The different ways in which Czechia and Belarus responded to the pandemic remind us that serious challenges – such as COVID-19 – are impossible to overcome without the effective collaboration of the government institutions and civil society.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has become a security challenge of global significance, one not limited to the medical dimension only. As Tedros A. Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization Director-General pointed out during the annual Munich Security Conference, the COVID-19 pandemic is accompanied by so-called ‘infodemics’.
This term describes an upsurge in information related to the pandemic, of which a significant part is factually incorrect or outright manipulative.
Infodemics can have a considerable impact on the ability of states to tackle the disease as pollution of the information space contributes to the hardships related to the governments’ ability to communicate effectively with its citizens.
Without such communication, however, confused and scared citizens are likely to look for information on their own and become exposed to conspirators or alarmist voices.
NGOs stepping in
Czech websites notorious for spreading conspiracy theories took full advantage of this opportunity and dedicated significant attention to the pandemic. The seriousness of the disease was also questioned by several famous figures, like the actor Jaroslav Dušek, or the doctor Soňa Peková. In this context, it is not surprising that the infodemic also infected the Czech information space.
Fortunately, as early as in early spring 2020, Czech NGOs tackling disinformation stepped in and contributed to the fact that – at least in the first wave of the pandemic – the impact of hoaxes and conspiracy theories on the public debate was limited.
The Czech Republic benefited from the fact that the debate about disinformation has been ongoing since at least 2015 when the first activists and researchers started to analyse this threat.
Accordingly, there was sufficient time for various initiatives to be launched even before the pandemic occurred. Among them was regular monitoring of sources spreading conspiracy theories, which naturally included the topic of COVID-19 as soon as this topic started to be discussed.
For example, chain emails, affecting mainly the elderly part of the population, are monitored by a civic movement called the “Czech Elves” (a name inspired by their Baltic counterparts). This activist group published several reports that were dedicated solely to the conspiracy narratives related to COVID-19.
The think-tank European Values Center for Security Policy included the topic of COVID-19 in their regular monitoring of the Czech disinformation sphere. Their systematic analysis allowed them to draw interesting comparisons between the narratives that appeared in the Spring and Fall 2020.
The website “Manipulators”, focusing on hoaxes, propaganda and conspiracies, also debunked several false claims related to the pandemic and the outreach of other projects on which it provided regular information.
Given the seriousness of the challenge, completely new initiatives and projects were also established. The most notable example was the COVID19CZ initiative, associated with Czech IT experts aiming to identify the most suitable IT solutions against the various consequences of the pandemic.
One of the launched initiatives was called Dezinfoservis and focused on monitoring and fact-checking of dubious claims related to COVID-19 that appeared mainly on social media. Its findings were then distributed via online newsletters and also presented on one of the most prominent Czech news sites.
The think-tank Prague Security Studies Institute launched a project called “Disinformation Pandemic” which aimed not only at providing information about the narratives appearing on notorious conspiracy websites, but also to facilitate a better understanding of their operations, sources, and editorial policies.
In countering disinformation related to COVID-19, the Czech civil society has become a vital partner for the government institutions through its active involvement. Mutual support and cooperation also occurred in other areas such as care about the elderly or the distribution of protective masks.
Developments during the pandemic have demonstrated that civil society has become an indispensable partner of the government in finding solutions to upcoming challenges.
A different kind of infodemic in Belarus
It may be interesting to take a comparative perspective and review the situation in a country where the government was completely unresponsive to this challenge – Belarus.
The Belarusian Ministry of Health did not enact any serious restrictions that would prevent the spread of the virus, and Alexander Lukashenko, repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus – calling it a “psychosis”. He has claimed that it can be best treated by working in the fields, visiting the sauna and drinking vodka, and finally exclaiming that it is “Better to die standing than to live on your knees” while participating in a hockey match in a crowded stadium.
As a result, Belarusian civil society could not rely on support from its government in organising even basic provisions – such as raising money to buy protective gear for hospitals, schools and other public institutions, collecting donated food, providing rooms for medical workers – they ended up having to cope with it on their own.
At the same time, the country has had to face a different kind of infodemic as well – the government actively withheld information about the spread of the virus in the country and probably underreported the number of deaths related to COVID-19.
It is also likely that the ongoing protests against the fraudulent presidential elections take a lot of energy from the previous activities of the civil society related to tackling the pandemic and Lukashenko’s political debacle is related to his inability to properly address the pandemic.
From this narrowly-defined perspective, the cases of the Czech Republic and Belarus are similar, since they remind us that serious challenges – such as coronavirus pandemic – are impossible to overcome without the effective collaboration of the government institutions and civil society.
One positive lesson that comes out of the pandemic is that it is a reminder for the policy decision-makers that without the ability to interact with citizens, their position will always be fragile, insecure and vulnerable. This is true not only in relation to COVID-19-related disinformation threats but also for governance as such.
This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund.
Šimon Pinkas is a Project Assistant at the Prague Security Studies Institute.