Infosecurity.sk: Bi-Weekly Report on Emerging Disinformation Trends (April 16, 2021)
Project Infosecurity.sk organised by STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute and Slovak Security Policy Institute, supported by the Prague office of 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. That allows the analysts to identify disinformation posts and narratives that resonated with the public the most and find out where they originated and how they spread and evolved on social media. This report represents 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.
In the last two weeks, Infosecurity.sk has managed to capture the following trends:
1. the disinformation media spread pro-Kremlin narratives about current events in eastern Ukraine
2. the articles portray Ukraine, NATO and the West as aggressors, while placing Russia in the position of a victim defending its territory
3. the disinformation actors have once again proven that they are very successful in engaging the public on social media with their one-sided rhetoric
4. in addition to increasing attention to the tensions in Ukraine, the disinformation media continues to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic
5. these articles revolved primarily around three topics: pandemic restrictions, the Covid-19 vaccination pass and protests against pandemic measures abroad.
Escalation of tensions in eastern Ukraine
In the past several days, the world media have been closely monitoring the build-up of Russian army forces on the border with Ukraine. These developments have also made headlines in Slovakia, which prompted wide discussions among the public. The pro-Russian disinformation media wasted no time and quickly sprung to action to offer their skewed version of the events.
The pro-Russian media have mainly used their old tropes, which is first and foremost "playing the victim card" by framing Ukraine and the West as the aggressors.
The articles generally pushed through a single narrative: that the escalation of tensions is a deliberate plan by the West to bring about a "fratricidal war" between two Slavic countries. We could observe a repeated effort to portray the US and NATO as "foreign" occupying forces preparing to attack a "culturally close nation" of Russia.
A prime example of such conspiracy content is an article by Ján Čarnogurský. Čarnogurský briefly served as the Slovak prime minister in the 1990s and is now a chairman of the Slovak-Russian Society (SRSPOL), a Slovak civic association spreading pro-Kremlin narratives.
In his article, Čarnogurský blames NATO, Ukraine, the American "deep state" and President Joe Biden for the current events in Donbas. He also states that "Crimea was part of Russia and was returned to Russia". The article, however, completely neglects Russia's non-compliance with international law.
In a further effort to defame the West and Ukraine, several fake articles about a boy killed in Donbas during Easter celebrations by a missile from a NATO drone circulated on the internet. Another article stated that the boy was killed by a Ukrainian grenade in a house's backyard where he was playing. There is no evidence for these claims. Sadly, the boy really died, but nothing confirms the version with the NATO drone.
One of the primary platforms where the disinformation actors were spreading disinformation about the renewed tensions in eastern Ukraine was Facebook. They have once again proved to be highly successful in engaging public with their one-sided rhetoric.
By using the analytical tool CrowdTangle we searched for Facebook posts related to the developments in Ukraine by the total amount of interactions (reactions, comments and shares combined) they have obtained in the last 14 days. By searching the keyword "Ukraine", we have obtained the following results (the highest numbers of interactions for the given keyword):
All of the top 5 posts, which achieved the highest number of interactions, contained the rhetoric mentioned above and come from pages or personal blogs known for spreading problematic content.
All the posts, with the exception of the third one, come from personal blogs of political actors. Two of the top-ranking posts were published by Eduard Chmelár. He is a familiar face of the Slovak pro-Russian scene known for spreading pro-Kremlin narratives. His Facebook posts often serve as a source of inspiration for the country's pro-Russian propaganda websites, which then repost them on their websites or Facebook pages.
Tomio Okamura, a far-right Czech politician whose disinformation posts often occupy top spots in our graphs, is also widely known for spreading biased and problematic content.
Robert Fico is a Slovak ex-prime minister who openly questioned and criticised the EU's economic sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea. He also deliberately undermined the extent of the Covid-19 pandemic and even spoke out in favour of some conspiracy theories in this regard.
Čo Vy na to, občania? (What do you think, citizens?), which post occupies the 3rd place in the total amount of interactions, is a Slovak conspiracy theories´ page.
As evident from the graph, many populist and extremist politicians in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic have utilised the renewed geopolitical tensions to appeal to the misinformed general public.
Continuous focus on the Covid-19 pandemic
In addition to increased focus on the tensions in Ukraine, the disinformation media also continues to pay attention to the Covid 19 pandemic. In recent weeks, many conspiracy theories articles regarding the pandemic have been published by the Slovak and Czech disinformation media.
These articles mainly revolved around three topics: pandemic restrictions, the Covid-19 vaccination pass, and protests against pandemic measures abroad. Although these articles focused on diverse topics, their ultimate goal was the same: to exploit the publics' fear and fatigue of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
A recent article by the Slovak disinformation website Hlavný denník (The Main Diary) cited a statement of Elsa Mittmannsgruber, an Editor-in-Chief of Wochenblick - an Austrian weekly known for spreading problematic content.
In her statement, Mittmannsgruber claimed that the measures introduced in order to fight the pandemic are not based on scientific knowledge and that the Austrian government does not follow the recommendations of experts in their implementation. According to her, the Austrian government's ultimate goal is not to protect its citizens but to force them into obedience by systematically increasing the restrictions until the population is too tired to resist.
Another set of conspiracy narratives focused on the Covid-19 vaccine passes. In this regard, the disinformation media pushed through a narrative claiming that the pass's adoption directly leads to the end of civic freedoms. One article from the previously mentioned Slovak disinformation website Hlavný denník compared the adoption of Covid-19 vaccination passes in the Great Britain to "Orwellian practices".
The last set of articles focused on promoting pandemic protests abroad, claiming that the Slovak and Czech mainstream media deliberately do not inform the public about them. These articles used suggestive rhetoric trying to incite anti-government protests and persuade the readers not to comply with the ongoing pandemic restrictions.
The topic of Covid-19 pandemic dominates the public debate and conspiracy articles about the ongoing pandemic form the backbone of the Slovak and Czech disinformation media content. The disinformation media are aware of this and know that by appealing to the frustrated people with issues about the pandemic, they will reach a constant amount of attention.
 Data from CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook.
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.