There is a heated debate ongoing in the Czech Republic concerning threats stemming from disinformation and hostile foreign propaganda. There are many clear cases where conspiracy theories were widely spread in the information space, demonstrating the seriousness of these disinformation activities in the Czech information space.
These include rumours that the 2014 demonstrations against President Miloš Zeman were organised by the American Embassy; the so-called “Lithium Affair” that targeted the Social Democratic Party prior the Parliamentary elections in 2017; as well as various conspiracies and smear campaigns attacking candidates prior the presidential election in 2018.
Although research has shown that Czech society is probably aware of this threat, it is, unfortunately, not immune to it. An opinion poll conducted in 2019 by the Institute of Empirical Research STEM and organisation Transitions showed that only 25 per cent of the respondents were able to identify whether a sample article upholds journalistic standards.
Another research published in the same year by agency Nielsen Admosphere for NFNZ (Endowment Fund of Independent Journalism) showed that 27 per cent of the respondents were more or less convinced that migration from Muslim countries to Europe was organised by the European Union.
In another opinion poll, at least 14 per cent of the respondents considered various fringe websites spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation to be reliable sources of information.
These unsatisfying results could partially be caused by low media literacy among the Czech population. For instance, in the Media Literacy Index published in 2019, the Czech Republic scored “mediocre” (51 out of 100 points), demonstrating a downward trend in ratings compared to the previous year. This likely reflects a systemic lack of media literacy training in the Czech school system, in both the school curriculum and staff training.
For example, 50 per cent of the teaching staff were not able to differentiate between PR articles and news, or considered news portals of dubious quality (such as the political tabloid Parlamentí listy) to be a genuine source of information.
Young people bypassing the old system
Political determination to support long-term reforms is required to improve the dire situation of media literacy in the Czech education system. Until then, it will be necessary to rely on the creativity and commitment of individual teachers, experts and civil activists.
However, as this article shows, there have already been a number of innovative approaches designed to increase resilience to online disinformation and manipulation.
It is important to note that a number of Czech initiatives to fill this gap in media literacy education have been launched by young people themselves. Considering that students are personally impacted by the shortcomings in the educational system, they are, arguably, best positioned to properly address them.
Moreover, as they prepare lessons for their peers, they are able to “speak their language” and create an engaging environment. As digitally savvy users of the latest information technologies, they are also up-to-date with the latest developments and can incorporate this knowledge in their lessons.
To effectively launch these new initiatives, young people also need a proper framework and support. In the Czech Republic, this space has been provided by the Faculty of Social Science at the Masaryk University, and in particular, by the leading disinformation researchers Petra Mlejnková and Miloš Gregor. Under their supervision, students took part in the so-called P2P Competition: A Facebook Global Digital Challenge seeking to engage university students to create social media campaigns and offline strategies to tackle hateful and extremist narratives.
Two projects, originally launched at the Masaryk University, eventually transformed into independent non-governmental organisations that are still active. They are described below.
Zvol si info (Choose your info)
The Zvol si info explained on their website why they started this project: “We are a group of students from the Masaryk University, who said to themselves in the autumn of 2016, “Enough!” and founded the Zvol is info project. We didn’t like watching smart brains being filled up with stupid (dis)information.”
This statement explained students’ motivations to band together and tackle disinformation aimed at their generation. Students first conducted research focused on media consumption among youth and found that up to 70 per cent of respondents got their information from Facebook and a fifth of them was unconcerned about the original source of the article they were reading.
Their next step was the creation of a media manual, the Surfer’s Guide to the Internet, which helped young people navigate the overwhelming quantity of information flooded towards them. The strength of the manual is in its simplicity. It focuses on five basic, yet crucial points: the reliability of the source, presence of blaming and labelling, inventing facts, manipulation by images and emotional appeal.
The manual served as the foundation for workshops conducted mainly at high schools which focused on information verification and developing critical thinking skills. The content of the workshop was customised for the target group. For example, in lessons for younger students, the emphasis was also placed on security principles of the online environment, while for older students their pre-existing knowledge of psychology, media or politics was utilised.
The key principle of these workshops was the independence of students. Instead of using lecturers to convince participants what to read or whom to believe, students themselves were encouraged to take part in exercises to develop their own critical thinking skills. Since the project was launched three years ago, workshops have been organised in more than 80 cities in various parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia for almost 20 thousand students.
Members of the project team also wrote a book called Nejlepší kniha o fake news, dezinformacích a manipulacích!!! (The Best Book about Fake News, Disinformation and Manipulation!!!) that presented the topic of online manipulation and information disorder in an approachable way for non-expert public. It was also released as an audiobook and a thousand copies were freely distributed to schools, hospitals and other institutions.
The initiative Zvol si info continues to grow and introduce new activities. Recently it presented a mobile game Infosaurus which combines a simple arcade adventure with quizzes related to topics of conspiracy theories, social networks or media. Its latest project was an updated version of the Surfer’s Guide, this time focused solely on social media.
Another project launched by the students of the Masaryk University in 2018 was based on the fact that interactive ways of teaching and gamification tend to be effective within the respective age groups. Therefore students designed a workshop combining a board and an escape game. Using these cooperation-based activities, students learned how to spot online manipulation.
The topic of the first Fakescape game was a disinformation campaign related to a fictional presidential election. The game consisted of tasks such as verification of political programs and statements of particular candidates or media coverage of the campaign.
By choosing this set-up, authors not only enhanced the critical thinking of students but also increased awareness of political mechanisms and the basic duties of democratic citizens.
The second Fakescape game was focused on younger students and, consequently, also used a lighter topic, specifically of a zombie apocalypse. To save the planet from the apocalypse students had to recognise online manipulation. This game was successful also thanks to the Czech YouTuber LukeFry who mentioned it on his Instagram and created a cover video for the game.
The dynamic Fakescape team also utilised the closure of the Czech schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and launched an online project called Co-víš19 which focused on media literacy. To advance to the next levels of this challenge, participants had to fulfil different tasks enhancing media literacy and critical thinking. The best three participants from each category won prizes such as vouchers for books from companies supporting the project.
More than 14,000 students in 100 Czech cities played these Fakespace games. The project founders also organised presentations in 11 countries where they played the English version of their games, making these Czech initiatives international.
Youth, speak up!
Media literacy is the key to helping societies become increasingly resilient to disinformation and help them navigate today’s complex information environment. Adjusting the current education system to this new reality is a long-term project, requiring substantial reforms and innovation.
Unfortunately, the majority of governments in Central and Eastern Europe are not able (or even possibly unwilling) to be proactive in this regard. Similarly, if teachers themselves are unwilling to adopt new ideas, it is an obstacle for this educational area.
The need for civil society to take a stand is clear. Fortunately, a number of non-governmental organisations are focusing on this issue and, at least partially, fill the role that should be played by the education system. Among them, the most inspirational and energetic are grass-roots initiatives that were launched by students themselves described above.
Projects like Fakescape and Zvol si info demonstrate that even small scale initiatives can grow, reach thousands of young people and uncover unexpected methods of student engagement, motivation, and education.
While the younger generation is vulnerable to disinformation due to their “limited life experiences” they are also valuable participants in the conversation concerning the key challenges coming from the dynamic ongoing transformation of the information environment.
Julie Vinklová is a Project Assistant at Prague Security Studies Institute and a member of the Fakescape team.
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. A Russian version of this article is available on Reform.by.