Infosecurity.sk: Bi-Weekly Report on Emerging Disinformation Trends (June 17, 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 the weeks prior, this week Infosecurity.sk also presents an overview of disinformation trends it has been on the rise in the past two weeks:
1. Currently a hotly debated topic that has sparked a new wave of anti-vax conspiracy narratives is the vaccination of minors. A recent survey found that only 46% of Slovaks support vaccinating children under the age of 16 years.
2. The sensitive nature of the topic and the fact that the public is highly polarised about it was exploited by the disinformation media, which has used it as a springboard for spreading various disinformation and conspiracy narratives.
3. A recent report published by the Slovak Ministry of Defence indicates that the disinformation actors are able to generate significant profits from spreading harmful content.
Covid-19 vaccines for minors
Spreading rumours and conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 virus and vaccination has become a staple of the disinformation actors' activities ever since the beginning of the pandemic. Although anti-vaccination narratives were already present in the Slovak and Czech information spaces even before the Covid-19 pandemic, they gained considerable strength and public attention after the outbreak of the virus.
Whether by undermining the protective measures or by spreading anti-vaccination narratives, the disinformation media, as well as extremist politicians, have long exploited the topic of coronavirus to polarise the public and advance their agenda. Aware of the immense opportunity that the polarising topic represents and the fact that it attracts constant public attention, these actors continue to flood the information space with rumours and conspiracy theories, in many cases appealing to the negative emotions of the public. These narratives have contributed to the public's reluctance to get vaccinated.
Currently a hotly debated topic that has sparked a new wave of anti-vax conspiracy narratives is the vaccination of minors, particularly those under the age of 16. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) authorized the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children aged 12 to 15. The United States and Canada have already begun to offer vaccines to children aged 12, and the vaccine has also been approved for this age group in the UK.
The Slovak and Czech governments announced plans to allow minors in that age group to be vaccinated as well. Slovakia's education minister added that the vaccination would "of course be voluntary". Nevertheless, medical experts and parents have been debating whether or not it is reasonable to vaccinate children and teens against Covid-19.
A recent survey conducted in Slovakia with a sample of 1008 respondents found that only 46% of Slovaks support the vaccination of children under the age of 16, indicating that the issue remains highly controversial. According to the survey, the vaccination has the lowest support among the supporters of the far-right People's Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) and the Republic party, which split from the ĽSNS a couple of months ago. The representatives of these parties repeatedly spread disinformation about the virus in the past and continue to undermine the vaccination process.
The sensitive nature of the topic and the fact that the public remains highly polarised over it was exploited by the disinformation media, which used it as a springboard to spread various disinformation and conspiracy narratives. In his recent post, Slovak opposition politician Ľuboš Blaha who often spreads problematic content, accused the governing coalition of allowing Slovak children to become "test subjects". The post deliberately appealed to the negative emotions and fears of the public by exaggerating the negative side effects of vaccination and mentioning past cases of alleged deaths after vaccination.
Other disinformation actors followed in his footsteps, their posts generally blended various anti-vax, Eurosceptic and anti-Western narratives, with some resorting to more explicit language, in some instances calling the prime minister and the president "Covid criminals" and "paedophiles." Although the Slovak government had explicitly clarified that the vaccination would be voluntary and parental consent would be required, it is evident that disinformation media deliberately ignored this fact and portrayed a false picture to the public according to which the government would forcefully vaccinate and supposedly endanger their children.
As the recent survey has shown, the Covid-19 pandemic and the parallel "infodemic" continue to pose a serious danger to public health. It is apparent that despite the pro-vaccination campaigns and the efforts of the government to strategically communicate on the issue, vaccination remains a highly polarising topic for the public and a "valuable" topic for the disinformation media and conspirators.
“Valuable” topics for disinformation media
Certain topics, such as the aforementioned safety of the Covid-19 vaccines, consistently receive a great deal of public attention, making them valuable for the disinformation actors not only in terms of engaging their audience but also in terms of financial gain.
A recently published report from the analytical department of the Slovak Ministry of Defence titled “The price for (dis)information revenues from advertisements of websites with problematic content” estimates the average monthly advertising revenues of disinformation websites.
In order for the page to make a profit, it must attract a sufficient number of visitors to its website, where the ads are then displayed. Highly polarising and sought after topics, such as the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines, prove particularly valuable in this regard.
According to the report, the highest earning Slovak disinformation website in Slovakia is Hlavné Správy with estimated max ad revenue of 18 499€, followed by Hlavný denník and other prominent local disinformation pages.
Nonetheless, the report also stresses that the revenue from advertising is not the only nor the main income of the disinformation websites. Profits also come from donations, political ads and various PR articles, the value of which may exceed the stated advertising revenues. In addition, some disinformation websites also run their own e-shops. However, revenues from these activities cannot be accurately estimated.
The ministry, therefore, urges advertisers not to post their ads on disinformation websites. This could result in a drop in revenue for the disinformation websites and restrict their ability to spread malicious content online. It is important to be aware of this fact since the situation might be similar also abroad, not only in Slovakia.
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.