Prigozhin’s death and continuing military support to Ukraine sparked a wave of pro-Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation
- Pro-Russian disinformers in Slovakia oppose military assistance to Ukraine, claiming it prolongs the conflict and even potentially endangers neighbouring countries, thus diverting attention from Russia's aggression.
- Disinformation actors in Slovakia also spread conspiracy theories regarding the crash of a Russian plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, suggesting he may still be alive or that Russia was not responsible for the crash.
- In the lead-up to elections, anti-system and far-right parties in Slovakia exploit migration issues, using disinformation to criticise the government for a perceived migration crisis and blaming leaders for "inviting illegal migrants," a common tactic to gain political support.
Military aid to Ukraine is still a thorn in the eye of pro-Kremlin actors
In the Slovak pro-Kremlin scene, military assistance sent to Ukraine to help it defend itself against Russian aggression has long been criticized. By protesting against military aid to Ukraine, pro-Russian disinformers are advocating Russian interests and are often advancing their own political agenda.
Recently, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark have decided to donate several F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. These should help Ukraine to reduce Russia's advantage in Ukrainian airspace as well as break the Russian defensive lines on the country’s territory.
Pro-Russian disinformation site Armáda Ruskej Federácie (“Army of the Russian Federation”) has responded to the news by saying that such supplies of military equipment do not help Ukraine and only artificially prolong the conflict.
MP Slavěna Vorobelová, who ran as a candidate for the far-right Kotleba-ĽSNS party in the elections, commented on the situation in a similar manner. She wrote on her Facebook page that the delivery of fighter jets to Ukraine could provoke Russia into launching massive retaliatory attacks. These, she said, may also target the territories of other countries, including Slovakia.
Such rhetoric puts the blame for the escalation of the conflict on the West while completely diverting attention from the fact that Russia is the aggressor that has decided to invade the territory of a sovereign state. The only reason why Western countries are sending military aid to Ukraine is to help Ukraine defend itself. It is therefore not the West that is escalating or prolonging the war, but Russia.
Conspiracy theories about Prigozhin’s death
Another event that has warranted a response from pro-Kremlin disinformation sources was the crash of a Russian plane on August 23 which left 10 dead. According to official information, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the mercenary group Wagner, was on the board of the private plane. As soon as the first reports of his death came out, there were suspicions that Russian President Putin, who accused Prigozhin of treason, had ordered the downing of the plane.
In the aftermath of this event, the most prominent narratives were either that Prigozhin did not actually die during the crash or that if he did, it was not the doing of Russia. These conspiracy theories were mainly spread by Facebook accounts of Slovak disinformation sites.
Disinformation site AC24 was one of the first to try to convince its audience that Prigozhin is still alive. In a Facebook post that links to one of their articles, they wrote: “Prigozhin is alive and plotting revenge after his double was killed”. The same unsubstantiated conspiracy theory was also shared by Armádny magazín (“Army magazine”), which went as far as to question the genetic results that confirmed that Prigozhin had indeed passed away. According to the site, the bodies were too "mutilated and burned" for the identification to be accurate and the tests could have easily been faked.
On the other hand, some disinformation sources admitted the possibility that Prigozhin died on board the plane but denied that Russia was behind the crash. Disinformation site Zdrojj (“Source”) wrote that “Prigozhin is presumed dead, and you can be sure that he did not die at Russian hands. But that's probably already clear to you”.
Russian disinformation actors spread conspiracy theories by disputing official findings and taking advantage of the ambiguity of current events. In this case, it can be seen that the pro-Kremlin disinformers' rhetoric is often inconsistent with the narratives they chose to disseminate. However, this is of little significance because the major goal of these narratives—as with any conspiracy theory—is to create a state of uncertainty and sow chaos in the information environment.
Refugees arriving in Slovakia spark a wave of disinformation
With the elections approaching, many Slovak political entities are trying to drum up as much popular support as possible during their pre-election campaigns. Anti-system and far-right parties, that do not hesitate to spread disinformation to achieve their political goals, have long used the same recurring narratives to do so. One of the most prominent ones is migration.
The massive increase in disinformation and harmful narratives on this topic have been prompted by the waves of immigrants arriving to Slovak territory. Citizens of Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq are fleeing war-affected areas and are currently using Slovakia merely as a transit country.
In one of the posts on the official Facebook page of the anti-system SMER-SSD party, the situation is described as “a humanitarian disaster” and “a huge migration crisis”. Furthermore, the party is baselessly blaming the Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová for “inviting illegal migrants” to Slovakia.
Milan Mazurek from the far-right Republika party, who is notorious for spreading hateful anti-immigration sentiment, commented similarly on the subject. He said that the interim prime minister Ódor and president Čaputová “do not give a damn about the people and the security of Slovakia has never bothered them”.
This rhetoric attacking the incumbent government is mainly utilised by parties that take advantage of every possible situation to criticise the current political leaders. The narrative of the government forgetting about the needs of “ordinary citizens” has also been widely used in connection to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Over time it has become a way of scoring political points for many Slovak opposition politicians.
Since migration was one of the biggest 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 analyze the most popular posts on Slovak Facebook that include the keywords “immigrants” or “migrants” (“imigranti” or “migranti”). Posts were evaluated based on the total number of interactions (the sum of all reactions, comments, and shares).
The first two places belong to the aforementioned posts made by the official SMER-SSD party Facebook page and Milan Mazurek from Republika (1, 2). In both of these posts, they blame the current situation with illegal migration on the incumbent government in order to score political points. This is unjustified since, according to Frontex, an increase in migration flows is the current situation throughout the entire EU, not only in Slovakia. It is important to add that in recent months, the interim government has proven to be an effective target for spreading disinformation narratives and unfounded attacks.
The third most popular post was published by Marian Kotleba who acts as a chairman of the far-right Kotlebovci-ĽSNS party. In a Facebook post, he writes that “immigrants are gradually flooding the whole of Slovakia” and proceeds to urge people to vote for his party with the promise that they will stop the crisis. This post is a prime example of how far-right parties are attempting to induce a sense of panic in the public and then exploit it for their own political gain.
The fourth place belongs to a post by Slavěna Vorobelová, in which she also blames the situation on the President and the government. However, she goes as far as to compare it to the testing during the COVID-19 pandemic by saying that “police officers knew how to harass people during testing and suddenly they cannot guard the borders?!”, which is a completely illogical correlation. This just goes to show that disinformers often link unrelated topics, that nevertheless evoke strong emotions, in order to convince people of their truth.
The last place belongs to another post by Marian Kotleba, who has been very active in spreading disinformation about migration. In this post, Kotleba alleges that “the government pretends that nothing is happening” and that the situation is being “completely ignored by the Ministry of the Interior”. Contrary to his statements, the government authorities and even the President have already issued several statements on the situation. In the rest of the post, he attempts to exaggerate the situation, wrongly warns the population of dangers and again calls on Slovak citizens to vote for his party in the upcoming elections if they want to protect the country. It is, however, important to state that the Slovak Police Force has still not recorded any disturbances of public order related to illegal migration in the most affected region at the time of writing this report.
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.