News Brief

Czech Republic to Fight ‘Fake News’ With Specialist Unit

The Czech Republic will open a specialist “anti-fake news” department starting January 1 in an attempt to counter meddling in its upcoming general election next year. A recent report from Czech intelligence services warned that the Kremlin was using an online disinformation campaign to increase division within the country, reduce sympathy for Ukraine and weaken the country’s EU and NATO solidarity, largely by raising fear around the continent’s refugee crisis.

Experts believe that the Kremlin has set up close to 40 Czech-language sites, though establishing direct links between the websites and the Russian government is difficult.

The websites publish fake, and often sensationalized, reports, many about migrants, in hopes of destabilizing the country’s democratic system. Though Muslims make up less than a tenth of a percent of the country’s population, fears over migration have found fertile ground on these online websites and forums and have led to a series of anti-Islam, as well as anti-EU and NATO, rallies.

Officials have strong suspicions that the ultimate goal of these sites is to change the country’s western orientation, an aim that aligns with the Russian government’s foreign policy.

“The disinformation campaigns are trying to radicalize society and undermine its psyche. And to a certain degree it’s working. You can see it,” said a senior official in the unit to the Guardian, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The parties and forces being supported in these campaigns aren’t constructive or democratic. They are critical of the democratic system and the elite. Often they don’t say what they mean, but for the first time democracy itself is being blamed.”

The 20 full-time officials in the unit, called the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, will identify disinformation and counter it through social media and train government employees to avoid blackmail and foreign lobbying.

“They will undoubtedly try to influence the upcoming elections by discouraging people who would most probably vote for the democratic parties from voting,” Tomáš Prouza, the Czech government’s state secretary for European affairs, told the Guardian about the fake news sites.

A part of the interior ministry, the unit will be located in the same building that was used for interrogation by secret police during the former communist regime during the Cold War.

The new center has already drawn accusations that it will result in censorship and spying and will curtail freedom of speech, as well as calls for definitive proof that the Russian government is behind these websites.

You can find more on this story from Coda’s partners at The Guardian.