Czech institute for politics and society (IPS) in cooperation with Centre for Security Analyses and Prevention organized very interesting public debate about hybrid threats. The debate was moderated by Roman Máca, an analyst from the IPS who welcomed several speakers including Robert Králíček, chair of the Permanent commission for hybrid threats, Chamber of Deputies, the Parliament of the Czech Republic; Helena Langšádlová, member of the Permanent commission for the hybrid threats and also member of the Czech Parliament, Jan Havránek who works as the deputy director at the Section for defence policy and strategy at the Czech Ministry of defence; Alžběta Bajerová – an analyst at Research Centre of AMO (Association for International Affairs); and Julie Buzalková from the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats of the Czech Ministry of Interior.
Helena Langšádlová delivered the initial word in which she stressed that the change we live in the context of hybrid threats is very serious because it is threatening the political domain. She stressed that the disinformation which started to spread after 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, had impact on the decision-making. She said that today we are in a situation when spread of disinformation or cyber-attacks are directly linked to the health crisis we are facing. She provided information that the number of cyber-attacks against hospital increased in the last year by one third. However, also disinformation scene is according to her more active as next to the existing narratives there are developed new ones about covid-19. For example, where Covid-19 was created, who is behind it – powerful people, rich people, it is a conspiracy of Soros, Bill Gates … and that you will be chipped during the tests. We can even maybe laugh to some of the narratives, but we simply cannot. She mentioned study of the FOCUS research conducted in Slovakia, that these narratives are believed by high percentage of population. She was afraid that similar research would bring very similar results in the Czech Republic. Personally, she considers most dangerous disinformation regarding vaccination because vaccination is now the only tool how we can defend against the pandemic.
Julie Buzalková approved the words of the previous speaker and tried to add some point of the Ministry of interior. Pandemics has been accompanied (according to WHO) by “Infodemics” – it means that medial space was filled by one topic and this is the case for main-stream media and “alternative” media as well. It is simply global phenomenon. Another thing is much greater activity of some international actors – especially Peoples Republic of China – which was very visible during the spring. China was very active to manage information about the origin of the virus. Russia was also very active. She mentioned also another issue that we can observe stable narratives in the “alternative media”: for example, that we are ruled by hostile elites, same people were demonised, the final goal of elites is war or extermination of people. According to her opinion if you simply replace the word “covid-19” by the world “migrant” we have basically same “news” as from the 2015/2016. Emotional response is same. In this sense it is very necessary to secure democratic process. For example, protection of the constitution, rule of law, human rights. Then it is necessary to prevent information vacuum: when state authorities are not communicating there is information vacuum allowing spread of disinformation. Lastly, it is necessary to address hostile activities of foreign actors which are damaging internal and external interests of the Czech Republic.
Alžběta Bajerová added that hybrid threats or information threats related to pandemics are not new nor is its infrastructure. Disinformation webs are not producing higher quantity of disinformation. The impact has been created by the fact that all webs started to focus on one topic. Authors of disinformation are using the absolute attention of people and are using it to promote their agenda: you can not trust to your government, you cannot trust to the EU etc. However, she stressed that there are also different issues: during the crisis trust in public institutions is especially important and that is why undermining effect of disinformation is more acute than during normal times. When government is not communicating well, then there is a cumulative effect and absence of trust is having real impact. Pandemics did not change mechanisms of hybrid threats but highlighted it. There are three lessons we can learn: 1) During the crisis people are more frequently focusing on alternative sources. For example, during the spring period people were more frequently searching information about the Covid-19: how it is spread, how serious the is the illness and official resources were unfortunately not available because these information were not discovered yet. Searching for alternative sources increased their penetrability into the mainstream. 2) The pandemic showed that paradoxically biggest spreader of disinformation are mainstream sources. Three independent research reports from Oxford, Harvard and King’s college confirmed that disinformation are spread mainly by politicians, due to calculus or believe, and mainstream media worked not well with this information. However, the research is based on data from the Western Europe and thus similar research focusing on Central Europe would be welcomed. 3) Demonstration against measures taken by the government showed, that it is possible to mobilize some segment of the public to act destructively. Similar situation is in the UK where people are damaging 5G signal transmitters because they believe it is harmful. To sum up: the hybrid threats are not new, but this new wave has more serious impact on population, especially when supported by ineffective communication by the government.
Robert Králíček mentioned, that the notion “hybrid threats” is a neologism, but in fact hybrid threats are here very long time. According to him the notion “hybrid” merely referees to its transfer to the internet or to the on-line world. Before we had also lies, insinuations or tabloid media with the aim to invoke some emotions to get profit. He mentioned, that all people have some authority they trust and experts say that regarding information you trust your family and then public expert authorities. Also, in the terms of cyber security – the weakest point in the system is a human, because humans are not driven by algorithms but there are also emotions which are misused by the people who spread disinformation. Regarding 5G networks – it is only about emotions and what people believes. That is why it is necessary to work with expert authorities who are well known, trustworthy and who will contribute to the fight against disinformation. Mr. Králíček pointed out, that from every crisis you can learn lessons. In the case of cybersecurity one of the best countries is Israel, because the crisis is permanent there. Covid pandemics is first serious crisis in Europe since the World War II and that is why it is necessary to take lesson.
Roman Máca asked a question about the role of radical activists in the Czech Republic. He said that people who were formerly supported by the Russian Federation and who previously fought against removing the statue of Ivan Stepanovic Konev or were promoting exit from NATO, they are now fighting against veils and vaccination. Even yesterday in front of the Parliament there were speakers claiming that the state of emergency means that we will be forced to go into the war with Russia. Moreover, he mentioned that we have here also activist that goes somewhere with a megaphone and scream that “They want to kill our children” or “They want to chip us” and then they ask for financial contributions for their “investigative” activities. How to look at these people? Are they risk for the society? Because they are like influencers of the society and they work with disinformation to mobilize people.
Julie Buzalková said that radical activists have greater role today due to easier access to media. Without social networks the opinions of these people would have been at the periphery of the public space. Today, communication might be spread artificially with amplification to have greater impact. During the autumn last year, Ministry of Interior made research (available at the websites) where authors tried to map trust in pro-Kremlin narratives and have really discovered that the situation is serious. For example, more than 60 % of population believes that “EU dictates to the Czech Republic what to do”. Very similar it is in relation to other narratives. It means that great part of the society is accepting pro-Kremlin narratives. What is also important according to Ms. Buzalková is that significant percentage of people “Don’t know” which is linked to the communication vacuum. For example, approx. 30 % of Czechs they don’t know what to think about the narrative that “occupation of Crimea and Russian activities in the Eastern Ukraine were just the defence of the Russian interests”. Regarding migration: about 20 % of people “don’t know” whether the government is classifying some information about the number of migrants. It means that significant part of the society doesn’t know what to believe.
Helena Langšádlová added that there were more research reports published about this topic. For example, Prague Securities Studies Institute published an alarming report that high percentage of population believes in unbelievable narratives and this shall be taken seriously. Then she highlighted the public survey made by STEM that discovered, that approx. 1 % of people are participating in spreading disinformation which is according to Ms. Langšádlová significant number. She also said that we cannot forget that this health crisis will have significant impact on economy. Economic crisis then leads to political crisis and that is why it is necessary to be prepared for very sensitive communication not to create new problems next to the problems that coronavirus did. It is necessary to admit that the communication of government is not ideal. As Mr. Máca mentioned, she also said that some narratives are external, but we have also many internal narratives spread by “useful idiots”. Due to algorithms the impact is serious. This with combination that people already believe in disinformation might lead to radicalization and it is necessary to approach it carefully.
Robert Králíček said that activists are sending everyday threats by e-mail to the members of parliament. According to him it is necessary to mention that the Czech Republic is between East and West and for very long time we were under the influence of Russia. However, in 1989 we have clearly decided and set the course on West. We shall keep this course because we can offer much to the World. He said that maybe it will be sound strange: but we focus too much on what is the truth and what is the lie. Where I see the weakness of communication is the use of public authorities. It is hard for politicians to persuade people because Covid-19 become political issue all around the World. Even in the parliament Covid-19 is political issue due to interaction between government and opposition. Finally, only little attention is put at the core and it is necessary to use public authorities to increase trust of people. Yes, the government is making mistakes, but according to Mr. Králíček it is necessary to admit that there was no situation like this before. We cannot simply try what would have been activities of the different government. Government will be always criticised. Lastly, he agreed with Helena Langšádlová that communication shall be improved, and he hoped that during the new year there will be successful launch of a campaign to fight disinformation on Covid-19.
Roman Máca had a question on Alžběta Bajerová regarding problematic information or people. Despite professional strategic communication there will be always some famous people entering the space. For example, Ilona Csáková (Czech singer) wrote, that she will “not let herself chipped”, then we have Janek Ledecký, Bára Basiková and others. Even Karel Gott once spoke about “the rule of illuminates”. Don’t these people have greater impact than some disinformation web like Aeronet (Infamous Czech disinformation web) or so?
Alžběta Bajerová agreed with Mr. Máca. She said that in this case they spread disinformation because of their believe, not with the purpose to provide disinformation and disinform the society. Their opinions are already a consequence of disinformation campaign which is mirroring existing trend to involve famous people or influencers. It is one of the most effective way as they will spread the disinformation among their fans. We can observe the rise of influencers who are paid from abroad or the use of “useful idiots” who are indoctrinated by non-authentic foreign accounts. For example, REUTERS discovered that in the USA there were pro-republican influencers who spread compilation theories based on their believes. We must prepare that disinformation will be not spread by the anonymous botnets but will be spread by real people – carefully chosen by people behind disinformation.
Roman Máca said that just few days ago Jaromír Balda (nicknamed as the “first Czech terrorist”) was released from the prison. He is a person who was “brainwashed” with a contribution by Tomio Okamura’s SPD party (also working with disinformation). Now we are entering the stage when vaccination will be debated, and it is interesting to mention that most shared disinformation of Facebook is a statement from 2016 by some Russian professor who claims that the cancer and diabetes are not real diseases. So, it means that disinformation regarding medicine are present very long time here and it is my question: Shall we expect some “second Balda” who will take a gun and go to fight against vaccination and nanochips?
Julike Buzálková said that is hard question and that she cannot exclude the risk. She was not sure how to answer. Then she noted that we have seen cases in abroad where disinformation had impact on behaviour of people. Regarding the large scale Infodemics there is a higher risk. She said, that there is a necessity to communicate and involve people in the decision making.
Robert Králiček added one more case about vaccination. He pointed out that they were debating in the Parliament the issue that vaccination will be paid from public health insurance. Just this single issue. He said that probably also Helena can confirm that they have received hundreds of e-mails that citizens are against compulsory vaccination. But this was not at the table. Some e-mails were threating and terrifying members of the Parliament. It is necessary to communicate this issue by authorities. It was Health Minister Blatný who explained this several times on a TV, but in some cases, he was obviously not successful and is not able to do it without help of public authorities such as artists or academia.
Jan Havránek (who joined discussion later) said that he was very happy about the ongoing debate. The Ministry of defence is preparing strategy to fight hybrid threats and this strategy is almost finished. He informed that the strategy is prepared at the Ministry of defence, but the scope is multi-resort. It is not just defence and security, but it is related to security. The threats are coming from state and non-state actors, from non-governmental and governmental. But they all are interested to use civil tools to harm interests of the Czech Republic. He repeated that disinformation is not new, and they are part of broader political conflict or even wars. Pandemics highlighted the issue of disinformation to all citizens. In history, it was mainly about political orientation of the country, membership in the international organizations etc. However, now disinformation about Covid-19 are very real from the perspective of the citizens. The positive is that people can learn about the nature of hybrid influence. According to Mr. Havránek is necessary that the state can debunk and clarify disinformation in order to prevent erosion of state and public institutions. Current debate on vaccination is good example to demonstrate that there shall be no place for disinformation. He said that we must attack the lies about vaccination, we have to support institutions dealing with vaccination and in this way return to normal life. He believes that the strategy will be approved by the government during the January 2021.
Roman Máca asked also Mr. Havránek about the activists who are organizing demonstrations which might turn into the violence like the recent one on the Old Town Square. Maybe the aggressivity will increase due to upcoming vaccination. There are also people like Balda, who might be dangerous and act under influence of conspiration theories to harm others. He asked Mr. Havránek how does he see the activists who might be activated?
Jan Havránek said that he has full trust in our security forces and intelligence. Active fight against disinformation is a question for him. For example, how our armed forces (Headquarters for Cyber Forces and Information Operations) might be involved in this process by using tools for strategic communication. In the UK armed forces are well integrated in the society and they are participating. However, he said, that we cannot simply start censorship under the excuse of defending plurality of opinions. Nonetheless, when someone purposefully lies and creates own facts, then it is necessary that state can address it.
Roman Máca said that he would like to open the issue of foreign influence. Maybe you know the term “Veil Diplomacy” or “Chinese information influence” reported by the EU that Twitter accounts were attacking Representation of the EU in Italy and spread the content favourable to China. Also, Russia started its campaign against western vaccines – for example about the UK vaccine they claimed that after application people will mutate into a monkey. And it is also visible that anti-corona demonstrations all around the Europe – Germany, UK, France – I see that it is streamed by RT (Russia Today).
Helena Langšádlová said that during the spring wave European Commission recorded around 600 disinformation verifiably originating in Russia and China. It is also possible to mention Chinese propaganda in the Czech Republic when on the veils to schools was a motto, that friendship between China and Czech Republic will last forever. As Robert Králiček said, Russia had here strong influence and they like to use these narratives, also in connection with history. They simply think that they have pretension on the Czech Republic. Moreover, China is booming and is using strong influence. She said that we were talking about what we can do but we do not have infrastructure, capacities, ministries are not prepared for that. It is something extraordinary. She understand that Ministry of health does not have yet a team for strategic communication but because situation is so serious and without vaccination there will be no end of the crisis it is necessary to work and be inspired by the UK where military cooperates well with the society and is possible to use strategic communication. Current crisis will have significant health impacts, life loses abut also economic impacts without smooth vaccination. And that is why she highly appreciate the work of Czech army and the help shall be considered.
Jan Havránek thanked to the madam deputy for her constructive approach. He said that they were talking about it many times but it is not only about Czech Army and the Ministry of Defence, but on the other side he said that he is very happy that people at the Permanent Commission for Hybrid threats are actively dealing with this issue. It is touching the whole society and every citizen, and he said thank you for that.
Roman Máca repeated the question – He was asking about the influence of state actors, about the Chinese veil diplomacy and influence operation. It was also EU StratCom publishing report about misuse of twitter accounts or the influence of Russia to fuel demonstrations. He asked Robert Králíček – what is the most dangerous threat posed by foreign actors?
Robert Králíček said that it was already said here that it is spread of disinformation also with the use of diplomatic tools. However, sometimes we see the problem as too much complex when key tool might be strategic communication to our own citizens. According to Mr. Králíček information literacy shall be part of the new strategy – because it is necessary to focus also on education: from elementary schools to high schools, development of critical thinking, communication. When you gain information, which fits into your opinion then you do not verify it. We can not very information because we were no learned to do that. Moreover, introduction of the e-world was so quick, so we were unable to catch information literacy. He mentioned also that historically, it is very hard to fight some defamation in your environment because it is about emotions. When two people will claim opposite: to whom you will trust about vaccination – to me or to the madam Landšádlová who will claim the opposite? This decision shall be based on education, facts and to consider some other interests. He said that education shall be started quickly because it will require some time than effect will appear.
Roman Máca joked that he really doesn’t know whether to trust madam Langšádlová or Mr. Králíček. He continued, that another uncertainty is brought by doctors themselves who argue each other. Recently it was and argumentation between an Astrophysics and Flat-Earth conspiracy supporter but now we are facing a polarizing debate of professionals.
Robert Králíček said that this is historically natural as even two lawyers will not find same word, even IT specialists may not understand each other because even some personal ambitions may be involved. Generally, it is very hard to say how exactly fight disinformation. We are creating lists of those who spread disinformation but in fact it is insufficient because this list is unable to persuade someone not to believe. We need more education – critical thinking and information literacy. And we need public authorities. He was very sorry that Janek Ledecký (Czech singer) or Ilona Csáková (Czech singer) are spreading opinions supporting disinformation. Because he things that artists are those authorities together with academia or famous doctors. We know and we trust them. The world “hybrid” is for him just the transition to the on-line world, but the essence is known. When a neighbour is accusing you in front of other neighbour that you throw a garbage on his garden then it is hard to explain and defend against.
Roman Máca asked also Julie Buzalková – how bit is problem that doctors argue each other? How is it influencing society? Is it that part of the society trusts to one doctor and second to the another? And what can we do to limit conspirators?
Julie Buzalková said that what Mr. Máca is asking is not fully in the competence of the Ministry of Interior and decided to deliver her opinion. According to her, there is no problem when people debates about solutions of the same problem. Covid-19 is the new issue, the knowledge is developing over time and it is necessary to accept it. Something what we know today may be different in the future. The discussion is here and it is important. For her, it is necessary to accept basic facts. It is impossible to debate when there are different facts – one person believes in flat Earth and second in the round Earth. Then the debate, for example about how to import air traffic would be difficult because of different realities. However, when there are two people who share basic facts, they might disagree, but can offer solutions or compromise. According to her it is necessary to keep debate factual.
Robert Králíček added that vaccination is scientific issue which is having more solutions. Two people can have different attitude and that is why it is hard even work with facts, because there are too many.
Roman Máca said that facebook user Jan Marian is asking a question on Alžběta Bajerová. During the Covid-19 crisis the trust in disinformation media increased and so did trust in media regulated under the public law. Is it correct?
Alžběta Bajerová said that we do not have such data for the Czech Republic. We only know that consummation from any media increased during the first wave. During the pandemic in Italy approx. 90 % of people actualized information, which is extreme number. People accepting information from all resources, so here the answer might be yes.
Roman Máca posed a final question – what each of us can do to fight disinformation in this specific situation? Please answer in one sentence.
Jan Havránek said that to think critically and evaluate all information. It is necessary to think twice before reaching an opinion which will contribute to spread of disinformation.
Julie Buzalková stressed that everyone can talk to family members because different opinions are presented in our families and our social bubbles. It is good to talk with people, ask and provide arguments.
Alžběta Bajerová mentioned that it is necessary to think critically, educate yourself. It is good to know disinformation technics to recognize that we are manipulated.
Helena Langšádlová said that she as a politician will fight for medial education and information literacy. That she was trying it for eight years and that she is happy that she has so many allies today. She said that she will demand Ministry of Health to have better communication and she will demand measures to set up system, capacities and have people prepared to be more resilient.
Robert Králíček said that it is necessary to work carefully with information, verify them and that politicians shall try to work on personal authority people will trust.
Full debate in Czech language might be watched here.