News Brief

New Slovak President represents rare victory against disinformation

Political newcomer Zuzana Caputova has swept Slovakia’s presidential election on the back of a campaign focused on reversing a bill intended to limit press freedom, beating a candidate backed by the country’s governing party.

Caputova’s win is a rare good news story for progressive movements in Europe. Her campaign overcame a wide-ranging disinformation campaign by establishment and far-right movements that have pandered to conspiracy theories, fascist ideology and social division.

Slovaks are more prone to believe conspiracy theories than any other country in central Europe, according to a poll conducted earlier this year by Slovak think-tank GLOBSEC. Among the poll’s respondents, 53% said they believe global events are controlled by secret groups seeking to establish totalitarian world order, and similar numbers believe that Jews have too much power over governments and institutions around the world.

But Slovaks managed to unite in outrage last year after the brutal murders of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiance Martina Kusinova. Slovaks took to the streets in the biggest anti-government protests since the anti-Communist demonstrations of 1989. Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign.

In the resulting political upheaval, voters became more active on the issue of corruption and press freedom, something that Caputova, an anti-corruption activist, capitalized on and that damaged her main opponent in the presidential race. European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic has close ties to Fido’s Smer-SD party, which proposed laws designed to shackle the country’s media and keep them from investigating alleged government wrongdoing.

“Voters from both sides of the political divide were united by their utter distrust of politicians,” Caputova’s press secretary told Politico.

High on Caputova’s agenda will be opposing Smer-SD’s proposed new laws, dubbed “Fico’s Revenge”. The laws would force newspaper editors to publish politicians’ right of reply, regardless of the statements’ veracity or face fines of up to 5000 euros.

The election campaign was a hard fought battle tainted by disinformation. Among Caputova’s opponents was the far-right Kotleba Party, who routinely spread neo-Nazi propaganda. The party also has suggested the Holocaust is a “fairy tale.”

Facebook pages identified by GLOBSEC as disinformation purveyors tried to paint Caputova as a despised figure. But Caputova, a former human rights lawyer, weaponized social media as well. She had the most active Facebook presence during the campaign, with more interactions from voters on her page than her two main opponents put together.

Sefanovic’s campaign, meanwhile, attempted to control his social media narrative in a different way, by deleting 43% of all reactions to his posts, more than any other candidate.