Czech Republic

The Czech Ministry’s Hoax Pocus

The anti-hoax department of the Czech Ministry of Interior officially commenced its operation, much to plenty of politicians' chagrin.

The year 2017 kicked off with the Ministry of Interior finally launching its much-touted anti-hoax unit; an institution which is so feared that it has had to explicitly state that it does not possess a button capable of turning off the Internet. The Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CTHH) claims its purpose is to defend the country against disinformation campaigns, terrorism, radicalization, hybrid threats – name the buzzword and it will protect you from it. Once stripped of its fancy nomenclature, what it actually comes down to is the Ministry trying to run a fact-checker on Twitter. The horror!

Rabid response unit

Even before showing its amazing efficiency (between its official launch on 1st of January and writing this article, it has managed to debunk two hoaxes and tweet three public information graphics), the CTHH has managed to put brave little Czechia back on the world map by pre-emptively scaring the hell out of our beloved President. How else does one explain the fact that he felt the need to speak out against it in his annual Christmas speech despite his office already having approved the unit’s founding – or the social media hurricane started by his PR man Jiří Ovčáček who accused the Ministry and unspecified NGOs (always those wretched NGOs!) of censorship and playing the Thought Police – and even going as far as setting up a regularly-updated Twitter account with the sole purpose of mocking the CTHH?

The fact that the anti-hoax unit has become a point of contention in Czech politics is not surprising in the slightest, but one thing does stand out about this little story. Typically, Miloš Zeman stands – or, rather, wobbles – by the Ministry of Interior’s often absurd security measures; with fearmongering and xenophobia being two constants of his successful public image there seems to be no reason to object against yet another flashy anti-terrorist initiative.

That is, until we realize that the main distributors of hoaxes on the Czech internet also happen to be our daily sources of information on just how great Russia is.

The primary motivations for the current shape of the anti-hoax unit were a national security audit and the yearly report released by the rather paradoxically named Security and Intelligence Service (BIS) in September 2016. According to it, the BIS is aware of, among other things, the “massive production and distribution of Russia-directed disinformation and propaganda” and “inciting and supporting social and political tensions by founding puppet groups and supporting extremist factions”. Now, there is nothing new about Russia’s propaganda machine functioning in the Czech Republic – the lower estimates talk about around 40 websites specializing in disinformation while presenting a distinctly pro-Russian world-view, with alarming efficiency. According to the national security audit, 25 per cent of Czechs trust the news items that were identified as disinformation.

The right to spread lies

Even discounting this statistic – at least partially provided by an EU-paid NGO, as detractors often point out – it does seem rather suspicious that the ones causing a disturbance over the CTHH are our most pro-Russian politicians, especially since the hoaxes so far debunked concerned slandering (still curiously absent from our country) immigrants.

A somewhat more valid concern would appear to be over the government trying to set itself as some kind of an arbiter in the matters of news factuality. Governments change, the political opinions of ministers’ change, the bias of a government medium will inevitably change with them. While it seems obvious enough that thorough fact-checking should be able to stand on its own no matter the political context – the thoroughness of the CTHH’s measures still being very much untested – there is a real underlying problem, namely the mechanisms of target selection.

How does the CTHH choose which hoaxes to disprove? The department itself cites “the potential to endanger home security” – whatever that means – and “seriousness” of the message, which is very much open to interpretation. To put it simply, the problems can be summed up thusly: everyone lies, but the CTHH does not possess the manpower and capacity to check up on everyone. Therefore, it can only debunk the hoaxes of a limited number of media, leaving the remaining media to lie freely, and where is the justice in that? Media subjected to the torture of fact-checking will, naturally, protest, claiming they have the same right to lie as everyone else – and why should they be the only ones punished for it?

Ministry of Post-truth

The fact our hypothetical medium just admitted to spreading fake news does not seem to concern anyone – but it should. We are not simply talking censorship here because no one is suppressing any information; the opposite, in fact – they are adding to it and providing another source.

That it happens to be state-run is unfortunate but ultimately meaningless.

It is hardly likely that someone will base their entire world-view on an irregular Twitter account and the anti-governmental folk will dismiss it as yet another source of propaganda. The only one with a real axe to grind here are hoax-spreaders and the sharpness of that axe depends on the execution: as long as CTHH sticks to its fact-checking guns while providing explanations for its reasoning, there are very little grounds for complaint. What we have here is not a Minitrue suppressing information – in fact it is more of a Minipost, trying to shed more light on information that does not concern itself with factuality anymore.

And it is in fact a rather small post to put a lamp on: should we even count on the state backing putting some more weight behind its opinions, which is at best a dubious claim given the anti-establishmentarian bent of your average conspiracy theorist? In the end, it is just a Twitter account. Even if it ends up being corrupt, propagandistic, labeling, ideological and so very nasty, it is one medium among many. And compared to the veritable hurricane of informational manure spewed out by internet media and churning perpetually over social networks, does it really matter if there is one more spout and whether it goes with or against the stream?

The toothless department

Here we come to the heart of the matter: CTHH is a very Czech solution because it really isn’t one. The Ministry of Interior realizes that 25 per cent of people believing hoaxes is not a number that the country should be proud of, especially since the hoaxes in question tend to be almost uniformly xenophobic or racist in nature. Something needs to be done then, the result being the CTHH. Something was done- great job- now let’s get back to getting around the EU’s gun restriction laws using the most idiotic rhetoric possible.

The CTHH’s biggest flaw is that it is completely harmless. Expecting people to be interested in hoaxes being disproved is a long shot; expecting them to accept hoaxes being disproved by the government is just silly. Minipost appears to have missed the point of post-truth: no one really wants to shift their opinion once it has been firmly set. When it comes to defense against propaganda, the anti-hoax unit does not stand a chance.

It will not stop the haters and it has not a hope in hell against the Russians.

It might, however – and here is the likely reason for the farcical response of our topmost politicians – affect internal politics a bit. While there already are (mostly ignored) fact-checkers focused on the public statements of Czech politicians, it is a very small field and anything new entering it could potentially shake it up a bit, especially with the Parliamentary elections rapidly approaching. And yes, there is potential for foul play since the CTHH is bound to debunk a couple statements from the opposition politicians. Alas, there is only one sure means of defense and it would be a hitherto unforeseen act in politics: not lying.

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Michal Chmela

Michal Chmela is a translator and journalist.