European efforts to help Ukraine in war are becoming the main target of pro-Kremlin propaganda in Slovakia

Infosecurity.sk: Bi-Weekly Report on Emerging Disinformation Trends July 31, 2022
© Oleg Chumakov via Canva.com

Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends that have been on the rise in information space in the past two weeks:

  • Pro-Kremlin propaganda is trying to discredit Slovak allies. In particular, disinformers are pushing for a narrative of some hidden intentions of the US and the United Kingdom that are intended to harm the European Union and eventually Slovakia.
  • They are mainly focused on sanctions on Russia, which significantly impact the Russian economy. However, the disinformers are trying to give the impression that sanctions hurt only EU members, not the Russian Federation.
  • Various actors have also criticized the recent decision of European leaders to limit the consumption of natural gas. They argue that this decision will also harm only European states. In reality, it would stop Putin from blackmailing the European Uunion.
  • Pro-Russian propagandists, however, see an alternative to the West's actions in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán's statements criticizing the European Union, sanctions, and the provision of arms to Ukraine are being massively shared on disinformation websites.

Pro-Kremlin propaganda tries to discredit Slovak allies

Questioning partners and allies of Slovakia seems to be an effective propaganda tool of the Kremlin, which is trying to influence public opinion in favor of Russia. The discrediting of allies will eventually lead to questioning their intentions, joint actions, and even their stance on the Ukraine war.

Propagandists use common disinformation narratives that have been around for some time. They are trying to depict the situation as a conflict between the US and Russia. The US is supposedly forcing the European Union into sanctions that will only damage it. Still, the US itself will benefit from them, for example, by exporting US weapons or LNG.

Another common false narrative is that the European Union has been dragged into the war in Ukraine by the US and the UK. There is also the claim that it is not in the West's interest for the fight to end; on the contrary, they are prolonging it by supplying arms.

Just a few days ago, Ukraine blacklisted former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, the leader of the opposition party SMER-SD, for propagating narratives in line with Russian propaganda. The Ukrainian side put Fico on the list for the claims that Russia cannot be proven responsible for the war in Ukraine or for his criticism of sanctions. However, Robert Fico promotes more false narratives. He is currently one of the most followed politicians on Slovak Facebook, who enjoys a favourable public opinion.  Therefore, his claims can significantly impact public opinion in Slovakia.

He often questions Slovakia's allies and partners in his social media posts. "I have argued thousands of times that sanctions against Russia are self-destructive, that the war in Ukraine only suits the United States, and that it will make the United States stronger," he says in one video. He goes on to argue that the US forced the European Union to impose anti-Russian sanctions with the intention of damaging the EU itself because neither the US nor the UK have any interest in a strong EU.

The narrative that the European Union, and therefore Slovakia, has allowed itself to be dragged into the war in Ukraine by the United States appears in almost all of Robert Fico's statements and online posts regarding foreign policy. He defends his name on the blacklist of pro-Russian propagandists by saying that "anyone who has a different opinion from the Ukrainian President is a criminal. That is liberal democracy, even in Slovakia." With this, Fico is trying to create a narrative in which anyone with a different opinion is silenced or locked up.

On the contrary, he accuses those who support Ukraine, such as the Slovak government and President, of servile politics and copying US foreign policy. Fico and his colleagues repeatedly label Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď as a warmonger.

Sanctions and energy as the main targets of disinformation

Pro-Kremlin narratives describe the joint actions of European states as self-destructive. They point to the downfall of Boris Johnson in the UK or Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi's resignation as evidence. The European Union and the US have become primary targets of attacks, and most disinformation and false narratives focus on the topics of sanctions and energy. The aim is to soften public opinion against Russia and possibly weaken the responsiveness and actionability of Union's measures.

Ján Baránek, a political analyst and head of the Polis agency, is a constant critic of the European Union and its decisions. He condemns the anti-Russian sanctions, tries to create the impression that the sanctions are not hurting Russia, and points out that the European states will suffer the most. However, Baránek uses much harsher vocabulary in his assessment, calling Western leaders the Great Idiots. An interview with Beránek was recently posted on the YouTube talk show of media eReport, which often invites guests with “alternative” views. The talk has since reached over 152,000 views.

Former Finance Minister Ladislav Kamenický sees anti-Russian sanctions as the cause of all European economic problems. The weakening of the euro to the level of the dollar is, in his view, the result of the EU's "ill-considered and ineffective sanctions against Russia," and "the EU has shot itself in the foot by introducing sanctions and is about to shoot itself in the second foot." By that, he means the latest decision of European leaders to reduce natural gas consumption by 15%.

The far-right wing of Slovak politicians has also spoken out. MEP Milan Uhrík describes the situation ironically: "I don't understand why our friends from the US don't sell us gas and diesel cheaper than our enemies from Russia." At the same time, he notes that European governments have allowed Europe to become a battleground for US interests.

The disinformation radio station Slobodný vysielač has shared an article in which the author argues that all the EU's joint actions, including "idiotic sanctions packages," lead to a dead end in which we will inevitably face only "poverty, sickness and death."

On the positive side, we can see greater efforts by state institutions to debunk disinformation and false narratives about sanctions. In their recent social media posts, the Slovak police and the Government Office of the Slovak Republic explain that the anti-Russian sanctions are indeed working. They point out, for example, that the Russian economy is estimated to shrink by 8.9% in 2022, while economic growth in the European Union is expected to be 2.7%.

Viktor Orbán as a source of anti-EU narratives

The disinformation media sees an alternative in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Articles praising Orbán's policies are appearing more and more frequently. He is more moderate towards Russia and often adopts anti-EU narratives.

Magazín 1, affiliated with the Kotleba-ĽSNS party, shares Orbán's statements, which are then massively shared on social networks. In one article, Orbán claims that sanctions are hurting the EU more than Russia and prolonging Ukraine's war. In another article, he refers to the supply of arms to Ukraine as a source of prolonging the war.

Former MEP Anna Belousovová, who already has 19 000 followers on Facebook, is gaining more and more attention. In a recent post, she praises Hungary's efforts to negotiate increased supplies of Russian gas in Moscow. She argues that of the EU, only Hungary is doing its foreign policy right. In her words, Slovakia only acts on the instructions of the EU and the US.

Debates on sanctions are dominated by arguments for their ineffectiveness

As we identified sanctions on Russia as a prevalent topic of disinformation narratives in Slovakia, we decided to look at the issue through the CrowdTangle analysis tool. The graph below shows the most popular posts on Slovak Facebook. Posts were evaluated based on the total number of interactions (the sum of all reactions, comments, and shares). In the analysis, we filtered only the posts containing the keyword sankcie (“sanctions” in English).

TOP 5 disinformation posts
© Adapt Institute

The first place belongs to Robert Fico, who claims in the video that the European Union was senselessly drawn into a war by the US and the UK. He criticizes the EU's new plan to reduce natural gas consumption. He claims it is just a plan to promote the war in Ukraine.

Two posts in the chart belong to Mário Vidák, who stands behind the disinformation outlet Magazín 1. In both posts, he shares articles from the mentioned media. The author questions the sanctions and points out the negative effects of the sanctions on the European Union. Although the articles are more of informative nature and do not show any fundamental problems, one of the articles tries to appeal to the reader's emotions and asks in its title: "Are we going to get really cold?"

The new decision by European leaders to reduce the consumption of Russian gas is criticized in the post by the ex-minister Ladislav Kamenický. In a widely-shared Facebook post, he asks, "Wouldn't it be easier to lift the sanctions that are destroying the EU economy and stabilize the gas supply from Russia?!"

The last post shared by Informácie bez cenzúry (Information Without Censorship) also debates the effectiveness of sanctions. However, it sarcastically notes that such debates are forbidden "in the name of democracy."

Project Infosecurity.sk organized 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.