Infosecurity.sk: Bi-Weekly Report on Emerging Disinformation Trends (April 30, 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, as well as to 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.
As in previous weeks, this week Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends it has been able to capture over the past two weeks:
1. The pro-Russian disinformation media are trying to undermine the official explanation of the explosion of two ammunition depots in Vrbětice, Czech Republic, which has recently been published by the Czech government.
2. These actors have also been actively supporting the Kremlin's version of the events and criticise the actions of the Slovak and Czech governments in response to the Vrbětice explosion.
3. Disinformation media have been actively seeking to shift attention and blame from Russia by promoting several conspiracy narratives that point towards unsubstantiated allegations of the U.S. involvement in the attack.
4. Moscow continues to use the official social media account of its embassy in Slovakia to spread disinformation and propaganda.
5. In addition to spreading disinformation about the Vrbětice explosion, the pro-Russian media continue to publish a high number of conspiracy theories articles on a variety of other topics, including the recent developments in Ukraine, pandemic, and the vaccination.
(Un)involved in the explosion of the Czech ammunition depot?
Two weeks ago, the Czech Government, headed by the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, announced new information related to the 2014 explosion of two ammunition depots in Vrbětice, Czech Republic.
According to the published information, the Czech intelligence services suspect the agents of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) to be directly involved in the explosion of the ammunition depots in 2014. Moreover, the investigation indicates that the GRU agents responsible for the sabotage, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, are the same as those responsible for the 2018 Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, which took place in the United Kingdom.
Russian officials dismissed the Czech claims as "nonsense" and strongly rejected any involvement of Russian agents in the explosions. The case led to the mutual expulsion of a number of members of diplomatic staff and is the worst dispute between the two countries in decades. The Czech and Slovak disinformation media were quick to react, swiftly backing the Kremlin's interpretation of the events.
The Czech anti-disinformation website Čeští elfové conducted a monitoring of the Czech disinformation media's reactions to the Vrbětice case. The monitoring found commonalities in the reactions of the leading Czech disinformation media such as Aeronet, Sputnik, Parlamentní listy, Nová republika, and Protiproud.
The similarities could be observed in the repeated efforts to portray the sabotage as a "false flag" attack, overemphasis of Moscow's claims that it had nothing to do with the attacks, repeated attacks on the integrity of Czech intelligence services, and questioning of the timing of the publishing of the information by the Czech government.
For instance, the pro-Russian website Sputnik referred to the Czech Republic as a "vassal of the United States", whose government is being pressured by the U.S. to break off all diplomatic relations with Russia. Sputnik also claimed that the CIA directly controls the Czech intelligence service investigating the case.
Such reaction of disinformation media was expected, as we could have observed similar behaviour and the portrayal of Russia as a victim in all other recent controversies, whether it be the abuse of Sputnik V for propaganda purposes or the controversies surrounding the Navaľnyj case (please check our previous reports from March and April for more detailed information).
Furthermore, the Czech disinformation sites put forth a plethora of conspiracy theories in an attempt to cast doubt on the timing of the release of the information. The conspiracy articles question the timing of the release of the information, asking why the evidence about Russia's involvement in the explosion came to light only after seven years, at the very time of heightened tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine. However, these claims neglect the fact that the Russian agents have been recognised thanks to the information that only surfaced years after the depot's explosion when they were identified as those who were responsible for poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in 2018.
As a sign of support and solidarity with the Czech Republic, the Slovak government announced that it would expel three members of the Russian diplomatic mission. In response to Slovakia's actions, Russia expelled three Slovak diplomats and used the same narratives as in the Czech case - denying any guilt, downplaying the accusations, and accusing Slovakia of being a servant of the West.
As in the case of the Czech Republic, the local disinformation scene was swift to take on and spread the Kremlin's narrative. A left-wing member of the Slovak National Parliament known for frequently spreading problematic content, Ľuboš Blaha, used his significant social media reach to spread disinformation narratives about the case and undermine the reactionary moves of the Slovak and Czech governments. Blaha repeated the conspiracy theories claiming the explosion was a pretext for American military aggression and mentioned "Russophobia" as the driving force behind the ongoing political crisis. Posts of these disinformation actors have dominated social media.
According to data gathered from analytical tool CrowdTangle, the top three posts regarding the topic of diplomatic expulsions that received the most interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) on Facebook came from Blaha's Facebook profile.
Blaha's posts are closely followed by the posts on personal blogs of the Slovak ex-PM Robert Fico, who is known for undermining the pandemic measures and generally spreading problematic content, and Andrej Danko, the head of the Slovak National Party, who is known for his strong pro-Russian sentiments.
We gathered the data by searching for the keyword "expel" ("vyhostiť" in the Slovak language).
Unsurprisingly, other Slovak disinformation actors and extremist politicians, such as the right-wing extremist and Member of the European Parliament Milan Uhrík and a pro-Kremlin political analyst, Eduard Chmelár, took a similar stance, questioning the need to support our historical partner and neighbour and repeating the same unsubstantiated narratives about the U.S. involvement.
It has become a custom that in addition to using "traditional" disinformation media, Russia also utilises the official social media account of its embassy as a tool to spread disinformation and propaganda. A post was published on the social media of the Russian Embassy in Slovakia in relation to the steps taken by the Czech Republic, claiming that the Czech government was trying to "please the U.S." and that traces of U.S. involvement in the case were obvious.
As the data collected using the CrowdTangle show, the embassy's official social media is a viable tool for reaching the public and spreading disinformation. The Russian Embassy has been quite successful in engaging the public, as the above-mentioned post achieved more than 2 000 interactions from the users.
Still holding onto "traditional" topics
Although narratives about the explosion in Vrbětice have dominated the disinformation discourse over the past two weeks, the local pro-Russian media have continued to spread disinformation about other recently trending topics.
One such topic is the increased tension on the Russia-Ukraine border. Despite the Kremlin's announcement that the Russian army is ending its exercises near the border and withdrawing thousands of troops that have piled up on the border in recent weeks, tensions remain high.
The local pro-Russian media continued with their usual propaganda method, presenting Russia as a victim worried for its safety, who conducts the military exercises as a response to actions threatening its security.
For instance, the Slovak disinformation website Hlavný Denník spread a narrative that the Russian manoeuvres near the border were aimed at deterring Ukraine from attacking Donbas. Another disinformation website, Zem a Vek, published articles using a similar narrative, claiming that Russia was surrounded and the military build-up is meant to protect Crimea from Ukrainian aggression.
Other topics for the disinformation media were the ongoing pandemic and vaccination. In this context, the disinformation actors have continued to promote the Russian vaccine Sputnik V while paradoxically undermining the severity of the pandemic.
A recent article by Hlavné Správy, cited a tweet from the official Twitter account of the manufacturer of Sputnik V, claiming that according to the data from the Hungarian government the Russian vaccine was better and safer than all of its Western counterparts.
The article claimed that the superiority of Sputnik V over its competition is the reason why "big pharma" and the "EU bureaucrats" are working so hard to block it. This is a controversial claim as it is difficult to compare the effectiveness of the vaccines since they were tested at different stages of the pandemic and were not tested against each other. What makes this claim even more controversial is that, unlike other vaccines, the first dose of Sputnik V is not identical to the second dose.
Another article published by disinformation website InfoVojna sought to undermine the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic measures by claiming that the official government statistics of recorded deaths are purposefully misleading, encouraging the public not to believe the "mainstream" media and the government.
As evident, the disinformation media has in the second half of April confirmed their ability to produce a high volume of conspiracy articles on a wide variety of topics, overwhelming the public with a constant stream of harmful information.
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.