CEPI’s monthly overview of conventional and social media discourse in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia monitors propaganda and disinformation attempts, as well as democratic responses in the on-going information war, in order to increase awareness about this recently emerged challenge and promote fact-based discussion in Central Europe.

  • Migration crisis and Islam
  • Russian intervention in Syria
  • American occupation of Europe

 

Since the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, the information landscape of Europe has been dominated by the conflict in Ukraine. This has changed in the last couple of months when the situation on the Ukrainian battlefield appeased and the attention diverted to more urgent issues: Migration crisis and islamophobia, interventions in Syria and American military presence in the eastern flank of NATO have become main topics employed in the ongoing information war.

Migration crisis and Islam

The autumn of 2015 has been marked by the migration crisis and the subsequent spread of fear. An older opinion poll in the Czech Republic showed that up to two thirds of Czechs are afraid of Islam and immigration.[1] A recent one carried out in Slovakia after the eruption of the current crisis confirmed the expectations: 63% of people responded that refugees pose a security threat for Slovakia and 70% were against the quota system redistributing them among the EU member countries.[2] The generally negative stance of the population has been supported and perhaps motivated by the behaviour of main political forces, especially the securitisation of the topic and rejection of the quota system:

In Slovakia, the ruling SMER party changed its communication strategy before the March 2016 elections and started to use a new “We protect Slovakia” slogan[3], referring mainly to the decision to vote against European Union’s quota-based redistribution of asylum applicants, and later to the declaration to sue the EU for imposing this system against the country’s will. [4] They claimed the migrants pose a serious security risk, especially of terrorism[5], and do not seek to stay in Slovakia anyways. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that Islam does not belong in Europe and hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees cannot be integrated into a Christian society.[6] The extreme example of anti-immigration discourse was a banner displayed by football hooligans in Bratislava, saying “Refugees, Welcome!” and portraying a building similar to the Auschwitz concentration camp.[7]

As the migration crisis unfolded, the number of Facebook pages and groups focusing on anti-Islam propaganda increased. Typing the word “Islam” into a search engine is an easy way to find sites, such as “In Slovak republic, we don´t want Islam”; “We don´t want Islam in Slovakia” or “Power of truth” which has published a photo of a truck with broken windshield, describing that it is a “favour of immigrants” for not getting food and money from a driver. The post received many comments describing rude behaviour of immigrants. Other posts focus more on the threat of Islamisation, such as a photo of children in a mosque, with a description saying: “Children are learning how to worship Allah during the excursion. Do you know what your child is doing at school?”[8] The information campaign also focused on stories of criminal acts perpetrated by migrants: An article in the main conspiracy theory magazine Zem a Vek points out, that pocket-picking, sexual assaults and even organized sex business and other crime is widespread among migrants located in Germany and neglected by the authorities. [9]

       

LEFT – Facebook (Sila pravdy), November 28, 2015: “We would like to ask friends to share this post. It is a Czech truck, which received such a favor from the immigrants. The driver refused to give them food and money, and this is how it turned out. Fortunately, nothing happened to the driver.” RIGHT – Facebook (Prečo amerikanofilom hrabe?), October 25, 2015: “Become a liberal democrat today!” summarizes all the requirements: “Read the media informing about “public enemies”; Support immigration of people disregarding humanism; Fight against hatred and hate Russia; Glorify coups; Ignore human rights violations among the West’s allies; Blame everyone having different opinion than you have.”

Besides the humanitarian arguments in the debate, there were also some fact-checking attempts, such as those by the demagog.sk[10] website and an influential blogger[11]. The most relevant counterweight to the official positions at the political level was Slovakia’s President Andrej Kiska, warning of evoking fear and xenophobia.[12]

The migration crisis has been misused to foster anti-European and anti-American sentiments also by numerous websites and Facebook pages. Just to illustrate: the Eurasian League of Nations (Eurázsiai Népszövetség) Facebook page portrayed liberal, pro-gay Europe as weak when facing the Islamist threat.[13] Another far-right outlet, the Orientalista.hu website, stated that “It is not a coincidence that the refugees suddenly started to pour into our homeland,” implying a plot devised by the USA to destabilize Hungary and ultimately Europe. Hidfo.ru website developed a fascinating theory that NATO didn’t let Greece to seal its border against refugees in order to instigate a new war in Europe and thus justify its very existence;[14] or that it purposefully delivers refugees by thousands to Europe.[15]However, some mainstream politicians – such as Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico – employed anti-Western narratives, as well: “What does Slovakia have to do with what have happened in Libya, Iraq or Syria? Absolutely nothing! Did we bomb Libya? Did we get rid of the regime in Iraq? Did we destabilize the situation in Syria? We bear no responsibility for the situation in these countries. Therefore, we cannot accept that somebody is compelling us to deal with [those] people.”[16] To the contrary, the Czech defence minister Martin Stropnický blamed the Russians, by saying that his Hungarian counterpart told him about the Russia-financed bus transports of migrants from the Balkan countries.[17]

The online environment has been flooded by anti-Humanitarian narratives; criticising and ridiculing people engaged in or supporting humanitarian solutions for migrants/refugees moving and camping within the European Union, especially during and after the crisis erupted in Hungary. In Slovakia a word “slniečkári” (meaning sun-worshiping) has become widespread label for liberals demanding human rights, suggesting that what they are saying is absurd and laughable.

Finally, the inflow of migrants has been a good opportunity to finally end the period of negative reporting on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, shift the media attention to the Middle East, justify Russian intervention in Syria, and portray Russia as a country which must and can be discussed in order to solve security problems. The effects of diverted attention are known already: September’s survey by STEM poll agency among Czechs indicated decreased fear of Russian politics: In May, 59% of people considered Russia dangerous, in September it was only 43% percent.[18]

Pro-Kremlin sources have been constantly warning of immigration waves for possibly harboring terrorists;[19]unfortunately the terrorist attacks in Paris gave them the upper hand in blaming the Western liberalism for its weakness and inability to protect societies (such as by not allowing people to carry firearms).[20] Moreover, they made Russia an acceptable partner for the West in fighting terrorism and limited opposition in Central Europe to Russia’s actions in Syria. Expectedly, the tragedy also gave birth to a brand new conspiracy theory. A Czech translation of this story was published by the ac24.cz website.[21] The usual suspect, aeronet.cz, holds that a video showing one of the terrorists sparing lives of two women supports the argument that the attacks were staged.[22]

Russian intervention in Syria

Besides its other tactical and strategic effects, the Russian military build-up and aerial strikes in Syria served to distract the international audience from the conflict in Ukraine and improve the image of Russia as a country having the same security interest with the West and able to constructively contribute to the defeat of a common enemy.

Mainstream media reporting of Russia’s action in Syria was rather neutral or sceptical in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia (the criticism focused on the information that Russian air strikes had not harmed the Islamic State[23] but rather had made it stronger[24] and that its actions might aggravate the migration crisis[25]) while the pro-Russian media outlets tried to mount support behind the Russian military presence in Syria. Hidfo.ru cites a recent poll carried out by France’s Le Figaro newspaper that has indicated at least 72 percent of respondents want Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power.[26] The poll was in fact a daily questionnaire, not representative of the French public and could have easily been manipulated.[27]

Orientalista.hu declared that China enters the war in Syria alongside Russia by sending warships to the Syrian coast,[28] while also falsely claiming that Jimmy Carter, former President of the USA supports the Russian intervention in Syria.[29] In fact, the former U.S. president joked, Carter said he had offered to provide Russia with accurate maps to target Islamic State positions in the country.[30]

Russia has been articulated as part of the solution also by mainstream politicians, such as Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó: “There is no solution to the war in Syria and no solution to the migration crisis without an American-Russian deal, without a deal between the transatlantic community and Russia.”[31] Slovakia’s Prime Minister expressed that there is no possibility of fighting the Islamic State and solving the internal situation in Syria without President Assad, as well.[32]

The information campaign has been also attempting to link NATO, the USA and Israel as the main force behind the establishment of IS. One of the conspiracy theories presented by Orientalista.hu says that the American military is literary airborne “feeding” the Islamic State fighters who are trained by the Israeli military.[33]

According to hidinfo.hu, the downing of the Russian jet by the Turkish military was motivated by Erdogan’s close relationship with the Islamic State. [34] Moreover, Slovakia’s top conspiracy theories magazine Zem a Vek suggests that the incident occurred in Syrian airspace, a narrative first introduced by Russia.[35] More interestingly, a new story has emerged, according to which the situation led Turkey to isolation within NATO where USA, France and Germany subsequently demanded Turkey’s exclusion from the military Alliance.[36]

American occupation of Europe

The fall of 2015 was also marked by the increased military presence of the United States in Central Europe, the most visible example being the Dragoon Crossing transport of troops stationed in Germany through the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Hungary, where they later joined a large-scale exercise entitled Brave Warrior. The two events served to portray the United States as an occupying force provoking Russia in its neighborhood. This kind of disinformation intends to depict NATO reinforcements in Eastern-Europe as sheer “militarisation” and escalation of the Crimean crisis and relations with Russia.

Facebook (Zem a Vek), September 16, 2015: “Every country where the US Army troops enter has to make sure that it can freely carry out its tasks (rightful shooting on civilians from a helicopter etc.) without public unrest.”[37]

The 300.000 against NATO (300.000-en a NATO ellen) page spread this message across and opposed the stationing of American heavy weaponry in Hungary. Hidfo.ru asserted the migration crisis diverts attention from “American invasion” of the Baltic countries and Poland swarming the European side of the Russian border.[38] The chairman of the Slovak parliament committee on European affairs, Ľuboš Blaha, warned that one day “the other side will misread some provocation and we will end-up in a global nuclear war; and we all will die”.[39]

The official communication in Slovakia was rather low-profile and defensive when it concerned NATO or the United States. After months of communication silence on the expected US convoy transport through Slovakia, the last-minute communication of the government focused on the parallel exercise Slovak shield to divert the attention. A defensive tactic was employed in the case of an announcement that the creation of a NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) was approved at the ministerial meeting in October 2015. The government’s main communication line was that the NFIU is not a NATO military base (strongly opposed by the Prime Minister and the majority of the public[40]), but rather a small liaison team.[41] Nevertheless, the move was criticizes through pro-Kremlin and conspiracy theory channels: For instance, Zem a Vek magazine published an article saying that it is a small step towards losing sovereignty.[42] The establishment of a similar NATO headquarters in Hungary was interpreted as another aggressive move by the USA to reassert its military hegemony in the region,[43] as well as to provoke a new war with Russia on the back of the European countries.[44] Although Jobbik just stopped short of demanding Hungary to leave the NATO, Márton Gyöngyösi Vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament made it clear that the party considers NATO an aggressive military alliance ready to provoke a new war with Russia to sustain the American world hegemony. Thus, Jobbik refuses to accept the presence of “foreign troops” on Hungarian soil, including the new command centers deterring Russia after Crimea.[45]

The propaganda has been trying to exploit multiple rifts between core NATO members (for example “peaceful” Germany and the “hawkish” USA) and old and new members of the Alliance, such as in the case of the war in Syria.[46] It is very typical that the disinformation campaign boosts the “fringes”, quotes marginal opinions as if those were the majority’s attitude against NATO or the USA, while also referring to probably staged or “fake” demonstrations against NATO aggression, for example in Lisbon or Sicily.[47]

 

Edited by Milan Šuplata, senior fellow at Central European Policy Institute; Péter Krekó, Director at Political Capital Institute; Jakub Janda, Deputy Director at the European Values Think-Tank; Lóránt Győri, Analyst at Political Capital Institute. This document was published in the framework of projects run by the Slovak Atlantic Commission and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.

© Slovak Atlantic Commission

   

[27] Last years’ events have turned the tide in France, and most French people are in favor of military intervention by France in Syria. In a survey of 1,103 French people carried out by pollster BVA, 55 percent said they would support French action in Syria compared to 64 percent who were against in 2013. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/05/24/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-france-…