The murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová shocked not only Slovak society but also the wider international community, as demonstrated by the extensive coverage of their deaths in media outlets around the world. Closer to home, the assassination of the investigative reporter and fiancé resulted in the publication of 12773 articles in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia up to 1 May 2018. The following chart provides an overview of the intensity of articles produced in these countries during our monitoring period.

 

 

Chart 1: Number of articles published in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia with the term “Ján Kuciak” between 20 February – 1 May 2018

(Source: >versus<)

As is common with such sensitive and highly-publicised issues, a lot of disinformation narratives were  spread about the murders and peaceful protests that occurred in cities throughout Slovakia in the weeks that followed.[2] These narratives also spread from Slovakia to its neighbours, specifically the Czech Republic and Hungary. Out of 12773 articles, 1922 included the terms “Ján Kuciak” and “protests” and 174 included “Ján Kuciak” and “(Euro)maidan”.[3]

In Hungary, 1076 articles were published about “Ján Kuciak” within the monitored period. However, the incident was neither featured in pro-Russian outlets nor wider disinformation discourse. There were only two articles published by the Hungarian Workers Party claiming that “international, liberal circles” are upending Slovakia’s “national sovereignty” by forcing the resignation of then-Prime Minister Robert Fico, the Minister of Interior and Chief Police Officer.

The main Hungarian-language coverage came from the Slovak site bumm.sk, whereas the overwhelming majority of articles published in Hungary were in independent media, like mno.hu, nepszava.hu and index.hu, which mostly elaborated on the political implications of the murders. On the other hand, highly centralised pro-government media must have deemed the issue too politically sensitive to cover prior to the April 2018 Hungarian elections when the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition faced its own domestic corruption scandals. These outlets either did not report about the murders at all or provided a very limited interpretation.

In the Czech Republic, 2680 articles mentioning “Ján Kuciak” were published within the monitoring period, of which 309 were published by disinformation outlets. George Soros was mentioned in 59 articles and 65 connected the murders to the (Euro)maidan. On 27 February Aeronet published the first disinformation article to spread the conspiracy theory of an upcoming revolution in Slovakia.  Disinformation outlets in the Czech Republic also pushed forward two main narratives about the protests in Slovakia: 1) that they were organised by George Soros; or 2) the European Union under the leadership of France and Germany, who want to destabilise Central Europe. Indeed, some articles suggested that parallel protests in the Czech Republic against the appointment of the Communist Party MP Zdeněk Ondráček as Head of the General Inspectorate for the Security Corps[4] were organised by non-governmental organisations controlled by Soros.

In Slovakia, 9127 articles mentioning “Ján Kuciak” were published in the monitored period. Out of those, 1053 were published by the most read disinformation outlets, mentioning Kuciak and other spurious narratives as elaborated in our first analytical brief. From there, 457 articles speculated on the prospects for a coup, 246 mentioned George Soros and 61 contained both Ján’s name and the term “(Euro)maidan”. The comparatively high number of articles in both mainstream media and disinformation outlets is hardly surprising given that the former Prime Minister Robert Fico also speculated on a coup and the influence of Soros on a number of occasions.

On 28 February, the Czech disinformation outlet Aeronet published an article claiming that George Soros’ right hand man, Marcello Fabiani had arrived in Slovakia to witness the protests for himself. It was an article that received over 3000 comments and numerous shares on social media. Yet it was also a hoax. Marcello Fabiani does not exist.

So, who spread the hoax?

“Marcello Fabiani” was mentioned 13 times in Czech disinformation outlets, 12 in Slovakia (8 in disinformation outlets, 4 in mainstream media – including a Hungarian language newspaper published in Hungary) and twice in Hungary within the monitored period, as it is possible to see from the chart below.[5]

Chart 2: Number of articles published in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia mentioning “Marcello Fabiani”

The number of outlets to mention his name remains small in comparison to conspiracy theories and narratives linked to George Soros (59 articles in the Czech Republic and 246 in Slovakia mention his name and Ján Kuciak’s). However, to have 11 disinformation outlets in 3 different countries spread one particular hoax about a fictional persona within a very specific and short time period indicates a very targeted and intense campaign.

The following chart highlights that the most articles spreading this disinformation were published on 7 March. And while 5 articles mentioning “Marcello Fabiani” were also published on 5 March, 2 were debunks by mainstream media pointing out the ridiculous hoax being spread online.

Chart 3: Timeline of articles published in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia mentioning “Marcello Fabiani”

When it comes to measuring the impact of articles that spread the Marcello Fabiani hoax, the following chart demonstrates that Aeronet – which published the story first – received the most responses (4320 comments and social media shares). According to data provided by the ICT tool >versus<, this article was the third most shared article on this topic within Czech media circles. Moreover, Aeronet also ranks number 1 and 2 on the list of articles with the biggest social engagement. With over 998 comments and shares on social media, Slovak disinformation outlet Zem a vek’s “Maidanization of Slovakia” had the third biggest outreach.[6]

The chart below outlines the weighted hierarchy of outlets that wrote articles about Marcello Fabiani based on social engagement and outreach, with blue representing disinformation outlets and beige mainstream media. As it is possible to observe, mainstream media had significantly smaller outreach to outlets that spread the hoax.

Chart 4: Weighted hierarchy of outlets spreading hoax about “Marcello Fabiani” in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia based on the number of articles published and social engagement

 

 

Written by Katarína Klingová, GLOBSEC Policy Institute; Lóránt Györi, Political Capital Institute; Jonáš Syrovátka, Prague Security Studies Institute. This brief was published in the framework of project run by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. 

© GLOBSEC Policy Institute

The opinions stated in this report do not necessarily represent the position or views of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute or the National Endowment for Democracy. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the authors. 

           

 

[1] ICT media-monitoring tool >versus< was used for data collection. The analyzed data covers the articles produced within the time period from February 20, 2018 till May 1, 2018 in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. The media-monitoring >versus< was developed by the International Republican Institute within its Beacon Project and it encompasses database of  mainstream media and disinformation sources, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and online discussions. For the purpose of this analysis, only the news section of the database was used.

[2] The public protests in Slovakia eventually led to the abdication of several ministers and eventually the establishment of the new government.

[3] In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the term “Majdan” is also used as the reference to the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine.

[4] The General Inspectorate for Security Corps is a Czech government agency tasked with investigating crimes of the officers of the Police of the Czech Republic, customs protection, prison guards, inspection workers or employees of these services.

[5] Categorization of online outlets in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as spreading disinformation is based on the ranking of websites provided by konspiratori.sk.

[6] ICT media-monitoring tool >versus< was used for data collection and analysis in the time period from February 20, 2018 till May 1, 2018. The tool monitors social engagement of articles for the first 48 hours from their publishing.