Disclaimer: The debate has been freely translated by the redaction with the aim to catch the main ideas of the speakers. For the citation, please ask redaction for the authentic Czech version.
On 26th April 2022 the Faculty of Law, Palacký University in Olomouc hosted a round table entitled „Spreading Disinformation in the Cyberspace and Mass Media as the Tools of Russian Propaganda and Defence Against it”. The event was organized under the umbrella of Jean Monnet Network: European Union and the Challenges of Modern Society which is implementing the project „Legal Issues of Digitalization, Robotization, Cyber Security and Prevention of Hybrid Threats“, and under co-organization with the Czech Association of European Studies.
The round table was joined by Miroslav Karas, the director of Czech Television Ostrava and former rapporteur of Czech TV in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. The event was moderated by the Head of Jean Monnet Network and Chair of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, Head of the Czech Association of European Studies Naděžda Šišková, who is an expert on the EU law, and Blaka Vítová from the Faculty of Law, Palacký University in Olomouc, who opened the event. Also, Naděžda Šišková welcomed all present and highlighted, that it is not an academic debate, but rather an event open for sharing personal experiences with disinformation and propaganda. The aim is to highlight some issues including the methods of disinformation of propaganda, censorship, cyberspace, propaganda outreach, and how to defend against disinformation and propaganda. During the initial question, she asked Miroslav Karas about how different is to work as a journalist in Russia in comparison with other European countries? And how works censorship in Russia?
Miroslav Karas: This is a very interesting and necessary topic, which is linked to our daily work. Frankly speaking, the difference is very significant. Russia is having a problem in providing information. Personally, I have personally witnessed several cases where the official information is not available. This is because “strongmen” are not available, they have hidden phone numbers, they demand questions in advance (usually also via FAX) and when contacted, they focus on: “why are you asking them?”. In Czechia, Poland, Slovakia… you are at least receiving some answers and spokesmen are reacting very fast. This is not the case in Russian Federation, where is difficult to find responses even to very simple questions. Second, in Russia the regime is often preventing you to call issues in the correct way. It is evident in relation to Ukraine: Russia is not allowing to use of the word “war” or “invasion” as you might face criminal charges for it. Another level is an intentional lie, which is the all-present issue that might be well documented in the case of the Chernobyl, Kursk accident, siege of Dubrovka theatre, during the event when commando attacked Beslan school – where more than a hundred children died without any explanation why – and many other cases including fights in Ukraine. Lies are becoming an official and purposefully used tool by the highest Russian institutions. In other words, you have no chance to get an official response to anything and you meet official lies presented as truth by state institutions. For example, journalists now are not allowed to use information that is not officially delivered by the press department of the Russian Ministry of Defence. It is insane to hear the arguments, that Russia is protecting peace and not mention the war in Ukraine. Claiming that Europe is not thankful to Russia for liberation, that they are protecting itself and Ukraine against fascism and invasion of foreign armies. It is hard to work in a country, where terms are false and do not correspond to reality. And it does not matter if you work for Putin or against, because the war – the human suffering – is having only one term.
Naděžda Šišková: The man can notice regular patterns on the Russian TV. The propaganda in Russia has developed over the decades. They are using several methods including the Goebbels rule, that 1000 repeated lies is becoming truth. Second, the rule 40:60, mixing truthful information with disinformation, half-truths end other malicious content, which is changing narratives of information and its directions. For example, Russians in Mariupol attacked the maternity hospital by firing rockets – which shocked the World. In this case, they admitted that they fired rockets, but denied that it was a maternity hospital. Instead, it was presented as a military base of Ukrainian fascist radicals. Moreover, they claimed, that hurt pregnant women are hired actors. This is shockingly cynical, as some of the women died with the baby. Another method is “Ne isklyucheno” (in Russian: не исключено; in English „it is not excluded”). In other words, it is not excluded, that there are some other versions or that there are doubts, which are making other versions also possible. A good example is the shutdown of the Malaysian Airlines flight HM17 over separatist territory. Despite the incident being organized by the colonel Igor Strelkov (Girkin), on the Russian TV they invited a general who draw some trajectory of the flight and added some technical information about it, claiming that other versions are possible. This resulted in doubts among viewers, which were further raised by the moderator who stressed, that it is not the first case when “the West” is trying to damage the image of Russia. Another method is the “False flag” operation. If Russia is having some intent, it starts in advance to blame another side for doing it just to cover its own intention and justify its actions. This is the case of (unreal) genocide of Russians in Donbas or the issue of (in fact non-existent) biological laboratories in Ukraine where allegedly the USA is together with Ukraine developing biologica and chemical weapons. As a result, people are under influence of this method indoctrinated and blindly believe the propaganda. They are losing critical thinking and are so-called “Zombierated”. This includes also the use of symbols. For example, the symbol “Z” is (it is a label for the groups of forces Z = Zapad, V = Vychod), but in Ukraine, people label it as “Z” (Zvirstva = atrocieites).
Naděžda ŠIšková: In russian propaganda evan the reasons for invasion to Ukraine are the objects of the strong disinformation. Namely, Russia is claiming to have three reasons for invading Ukraine: it is “Denazification”, “Demilitarization” and to stop “Genocide”. What do you think about it?
Miroslav Karas: It is a very hard issue, including for Russian propaganda. In 2012 when working in Russia, there were anti-Ukrainian tendencies, but also tendencies against Georgia and all other former parts of the Soviet Union. When Putin came up with the statement, that the most significant geopolitical tragedy was the collapse of the Soviet Union, probably at this point he started to develop the idea to renew the Union. It is hard to claim it because nobody knows what is on Putin’s mind. However, I don’t agree with the statement, that Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is an opinion presented also in Prague at the Castle (seat of the President) and under it (seat of the Chamber of Deputies). This is not true, because the Soviet Union is present in the minds of the Russian elite: we are flying to space, we are a superpower. But Russians felt nostalgia for the Soviet Union. This is the first part of my answer, why Putin has decided to invade Ukraine.
Second, all tendencies going apart from Kremlin are seen as a treason. Czechs are traitors because they went to the EU and NATO. Contrary to our gratitude for “liberation” (1945 and 1968) we betrayed them and instead of staying with them, we go to the “West”. The Kremlin may be accepted this, but is very sensitive about all former states of the Soviet Union and the thorn in the heel is mainly in the Baltic states. But when something happened in Georgia, the army arrived. Since 2014 I went often to Crimea and Donbas. In 2015 I have spend several months on rebelling territory and some months on the side of Ukraine. But what kind of genocide they are talking about? The territory belonged to them since 2014. It is Russia that is supplying weapons to insurgents! It is Russia that is violating the Minsk agreement! It is Russia that is preventing the Minsk agreement from being implemented! What kind of genocide they are talking about when Russia is having 300-400 km borderline under control? I have been in several months directly in Donetsk, and I have seen fights in some parts. I have experienced the fight of Debaltseve, I was in the place of the plane crash, and the place of the alleged missile shoot-out, which is still restricted by the separatists. I have seen debris from the plane about which they were lying. To sum up, Russia is planting seeds from which conspiracies grow which are used by Russian propaganda, at least since 2014. It was evident that after accepting the independence of two separatist republics, the “brothers’ help” will arrive soon. There were growing claims, that there is no Ukrainian nation, no Ukrainian citizenship, no Ukrainian langue, and no right of Ukraine for self-determination. Russians are living for years in this propaganda, and they don’t expect anything else, they are not seeing any alternative. Russians don’t search for alternatives, they just believe, that all on the TV is truth. Even here in Czechoslovakia: “It was said on the TV so it is true”. But there is a difference between people living in Moscow and on the periphery, where people have often one available channel – the first channel, Rossia24. Then you hear there a story about a young boy – a soldier who is celebrated because he liberated a village in Ukraine from fascism. The people appreciate that, saying “Молодец!“ (Maladec). The boy is appreciated as a hero because he did so as the grandpa. It is a misuse of fascism in the propaganda for imperial purposes. Nobody denies that Red army liberated huge part of Europe. This is a fact nobody undermines. However, it is the Russian side that is accusing others of destroying this idea. But that a Russian soldier, is coming to Ukraine, not invited, as a thief and murderer, means not that he is coming there to fight fascism. It is a misuse of something, which is sacred to Russia. The 9th of May (in the Russian language День Победы – Den Pobedy) is the greatest holiday in Russia. The Russian is very sensitive to the word fascism. The 27 million lost lives made the word “fascism” sacred. That is why they believe that the use of the world in relation to Ukraine is truthful because is sacred. That is the misuse of the word “fascism”. Until the war, there was no genocide in Donbas, contrary to Ukrainian cities like Bucha. Because the western countries can do self-reflection, as a result, they are unable to agree on whether genocide was committed in Ukraine. Russia, due to lack of reflection, is able to label issues without any doubts and proof. As a journalist labelled them as the news from the agency “OWTS” = One Woman Told So”. Now, this is the core of contemporary Russian journalism. Russia is well in it. Russian journalists in a state-controlled media are following orders. Finally, I am persuaded, that propaganda is used by both sides during the war and both sides are using lies. However, there are more kinds of lies. There is a lie, which is linked to some higher moral norms. Ukrainian media and Ukrainian propaganda also work. For example, statistics of destroyed Russian tanks, airplanes, and vehicles. However, on the other side, there is hostile propaganda claiming, that Ukrainians are destroying their own homes to get more money from the West. In Mariupol, Russian propaganda is talking about liberation from fascism and help to the civilians, but not mentioning about a hundred bombs on the city. I have seen many dead bodies, of women and children too, but I have never imagined, that Russian propaganda will turn so rigid and will be so easily consumed. That people will believe that Ukrainians destroyed their country themselves and that Russia is only helping. Even decent and educated people in Russia are competing who will succeed in buying a t-shirt with the Z symbol. It is different to lie in order to raise the morale of the nation to defend, and it is different to lie to kill and destroy foreign territory. In total 82 % of Russians believes that Russia is fighting for World peace otherwise USA would invade Ukraine and that Ukrainians are destroying their homes themselves. For me, it is a confirmation that Russian propaganda works hard and is effective. People are proud, that their leader is fighting for peace. They have some clue, about what is going on in Ukraine, but they believe that “It is right and it shall be so”. On the other side, they do not believe negative information: “Voloďa, this is not true, because our soldier would never do so”. And so, who destroyed half of Ukraine?
Naďěžda Šišková: Mr. Karas put excellent comments regarding the real reason for war. I just would like to add some other real reasons why Putin decided to invade to Ukraine. Besides the already mentioned and to the well-known statement of Putin, that it is interesting that one week before the invasion, he made in his speech reference, that we are living in the country (Russia) in which 40 % of its territory in situated in another countries. And there was a strong connotation that it is necessary to do something with it. As Mr. Karas noticed, also other states shall worry about their security, because it is not just about Ukraine, as 40 % of the territory is calculated from territories of other states too. Second, Putin is also afraid, that people in Russia will try to follow Ukraine and will demand constitutional rights: free and fair elections, the right to a fair trial, etc. which is absent in Russia. Putin often stresses “colour revolutions”, “Maidans” and similar unrest, which is strengthened by the example of Belarus, where protests were hardly suppressed. The third reason is seemingly not important, but it works in Russia, that Putin tried to increase his popularity. Prior to the invasion, it was 62 %, now it is 85 %. It is paradoxical, that crimes committed by the Russian army are contributing to the popularity of Putin who is seen and appreciated as a strong leader. There are, however, other two supportive reasons.
First, the Russian Army commanders were stealing a lot of property and finances, and war (similarly as it was done in Chechnya) helped to hide stolen property and delete records. This is the case of two highly ranked officials from the Russian Ministry of defence who have stolen property of 8 billion RUB, in total, is ¼ of the military budget. Foreign experts were surprised, that they expected 21. century war. Instead, Soviet-era tanks arrived, some even from the Second World War. This made Putin angry, and he decided to remove many officers to the home arrest. The stolen money was transferred abroad and invested into the luxurious property. These people prior to the invasion started to claim, that attack on Ukraine will be instant and war will end in days. Thanks to this, Putin counted on a successful blitzkrieg, and even troops were equipped with a little food supplies and parade uniforms for the celebration 1st of March in the occupied Kyiv.
Another reason is linked to the anti-maidan preparation under the directory of Sergei Beseda, the FSB general. This shall have resulted in a whole-nation uprising against the legitimate government in Ukraine. He received 10 billion rubles and informed Kremlin, that everything is prepared, that is just about to sit in the tanks and drive to Kyiv where soldiers will be welcomed. Also, the member of the Ukrainian Parliament Viktor Medvedchuk was entrusted to create the fifth column and spread pro-Russian narratives on one side and criticize Ukrainian leadership on the other. According to the Ukrainian resources he had stolen the money and started to act as an initiator of the war. There are some other issues. Paradoxically, also Putin becomes a victim of his own propaganda. He cannot work with the internet or social networks and is thus addicted to Russian media and what people under him tell. Many resources claim, that in the last days he listened only to what he wanted to listen.
These are the true and real reasons which lead to Russian invasion to Ukraine.
On the contrary, the Kremlin uses its own untrue arguments for war. The rather mysterious term “Denazification” is absurd, because there are no Nazis in Ukraine and many people don’t know what to understand this term. Last week, Putin make an unintentional disclaimer by saying “Denationalization” which might be understood in the terms of depriving Ukrainians of their identity. In other words, on how to make from Ukrainians Russians. It is visible in the case of Mariupol: people who are hardly evacuated end up in Russia, against their will, without the right to return. On the Ukrainian TV there was a family from there, having two daughters. One was an adult, working for the state administration in Kiev. These people were told by Russian authorities, that they “already brought up one Nazi, so the second daughter will be placed into the Russian family for proper education”.
The second reason, “Demilitarization” does not need any comment. Putin would welcome no weapons in Ukraine so they can attack unarmed people. This is also the case of stopping genocide. Here I would like to raise to points. First, Putin claims, that people in eastern Ukraine who are starting to speak the Russian language may be considered Russians. This is not true, because those people refer to themselves as “Ukrainian Russian-speaking Patriots” who are speaking Russian for practical reasons. Those cities are close to the borders and due to commerce, it is easier to talk in one langue than using two. Today, operations are focusing on the east of the country. Kharkiv, located just 30 kilometres from the borders, is shelled every day since the first day of the war and looks very similar to Mariupol. Russians were not coming to liberate, they come to conquer. Moreover, resistance is driving them to more angriness against civilian targets. To conclude, the reasons on the Kremlin side are all false.
Naděžda Šišková: Now, I would like to ask questions regarding cyberspace. Do you have any experience? For example, how does the methods of propaganda differ in cyberspace, on the internet in Russia?
Miroslav Karas: Just very briefly. I am of the opinion that since the early stage of the conflict there is a Russian-led fight in cyberspace. This is done with the help of social networks, which were not present during the Chechen wars or Afghanistan. Russians found their weapon in banning Facebook or the Telegram or anything which can spread different information. At the same time, they are fighting with us, with the civilized Western word: including Europe. There many IT experts are working for them. They have followers and supporters on the territory of “betraying states”, who are helping them. The fight against it is very hard and nobody found an effective answer. It is not about closing something; it is not a claim against the claim or so. I will give you one concrete example. A few days ago, there was disinformation that on the Belarus borders, there are standing poor Poles and Lithuanians, who are so hungry, that they ask people to throw them some porridge and water. This stupid lie is spread all over the Russian media ecosystem and the result is, that people believe that we are so hurt by sanctions, that people are hungry begging. “They have what they deserve” is the reaction in Russia. Moreover, Russian methods are not done yet as they have been working on it for years and they are masters in building up the farms of nonsense. Sadly, we cannot defend against it as we know about it since 2014 when approx. 15 thousand people died in Eastern Ukraine. Personally, during the fights over Debaltseve or Ilovajsk, I have seen to a limited degree what you can now witness in Bucha, Mariupol, or elsewhere. I have lived in Mariupol for two months so I know the (former) city well. And in Russia, those 80 percent believe that Ukrainians destroyed the city themselves. Even here (in the Czech Republic) I have met people who were persuaded, that it is a guild of Ukrainians because they are taking people as hostages and they make human shields from them. We shall not surrender those lies – and there is a direct link to the pandemics – as there is an increasing number of people supporting conspiracy theories and admiration of the Russian forces. I am afraid that those people will be appreciated by many others. I will give you another example: I met in Russia people, who served in the Soviet army. It was in 2018 and those men have arrived on the second and third planes in August 1968 to Prague. One of them was a commander, a former Duma member, who told in a news report from the Vaclav Square in front of the National Museum: “There was a man beyond the window in a gun post, and the gunman was killing many my people”. I have replied: “And wasn’t it the opposite?”. Because nothing is known about many dead Soviet soldiers, there is evidence about many dead Czechoslovaks. So I have asked him, what happened next? He said, that he called his tank and they killed the gunman with a single shot. He said: “You know, it is hard to talk about it with you. You don’t understand it, because you betrayed us, so you don’t understand that we have saved the World’s peace”. And then he continued, that without the brother’s help, it would be the Bundeswehr and NATO coming, which was already standing on the borders, prepared to take secret storage in Czechoslovakia located from Příbram to Beroun, refill and go directly to Moscow. Against such opinions, it is impossible to argue. Similar low arguments are using by the current Russian regime against Ukraine: Nazism, Fascism but mainly the World Peace. When I hear reference to what might be labelled as Putin’s doctrine, that Russia will protect the health and life of a single Russian, who is anywhere. There was a quoter of million Russians in Berlin, approx. 40 thousands in Czechia and so on. In absurdum, it is possible to take five Russians and due to some concerns invite Russian Federation to intervene. In this situation, security concerns are legitimate as this is not the case with World peace implementation. In relation to Ukraine, it is evident, that something is very wrong with the Russian regime. You may label me as a Russophobe or an opponent of Putin, but I don’t care of it. I have seen, hear, and felt the acts of the regime in Crimea, on Donbas, and in many other places. I have not expected that they will be so stupid and bombard Kyiv. I did not believe my friend who warned me. And one week later, they really started to drop bombs and that they can invade an innocent country without any reason. It is a similar situation as follows. A wife with the name Ukraine is divorced from her husband called Moscow. She succeeded in finding a new partner. Moscow started to disagree about her new relationship, blackmail her, and finally hits her with fists in the face. This is the Kremlin’s attitude towards the World. This is something unacceptable, that a former wife is beaten. And it is an allegory of the current Kremlin regime.
Naděžda Šišková: We are running out of the time so I would like to recommend you a book by Jessikka Aro – Putin’s Trolls: On the Frontlines of Russia’s Disinformation War Against the World. She is well describing the system on how regularly employed people in St. Petersburg are creating and spreading disinformation and propaganda. Working in sections, they are targeting various countries using language mutations. She is also dealing with the preparation of such people, including the education system. It is important to mention that she considers disinformation as a very cheap and effective weapon against the people who feel excluded and are not successful in life. She is well describing how trolls are creating false accounts and are pretending to be nationals of the target states. It is paradox, that even big companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter had profited from it, due to controversial content attracting attention. This was responded to by the EU which initiated Digital Service Act and it is good news, that last week there was an agreement between the European Parliament and the member states. As a result, it will be soon approved, that providers shall delete malicious content including hostile propaganda. As noted by the European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager – responsible for preparing the draft – “what is illegal off-line shall be illegal also online”. Probably you know, that even freedoms can be limited due to national security as mentioned in the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. Until now, cyberspace was not covered which will change soon.
It is interesting, that many people consuming Russian propaganda are not aware of it. They think that they are reading Czech or Slovak webs. For example, last week I talked to my colleague from Slovakia. He claimed, that Zelensky is responsible for the war because he does not negotiate with Putin. I tried to explain to him that it is not true and that it cannot be a reason for war. But he insisted, that though, Zelensky is responsible. It is a trolling method, to post in the conversation a comment trying to change the narrative. For example, last week I delivered an interview to Novinky.cz, and under the article, there was a discussion. Someone posted a comment like “I really don’t understand Ukrainians. Why Zelensky does not negotiate with Putin”. Similar posts appear elsewhere in many countries. Moreover, algorithms can spread it like an avalanche. Another interesting piece of information is from the survey revealing that approx. 40 % of Slovaks claim, that NATO is responsible for the war. On one hand, Putin is an evident, undisputable aggressor, but many people believe, that NATO is the real problem. Those people then spread Kremlin propaganda and are supporting the war machinery. There is no such survey in the Czech Republic, but we can expect similar results. I would like to stress, that war is not in our interest. It is not in interest of any person except Putin. In this war Ukrainians are living in hell on Earth, it is even not in the interest of Russians, because they might expect the downfall of living standards and it is not in the interest of Russian mothers, who are losing their sons. It is not in the interest of oligarchs who are losing business nor the Russian generals too, because they already know, that they cannot win. As noted by russian historian Zubov, in fact, the war is fought to keep Putin ruling. It is Putin’s war. It is hard to estimate, how long he will rule because this year he will be 70 years old. We are not directly involved in the war, but the effects are very visible. Apart from the migration crisis, there is also a high inflation rate and energy crisis. Effects are spreading to other areas as well. As rightly stressed by President Biden, it is not acceptable that Americans are paying more for food and transportation just because Putin decided for war. Putin is making the whole World unstable: Ukraine was feeding 440 million people Worldwide, importing grain to Egypt, the Arab world, and to Africa, where we can expect poverty and famine. Also, the World Bank is expecting a rise in food prices by 43 % this year. It is our shared interest to end this war as soon as possible.
Miroslav Karas: Nobody is having a good recipe on how to defend against disinformation. However, it is necessary to use mind, and decency and try to find rational facts and not to search for conspiracy theories and support villains. Maybe it would be helpful to explain to the Kremlin what it means “Pacta sunt servanda”. We can conclude, that not following these rules is leading to the mess and atrocities, behind which you can find Vladimir Putin. It is necessary to trust people who were there, who saw the events, and who have personal experience. For example, today, I have argued with a man, who claimed that during the referendum on Crimea it was the nicest thing to observe families with strollers walking to vote for joining Russia. Contrary to that man, I was there, and I have seen submachine gun barrels. I personally know how to protect: I don’t believe such stupidities, may be based on the absence of knowledge or subordination to some unhealthy reasons. Naděžda Šišková. The main advice is not to close yourself in your bubble. There are excellent portals such as Bellingcat, which is working with the public and verified information to support evidence. Thanks to this approach they have discovered who is really behind MH 17 airplane shut down, they have triggered Mishkin and Chepiga who poisoned Skripal or blew up Vrbětice ammunition depot. Eliot Higgins published an excellent book about it. In the Czech Republic, we have good servers too, including Manipulatori.cz or Braňme Česko initiative. And what Miroslav Karas noted, we shall use our head and ask questions: for what purpose this information is being spread? Is it in favour of Putin or is there some different purpose? It is well-advised to use such techniques to fight disinformation and propaganda and then you will succeed.