue were members of Slovak far-right parties, who began accusing the Slovak police of trying to cover up the incident while using anti-Western rhetoric. Milan Uhrík turned the whole story around and claimed that the soldier was purposefully assaulting people in the town, which is untrue. He then added that the party “will not allow American soldiers to get used to the fact that they can do whatever they want in Slovakia with impunity,” evidently operating on the false notion that Slovakia is losing its sovereignty at the expanse of USA and using the situation as a way to score political points.
Marián Kotleba, a chairman of the Kotlebovci-ĽSNS party, posted a video containing the same fake version of the story. More importantly, he suggests that these “attacks” of American soldiers are only going to intensify due to the “occupation agreement” between USA and Slovakia. Kotleba refers to the Defence Cooperation Agreement between the Government of the Slovak Republic and the Government of the United States of America, the so-called DCA, which was the main subject of massive waves of disinformation and misinterpretations at the time it was signed. DCA can be considered the first topic to successfully replace Covid-19 in the Slovak information space and disinformation scene, which only underscores its importance. Like other actors who have reported on the incident, he is also attempting to evoke feelings of fear in the general public, which is unjustified, while at the same time trying to portray military cooperation with the US as dangerous.
The news of the incident containing the same fake version of the story has also been shared by disinformation sites such as Armáda Ruskej Federácie (“Army of The Russian Federation”) and Hlavný denník (“The Main Journal”).
Since the incident in Banská Bytrica involving the American soldier has been one of the major topics in Slovak information space in the past two weeks, we also looked at it through an optic of a list of disinformation actors in Slovakia. We used the CrowdTangle analysis tool to analyse the most popular posts on Slovak Facebook that include the keywords “American soldier”. Posts were evaluated based on the total number of interactions (the sum of all reactions, comments, and shares).
The first place belongs to the aforementioned post by Milan Uhrík, in which he purposefully disinforms about the incident with the US soldier and tries to invoke fear in the public.
Mário Vidák, a hoaxer affiliated with Slovak far-right political parties, posted a video, in which he also mentions DCA and claims that the American soldiers are going to threaten the lives of Slovak citizens and they would go unpunished. This statement is highly misleading since it creates a picture of helplessness when it comes to foreign military personnel stationed in Slovakia and also operates on fearmongering. The video has accumulated over 123 thousand views at the time of writing this report.
Milan Mazurek re-shared the post of Milan Uhrík, thus helping it gain more traction and exposure.
Mazurek also re-shared a video by another Republika party member Marek Géci, in which he pushes the narrative of an “aggressive assault” committed by the soldier, which is untrue and intentionally misleading. Géci also uses the situation as a way to attack the incumbent government and gather a bigger following ahead of the upcoming elections.
Slavěna Vorobelová commented on the situation by stating that “a drunk aggressive American soldier threatens Slovaks with a knife in his hand”, which is the same false story presented by the other already mentioned disinformers. This only shows the content coordination and unified view of the disinformation scene in relation to this event, which they jointly use to score political points before the elections.
Project Infosecurity.sk organized by Adapt 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.