Infosecurity.sk: Bi-Weekly Report on Emerging Disinformation Trends (July 20, 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. At the end of the last month, the disinformation media in Slovakia began publishing articles calling for protests in front of houses of well-known doctors who spoke out in favour of vaccination, demonizing them as “pharma lobbyists”.
2. A group of 20-30 aggressive anti-vax demonstrators has targeted the homes of well-known doctors who have spoken out in favour of vaccination.
3. The deliberate targeting of doctors who spoke in favour of vaccination took the anti-vax campaign to a new level and manifested the physical danger posed by disinformation. Some doctors are reconsidering whether to continue further with the pro-vaccination campaign.
4. The new travel restrictions introduced by the Slovak government have sparked a public outcry and led to the proliferation of "vaccination apartheid" narratives on social media.
5. The attempts to exploit the situation united populists and disinformation actors across the political spectrum, who used the public discontent to further spread false disinformation narratives.
Radical anti-vaxxers target Slovak doctors
The Slovak anti-vaxxers echo the arguments and rhetoric of anti-vaxxers around the world, including claims that Covid-19 vaccines have not been adequately tested, and denounce as discriminatory all attempts to impose travel restrictions on those who refuse to be vaccinated. Many of the anti-vax conspiracy theories attempt to demonize the doctors who speak in favour of the vaccination by associating them with "big pharma" companies, which anti-vaxxers claim have various malign intentions.
At the end of the last month, the disinformation media began publishing articles calling for protests in front houses of well-known doctors who spoke out in favour of vaccination. Although such disinformation narratives and threats to doctors advocating vaccination have been present on the Internet for some time, they have rarely left the realms of social media and transformed into a real physical threat to the doctors.
Badatel.net, a self-proclaimed "most popular website about health" that has been the target of criminal prosecution in the past for spreading dangerous false information, openly called for protests against "pharma lobbyists." Other disinformation media, such as Hlavné správy and Hlavný denník quickly adopted the narrative, abusing the current relatively favourable pandemic situation in Slovakia to downplay the dangers of Delta variant as a "mere flu".
As tensions over vaccines in Slovakia continue to grow, the doctors have become one of the primary targets for anti-vaxxers' frustrations. A group of 20-30 anti-vax demonstrators has targeted the homes of well-known doctors who have spoken out in favour of vaccination, the infectologists Pavel Jarčuška, Vladimír Krčméry, and paediatrician Elena Prokopová. Although the total number of the protesters gathered in front of the doctors' houses was relatively small and the protesters were neither able to meet nor threaten any of the doctors directly, they chanted threats and behaved aggressively towards their neighbours.
The protests were condemned by several government politicians, including Prime Minister Eduard Heger, who called them inadmissible and urged the prosecutor's office and the police to monitor the situation closely and take action if necessary. Meanwhile, the police have already announced that they will not tolerate future actions by the anti-vaxxers against doctors. The Interior Minister Roman Mikulec stressed that all necessary measures will be taken to protect people threatened by such actions. Despite the assurances, Prokopová, one of the targeted doctors and a prominent pediatrician who has spoken out a lot in the media about the need to vaccinate children, is now considering whether to continue further with the campaign.
The disinformation media, on the other hand, regarded the protests as a legitimate manifestation of people’s frustration with the “discriminatory” restrictive measure imposed by the “pharma lobbyists”, claiming that no violations of public order were recorded. Nonetheless, the deliberate targeting of doctors who spoke in favour of vaccination took the anti-vax campaign to a new level and manifested the physical danger posed by disinformation. Although some of the politicians were quick to condemn the protests, further such actions could discourage experts from advocating for the vaccines.
Narratives of vaccination apartheid
However, not all politicians have condemned the actions of the protesters. The Slovak disinformation scene is fuelled by politicians seeking public support and votes. As we have reported in the past, it is indeed politicians who are the main disseminators of disinformation and harmful content in Slovakia. These politicians routinely raise controversial topics they believe will help them get more votes, even if it requires them to spread false narratives.
With the summer holidays in full swing and the risk of citizens bringing in the Delta variant from abroad, the Slovak government has imposed a number of measures, reintroducing border controls, requiring all unvaccinated people to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon entry. The new restrictions have caused a great deal of public outcry, especially among the tourism industry and people who commute abroad daily for work. This has given disinformation actors and populist politicians an opportunity to exploit the discontent for their own ends.
These actors, headed by the well-known disinformation far left politician Ľuboš Blaha and many current or former members of the far-right People's Party Our Slovakia, began to spread narratives of "vaccination apartheid" - a supposed attempt to categorize citizens according to whether they had been vaccinated. The frustration with the new measures led to several protests at border crossings organized by disgruntled commuters but also attended by various opposition politicians.
Attempts to exploit the situation united populists and disinformation actors across the political spectrum; even the paramilitary organisation Slovenskí Branci used the new travel restrictions to grab the spotlight, claiming to monitor the actions of Slovak police at the border and ensuring that citizens' right to travel freely is upheld. Paradoxically, it is the same disinformation actors who in this context advocate for freedom of movement who simultaneously spread anti-EU narratives and advocate for Slovakia´s withdrawal from the EU and restoring its borders as a sign of national sovereignty.
After the judicial review, the Constitutional Court suspended the ordinance that divided incomers into vaccinated and unvaccinated; the court's main objection was that people who had received only one dose could not be classified as fully vaccinated. In response, the Minister of Health Vladimír Lengvarský announced that the measures imposed by the ordinance will not change much and may just become "a bit stricter." Nevertheless, disinformation actors interpreted the court ruling as a confirmation of their narratives.
The recent developments underscore the need to communicate carefully and strategically about the governments' goals in combating the potential third wave of the pandemic. Otherwise, the disinformation actors who have been spreading narratives about categorising people based on whether they are vaccinated since late last year will exploit such mishaps to their advantage.
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.