[Reportage Numerama] Russian disinformation has made Slovakia, a country bordering Ukraine, its main target. Purpose: to undermine the momentum of solidarity of Slovaks with Ukrainian refugees through social networks and humiliate the image of NATO, while the armed forces of the Organization accumulate on the border.
Designer Tibor extends a helping hand to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war towards Kosice, a large city in eastern Slovakia. A transit camp adjoins the station, where new arrivals are waiting. “I couldn’t sit back, unlike old friends who are vague about their presence.” skips the forties. Tibor decided to break off relations with them. ” They are manipulated by Russian disinformation, which abounds on the internet and social media. They were brainwashed and now they admire Vladimir Putin“.
According to the Slovak sociological agency Focus and the English-language media Slovak Spectator, in 2014, during the Crimean War, 83% of Slovaks opposed Russian aggression against Ukraine. Today, 44% of the population hold the US and NATO responsible. Here Russia is winning the information war.
Effective Russian propaganda causing outrage
“Pro-Kremlin propaganda is a serious problem.” emphasizes Filip Struharik, Slovak daily journalist Dennik N. Brainwashing works on social media. “In Slovakia, 1,600 Facebook pages defend the ideas of Moscow. They existed for years, but revived after the war in Ukraine. » Someone who also works for Reporters Without Borders insists: “Fake news is rampant. Putin would start the process of denazification, the war would be the answer to the “homosexual epidemic”… Russia would become a victim of this war. These pages actually reproduce verbatim the speeches of Putin and his entourage.»
Tomasz Krishshak is one of the founders of the website konspiraroti.sk. Launched in 2015, this platform of historians and media professionals verifies information posted online. Since February 24, these experts have been carefully studying the activity of Internet users in favor of Moscow on the Web.
“ On the first day of the war, the pro-Putin pages remained silent. They waited for an official comment from the Kremlin before publishing anything.” expert decrypts. Specifically, the pro-Russian ideology is visible in many posts on the network. One of the latest: a photograph of a wounded pregnant woman in Mariupol, southern Ukraine, fired upon by the invaders, with the caption This woman is an actress The Russian embassy in France also shared false information.
Another goal of this disinformation: to undermine the wave of solidarity of Slovaks with 200,000 refugees from Ukraine. Several statuses portray them as ungrateful with fake photos of wrecked trains and discarded food.
The situation is all the more worrisome as this could be enough to turn Slovak public opinion sensitive to disinformation in general.
There are several explanations for this: the Central European state has a high level of distrust of government officials and has a tradition “Find the culprit.” Tomasz Krissak also works for Gerulata Technologies, a Slovak company that analyzes the importance of propaganda in the country. His report, published March 3, lists dozens of pages of disinformation on social media. Where are they from? There are media outlets that are sometimes directly linked to Russian interests, and others that only seek to spread any kind of contradiction. And then there are trolls and proxies controlled by the Kremlin. “For example, publications are directly related to the Russian embassy.”
Intertwined fates Slovakia and Russia
In terms of history, the imprint of Russia has left a deep mark on the construction of this country, which gained independence in 1993. Ľudovít Štúr, an important figure in 19th century Slovak culture, defended the tsarist regime. While this region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the philosopher and writer made Russia the guarantor of the freedom of the Slovak people. A century later, having formed a single state with the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia became a satellite of the USSR. Even after gaining independence in 1993 and integrating into the European Union in 2004, this NATO member has not turned its back on the Russian giant.
On the diplomatic side, Slovakia maintains close ties with Moscow, and many politicians support the actions of the Russian Federation. Pro-Russian discourse is ubiquitous on the political scene. Socialist MP Lubos Blaha, a kind of local Trump, continues to win followers spreading pro-Kremlin fakes. At the beginning of the crisis, he went to the Ukrainian border. Purpose: To photograph a black man to spread the idea that only racial people cross the Slovak border. “In the disinformation game, Lubos Blaha takes first place. Thanks to Facebook, he made a name for himself. These individuals pose a serious threat to national security.”says Tomasz Krishshak.
There are far-right, far-left and populist politicians spreading pro-Russian propaganda for political gain. It was widely taken up by the socialist Smer Party, led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico. The man who ruled Slovakia from 2012 to 2018 recently called the planned arrival of NATO soldiers to the country“Welcome to the Wehrmacht” and describes the war as “conflict between the US and Russia.”
If these political manipulations reach such a strong audience, part of the responsibility lies with social networks, in particular Facebook, according to Tomasz Krishszak: “ We have warned several times about the role these media are playing in the disinformation campaign, but they did not immediately respond. Evidence that the problem persists in Slovak society is that the police have activated a Facebook page posting this false information. A total of 200 posts are intercepted daily by local authorities. Above each message, officers write a comment aimed at restoring the truth. “It’s not the role of the police” sweeps away Philip Struharik.
Slovak journalist RSF objects to the fact that Zuckerberg’s company hired only one Slovak fact-checker. That lonely cowboy is Robert Barka, the Slovak auditor for the international news agency AFP for their ad hoc service Factual, a Facebook partner. He checks the information distributed in the social network. “Facebook is a favorite platform for propaganda, but far from the only one”he assures. In recent months, the journalist has noticed a rise in this type of content on the instant messaging app Telegram. The reason is simple: the platform has not yet introduced strict measures regarding moderation. “The goal is simple: to discredit the West,” he summarizes briefly.
Long dormant Slovak state
Due to the war in Ukraine, the government in Bratislava went on the offensive: in early March, the country hastily passed an amendment to the cybersecurity law, allowing the National Security Agency (NBU) to shut down sources “ malicious content ».
Sometimes far from ordinary trolls, some distributors of fake news put stamps that Putin is dangerously flirting with intelligence. On March 11, Slovakia expelled three military attaches-diplomats from the Russian embassy. Reasons for this expulsion, Slovak media Dennik N tell them in a video posted on March 14. We see a Russian embassy soldier next to one of the editors of the disinformation site, who ask him to extract information from the Ministry of Defense. The diplomat gives him 1,000 euros in cash.
According to Philip Struharik, acting too late. “Ever since Trump won in 2016 thanks to Facebook and the fake news he spread there, we journalists and activists have been warning against propaganda. The Bratislava government has lost a lot of time. » Faced with the spread of false information, the Slovak government is showing its passivity.
It has been eight years since history professor Juraj Smatana, state secretary of the Ministry of the Environment of the Slovak Republic since March 2020, published his list of dozens of Slovak and Czech websites that suddenly appeared during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. “For a long time, politicians have been hiding behind freedom of speech to justify their inaction,” Struyarik sums up.
For its part, the Slovak Information Service (ISS) has been criticized for lack of transparency. Its role is to receive, evaluate and transmit information about the distribution of malicious content or malicious actions directed to or from the cyberspace of the Slovak Republic. “Last week they blocked the page because it was funded by the Russians, refusing to give us more information,” Philip Struharik laments. There was also no response from the ISS to Numerama.
“ In this photo, Zelenskiy’s wife is not fleeing Ukraine; it’s actually a photo montage », “There are not fake corpses of Ukrainians in this video, this is an environmental demonstration in Vienna”. Reading Robert Barka’s articles, it seems that the only Slovak fact-checker is still short of work.