Fire and Brimstone: The Proliferation of Deception and Dread in Central Europe

Disinformation campaigns in the US are growing in sophistication, and many across the Atlantic are learning the same tricks

Galan Dall
6 lipca 2017

For most of us who don’t block or unfollow family and friends with differing political opinions, our daily newsfeeds are constantly being bombarded with spurious stories of politicians from across the spectrum engaged in a smorgasbord of conspiracies. The strategy is to overwhelm the reader, and the public at large, with as many articles as possible on similar topics, so that the sheer number of pieces will convince people that there must be something truthful in them, after all where there’s smoke…there’s more smoke. The purpose is either to undermine established and reputable journalistic sources (many of which are producing a large number of credible, though controversial, articles) or to obfuscate the situation until no one is certain of what is real.

In today’s world, where there will be support for any sound or dubious position wished to be held, discerning what information is trustworthy has become an everyday skill we have all had to quickly adopt. Just as we were getting hold of this fake news debacle undermining the hordes of journalists working to sift through all the subterfuge being shoved down our virtual throats, we have reached the next stage of this propaganda strategy: judgment before publishing.

Late last month, the western media world was caught in eager anticipation of Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview with Alex Jones, the founder of Info Wars (if ever a show name was more appropriate for someone intent on disrupting coherent narratives and espousing, often violent, solutions to conspiracies so far-fetched they crossed over into the farcical realm long ago). The content of the interview was of less importance, as the ratings did indicate, than the perception of its “fairness” (if you tend towards conservative beliefs) or if it was “hard-hitting” enough (if you are more liberal leaning).

The critical response was that Kelly did a good job holding Jones accountable for some of his more outlandish comments like when he said the Sandy Hook massacre – where 26 people, mostly children, were killed by a gunman at a primary school – was according to Jones staged by actors. Some though were wary of giving Jones a larger audience to promote his ideas which can aid in the spreading of distrust and discontent in society.

Jones himself used the days before the interview to stoke the flames of his “theory” that he will never be treated well by mainstream media, echoing one of Trump’s favourite excuses of “misrepresentation”; Trump himself has been a fan of Jones’ show, enough so to even call in and voice his support. Needless to say, most on the internet had already decided the interview’s value days before its airing, and this was the intended outcome, to skew minds.

Translating Paranoia

The above is hardly surprising considering all the recent tactics used to influence elections in Western Europe as well as the US, but the question at hand is if the same occurrence is happening in post-communist societies?

The situation in Central Europe is trickier to diagnose because many right-wing, nationalistic parties are currently in power and, a crucial difference from the US, they also control many of the mainstream media outlets.

A recent report by Robert Gorwa for the Oxford Internet Institute found that there has been a considerable increase in the use of political bots, trolling and fake accounts to amplify the propagation of fake news throughout Poland. What is more interesting is that, while the consequences of these operations can be extensive, the actual number of people distributing this disinformation is incredibly small. Perhaps the critics worried about giving Jones a bigger microphone were right in their consternations?

A similar situation is playing out in neighbouring Czechia. There a few small but popular sites of unknown ownership peddling pro-Putin and anti-American material while spreading fear about immigrants, refugees and Islam in general. But what has been the effect of these websites and yellow journalism on the Central European public?

According to GLOBSEC, two-thirds of Poland’s as well as Croatia’s population do not believe the media is presenting an accurate representation of reality. This can be mostly attributed to the same methods mentioned above, a barrage of stories each corroborating each other, but none worth their weight in salt, yet many also attribute this to government control of many of the main media outlets. The situation has gotten severe enough for the Czech government to set up a task force to combat these disinformation campaigns.

This is a laudable step in the right direction, but if polling can be trusted, Andrej Babis – the populist leader of the ANO party and who has been on numerous occasions compared to Donald Trump (businessman-turned-politician) – is set to become the next Prime Minister of Czechia.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with a successful magnate turning to politics. However, his unique ace in the hole is control over the Mafra media group which includes the number two newspaper (second only to the tabloid Blesk) and number three internet news portal in the region. What will happen if the task force above finds issue with something associated with the likely future Prime Minister’s business handlings? A rather obvious potential conflict of interest is around the corner, and if there’s anything Czechia can learn from America is that potential threats become dangerous realities from one day to the next.

The Wolf Playing Shepherd

But who is the Alex Jones of Central Europe? Here we can look to Poland and the suspended-priest Jacek Międlar. He has given many antisemitic and Islamophobic speeches and is popular with right-wing groups on both his blog and Twitter account. Previously this year, as the Guardian reported, Międlar was held in Stansted airport and not allowed to attend the Britain First rally in Telford. Police were alerted to his intention to speak at the far-right event by the anti-racist group Hope Not Hate.

Międlar’s use of venom-filled rhetoric on his blog, Twitter and Facebook page as well as his proclivity for inciting prejudice seemed to justify the authorities denying him entry in an apparent win for proponents of tolerance; however, to those in his community (much like the Jones interview above), his removal from the UK is a feather in his cap; a true patriot and Christian oppressed by “liberals” and is his words “Jewish agents with British passports”[1]. A few weeks ago, Międlar was once again detained in the UK and refused entry while trying to attend another rally in Birmingham.

For people like Jones, Międlar, and even the current president of the US, reporting factually what they have said is an act of misrepresentation worthy of retaliation. This morning, Trump once again double-downed on his attack against the media by referring to the stalwart international news organization CNN as fake news because they defended themselves against a mocked-up video that Trump tweeted. In the video, originally from a wrestling appearance, Trump body slams a person with the CNN logo replaced as its head. The original producer of the video has issued a long apology saying the video was only meant as satire and if the White House had asked for his permission to repost his video, he would have said no. Donald Trump has not issued any similar apology.

As the fourth estate is far more entrenched in the US and Western Europe, worries about these attacks on journalists and of deceitful reporting taking over without any oversight is less worrisome than in places like Central Europe where censorship was an unfortunate and undesirable but accepted way of life for many years. How easy it would be for it to return in the name of providing safety and security from the “evils” of open society.

Photo (c)

The author is an editor for Visegrad Insight as well as Miasta/Cities Magazine

[1] Translated from the Polish.