“Fake news” has recently become a center of heated debate all around the Internet, thanks (but no thanks) especially to our new President 45 and his “alternative facts.” With the exponential development of digital journalism and a radical change in the transmission and reception of news and journalism over the past years, the professional sphere of journalism has become less defined and prone to contribution by those with questionable credibility. The rapidity of the spread of information unparalleled in the history of technology with the help of social media, mobile devices, and mobile applications has encouraged this distortion, and the Internet has become inundated with information to the point where facts can often be hard to separate from bias and, at times, from propaganda.
Fake news is a cyber-problem and thus a global problem, and the Czech Republic, much like the United States, has struggled and continues to struggle to nip it in the bud. Just last December, a video captioned “Islamic migrants try and grab a girl and attempt to rape her somewhere in Europe” was posted on the Facebook page “Never Again Canada” depicting an alleged assault of a girl by a group of Muslim immigrants, “somewhere in Europe.” This “somewhere” was revealed by the Czech interior ministry to have been none other than Prague, though that was not the only surprising information revealed about the video. The Director of Security Policy at the Czech interior ministry, David Chovanec, told BBC:
But they weren’t ‘Islamic migrants’. They were Czech citizens connected to the local drug scene. They were settling scores.
The Czech cyberspace is also notoriously filled with news outlets who carry the façade of professionalism but have been accused of publishing propagandistic and biased journalistic content. Three websites are often suspected for spreading disinformation in the Czech Republic: Sputnik News, AC24, and Aeronet (aka AE News). After a quick scroll through one, AE News, I came across an article “warning” Czech parents of the dangers lurking around their children at school “behind their backs” while they are at work. The danger the article refers to is the non-profit group AIENEC’s and volunteers from their EDISON project, an initiative in which university students of different national backgrounds visit Czech schools to spread cultural and racial awareness to Czech children. Besides this article, the website appears to be filled with other biased, often xenophobic articles in line with the hostile sentiment toward foreign culture expressed by the fake “Islamic immigrant” video. The website also seems to be especially anti-Islam, and the EDISON article singles out the potential presence of Muslim culture within the initiative (e.g. with the thumbnail showing a volunteer in a hijab) despite the fact that there are other cultures represented by the project. The comment threads at the bottom of the page also indicate the Czech readers’ anti-Islam stance in accordance with the article’s. This is especially fascinating considering the relative irrelevance of the Muslim immigration “issue” in the Czech Republic, where a minuscule 0.1% of the total population is Muslim.
Also fascinating is the power behind these “alternative news” outlets. Sputnik News, for example, is known to be owned by Russia and is considered a pawn in “Kremlin’s media machine.” This shows the lingering dominance of Russia over the Czechs, even several decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
According to the BBC, these websites are read by a quarter of the Czech Population, a relatively significant population when one considers the ease at which people can influence others on the Internet. Last month, the Czech interior ministry established a special unit to fight such spread of “fake news” and disinformation called the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats unit. In the aftermath of the spread of the fake video in December and the ongoing struggles with alternative news outlets, the unit took to Twitter to raise awareness of careful interpretation of cyber information.
The effectiveness of this unit is to be determined, although their platform of Twitter, a social media not so prolific in the Czech Republic, and the heads of the government’s apparent indifference may be some of the potential challenges it may need to overcome.