With the constantly evolving landscape of digital information space, the line between authentic news and propaganda is becoming increasingly blurred. Such was the case with the events surrounding the Vrbětice incident in the Czech, which has prompted international focus, investigation, and countermeasures against disinformation.
The Vrbětice Case Study has been a collaboration of the European Values Center for Security Policy (EVC), Europolicy and Gerulata Technologies. The research project was backed by the EMIF and managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Our endeavour is titled, "Vrbětice case study: Effective policies and international cooperation for countering disinformation."
This research aims to scrutinise the intricate disinformation narrative around the Vrbětice incident and offer invaluable insights and recommendations for enhancing international disinformation countermeasures.
After seven years of meticulous investigations into the ammunition depot explosion in Vrbětice, links to Russian operatives and the Skripal poisoning in the UK emerged. This revelation sent shockwaves through Czech and Slovak information domains, with orchestrated disinformation campaigns trying to dilute the official narrative. It shed light on the active participation and influence of pro-Kremlin disinformation networks operating within the two countries.
We employed advanced software tools developed by our team in Gerulata Technologies to undertake a comprehensive mapping of disinformation narratives across CZ and SK information space.
This allowed us to:
Identify primary sources of manipulative content about the Vřbetice case.
Compare and discern patterns of disinformation distribution between the two nations, regardless of their common historical and cultural ties.
Tracking of narratives in time as they spread across the digital information space. With that we were able to follow and analyse their development and what networks of actors helped to disseminate these narratives.
The insights gathered have been pivotal in framing actionable recommendations to neutralise extensive disinformation campaigns, serving as a long-term blueprint to tackle subsequent disinformation threats.
Politicisation: In Czechia, the Vrbice incident has been immensely politicised, with 14 out of the 20 top communicators on social networks being political entities.
The dominance of Ľuboš Blaha: In Slovakia, Slovak politician Ľuboš Blaha completely overshadowed other communicators regarding the Vrbětice case on social platforms.
Altogether he made 12 posts on the topic of Vrbetice during the monitored period of time which were popular on digital platforms and generated over 167 000 interactions.(In comparison Eduard Chmelár, who was the 2nd most successful originator of pro russian narratives of the Vrbetice case created only 4 posts generating over 19 000 interactions.
In one of the narratives Ľuboš Blaha tried to create an impression that there is a brewing conflict in which the Czech Republic and Slovakia would be dragged into due to the alleged approach of NATO troops to the Russian borders:"And now we are expected that we will cheerfully pretend that we didn't notice that the ammunition explosion happened 7 years ago, but right now, in 2021, as NATO forces are moving towards the Russian borders, and believe that it's the Russians to be blamed. Sure. We believe it."
In reality, neither the Czech Republic or Slovakia faced any military conflict or involvement in a war, because the war was being waged by Russia against Ukraine, and it was unlikely that the North Atlantic Alliance would be attacked. Moreover, it is a defensive alliance, and an attack on Russia was therefore out of the question.
Blaha's claim that NATO troops were rushing to the Russian borders was also not true. Only the Russian army was approaching the Russo-Ukrainian borders. Which eventually led to a full scale Russian invasion executed on 24.th of february 2022.
Public Media's Role: Czech Television and its news segment CT24 does not only enjoy substantial trust among citizens, but it is also a dominant digital source of information with big reach and engagement helping Czechs to navigate them in times of cognitive crisis.
Outstanding active digital citizen: Unaffiliated active digital citizen, Karel Paták, who is better known with his blog page Visegradský jezdec became an important source of objective information on the topic of Vrbetice case acting as a voice of reason against influx of disrupting disinformation.
Top Czech Communicator: Tomio Okamura, the leader of the SPD party, stood out as the most influential communicator concerning the Vrbětice case on Facebook in Czechia.
The dominant narrative across both nations aimed to sow doubt over Russian involvement in the depot explosions.
Slovakia exhibited a prevalent narrative that portrayed the Czech Republic as a puppet of the US, Slovakia exhibited a prevalent narrative that portrayed the Czech Republic as a puppet of the US. This narrative is in line with prevalent anti-Americanism in Slovakia, prevalent anti-americanism that is far stronger and more present than in the neighbouring Czech republic.
Both nations exhibited an inclination towards pro-Russian/anti-Western views. However, the Czech Republic showed a more balanced narrative spectrum with both anti-Russian/pro-Western views and neutral narratives being represented.
The main narratives were the following:
The Czech Republic (ČR) is a useful idiot of the USA / the CIA is behind the affair.
The affair is an attempt to drag the Czech Republic into a war with Russia.
The Czech Republic is unnecessarily escalating the situation.
There is not enough evidence to claim that Russian intelligence agents are responsible for the explosion.
There are multiple investigation versions.
It was just an attack on goods.
Undermining the credibility of the Czech Republic Security Information Service.
The Czech Republic is isolated in its approach to Russia / EU member states want to continue cooperating with Russia.
The Czech Republic must negotiate diplomatically with Russia / it is in the interest of the Czech Republic to cooperate with Russia.
The timing of revealing the Vrbětice affair is peculiar.
Banned weapons were located in Vrbětice / weapons from Vrbětice went to conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa.
The Vrbětice case stands as a testimony to the pervasive and intricate nature of disinformation campaigns in today's digital age. Collaborative initiatives like ours aim not just to shed light on these tactics but also to provide robust countermeasures that nations can adopt to safeguard their informational integrity. By understanding the sources, narratives, and influencers in these campaigns, we are better equipped to fortify our defences against the onslaught of disinformation in the future.
Specific recommendations for Slovakia
Prioritise building personnel capacities within social networks as a fundamental challenge in combating disinformation.
Collaborate closely with social media platforms to enhance their ability to effectively moderate content and rapidly respond to disinformation threats.
Addressing Socio-economic Differences
Recognize the role of socio-economic disparities and social exclusion as contributors to the spread of disinformation.
Implement targeted programs and initiatives focused on addressing these socio-economic issues and supporting social inclusion, thereby reducing fertile ground for disinformation.
Explore Cross-border Cooperation
Actively explore opportunities for cross-border cooperation, especially with the Czech Republic and other Visegrád Group countries.
Joint efforts can help counter disinformation narratives that cross national borders, utilising shared resources for greater impact.
Promote Media Literacy and Critical Thinking
Place significant emphasis on tailor-made media literacy programs that specifically address the Slovak context.
Ensure these programs target all age groups, from schoolchildren to adults, promoting critical thinking and enhancing digital literacy skills.
Tackle Anti-Western Sentiments
Recognize the presence of intense anti-Western sentiments in certain segments of the Slovak information space.
Implement targeted efforts to combat this narrative by promoting balanced news reporting and fact-based stories that encourage a more nuanced understanding of international relations.