Tested by the coronavirus pandemic, the Slovak government has been forced to raise its game in combatting disinformation and countering hybrid threats. The fight back, though, is only just beginning.
Standing on the blue-backed stage of the Globsec Forum in Bratislava on October 7, wearing an elegant black mask coordinated with her dress, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova addressed the main challenges that the pandemic poses to the world and the rule of law.
“It has exposed the real capacities and limitations of our crisis management, which has rested in peace for years,” she said. “Once again, we have seen that the spread of disinformation and hoaxes can be deadly,” she added, pinpointing one of the most pressing issues for her country.
Slovakia has been battling hybrid threats and disinformation for years, with most of the fighting falling on the shoulders of non-governmental activists and information and security experts. This year, however, the destructive power of disinformation manifested itself palpably for the first time.
“Slovakia is not doing a very good job in battling the pandemic at the moment,” admitted Marek Krajci, the Slovak health minister, on October 9, explaining the ever-growing numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the country. “I think the huge disinformation campaign is reflected in the bad results that we’re seeing right now.”
Another major manifestation of the frustration and anger caused by disinformation about COVID was witnessed at the weekend, when hundreds of people joined an unannounced and illegal protest in Bratislava, organised by football hooligans and neo-Nazi groups. Attacking the iron gate of the governmental office compound, they chanted vulgar slogans about the prime minister, threw stones at the police and called for people to ignore the new restrictive measures designed to combat the virus.
While during the first wave of the pandemic Slovakia saw itself as a “winner” of the crisis, largely thanks to the responsible behaviour of the general public, strict early measures and obligatory masks, this autumn has brought a much stronger second wave than the country feared.
According to opinion polls, people in Slovakia are unsure what information about coronavirus they can trust, support for government-mandated restrictive measures has decreased significantly and, ultimately, so has their trust in government leaders.
“It would be easy to blame the media or education systems or the internet for the erosion of citizens’ confidence, but do political leaders today project trust?” President Caputova asked rhetorically at Globsec, opening an important question for her own country, too.
A good start, but a long way to go
The new Slovak government that came into office in March defined countering disinformation and hybrid threats as one of its main goals for the next four years. In its manifesto, Igor Matovic‘s government named the fight against disinformation as a priority in foreign politics, defence, education and the media.
“The spreading of disinformation and hoaxes endangers the development of a knowledge-based society,” said the program of the new government. “The Government of SR will prepare an action plan for coordinating the fight against hybrid threats and spreading of disinformation, and build adequate centralised capacities to carry it out.”
Almost seven months later, this “action plan” is still a work in progress, the coordination centre is nowhere to be seen and the disinformation agenda is scattered among a few ministries, with no clear unified strategy in place.
“The first key thing that happened is that this theme has finally been addressed politically, and it is being given the proper attention,” Daniel Milo, an analyst at the Globsec Policy Institute, told BIRN.
“In previous years, there were some lonely fighters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or in the police, but there was no systematic support,” he said, adding that while it was good the new cabinet set as an official goal in its program the targeting of disinformation, it has yet to result in any concrete action.
One of the more visible efforts came this summer, when the Health Ministry hired Jakub Goda, a leading journalist focusing on disinformation, to help with its strategic communications. Reacting to the growing “infodemic” surrounding the coronavirus, the ministry is starting to focus on debunking hoaxes and sharing verified information from medical experts via social networks. “In the middle of the pandemic, the urgency of this problem became even clearer,” said Goda in an interview with BIRN earlier this month.
The Health Ministry prepared a short guide on how to see through disinformation about COVID-19, joined an information campaign by public broadcaster RTVS in which a leading expert on infectious diseases talked about the safety of wearing face masks, and recorded a video with COVID-19 patients sharing their personal experiences with the virus.
While the video registered an admirable 600,000 views with over 3,300 shares by October 19, the most viral posts from extremist politicians questioning the coronavirus crisis have been watched several times more, thanks to a developed network of dozens of Slovak Facebook pages that spread disinformation on a regular basis. The fight against disinformation by the Health Ministry is far from over, said Goda, adding that the ministry has already expanded capacities and more people should be hired soon.
Although Goda’s work at the ministry is essential, it is only a first step, experts think. “It is a good step, but to think that a single person will save the strategic communications of a whole ministry in such a big topic is naive,” said Milo.
“Jakub has dealt with these topics for years and I value him as a colleague, but this alone doesn’t stand a chance in stopping the enormous avalanche of lies about COVID-19 that are shared online and on social networks every day,” he explained. “However, he can do his part and maybe he can convince the management at the ministry that the communication and information part is just as important today as the medical measures.”
Another visible and popular vehicle for combatting disinformation is the Slovak police force’s Facebook page dedicated specifically to uncovering hoaxes. During the pandemic, police experts have debunked dozens of lies and manipulative posts about the virus, sharing the verified information with its 85,000 followers. Its most popular videos debunking lies about COVID-19 testing sites or the government preparing a tough lockdown were viewed by between 100,00 and 200,000 people each.
Over the past few years, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs has taken the lead in combatting disinformation in Slovakia, focusing on developing strategic communications with the public. This year it opened a new department to counter hybrid threats and “enforce resilience” in the system.
“We have basically provoked more government activity in this area,” said Imrich Babic, head of the strategic communications department at the Slovak Foreign Ministry. “Now, there is big hope that it becomes more systematic. It is in the legislative plans of different ministries already, so it’s on a good path.”
The Foreign Ministry, it seems, might be the one part of government where most people, including political leaders, understand the importance of having clear and unambiguous messages in communication. Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, the former Slovak ambassador to Washington and Brussels, said in his first press conference in March that there is no doubt about Slovakia’s place in Europe and in the world: its allies are in the West, and its aim is to protect European values and unity.
“It’s a question of strategic importance, of protecting a healthy democracy,” said Marcel Pesko, the special ambassador who is heading up the hybrid threats department at the Foreign Ministry.
“Slovakia is very vulnerable in this sense,” he added, explaining that he thinks it’s due to the combination of history, political communication and the fragile democratic heritage. “Based on all of this, Slovaks are more prone to trusting disinformation.”
Experts at the ministry agree that Slovakia needs to significantly step up its fight against hybrid threats. And that means adopting the “whole of society” approach: reforming the education curriculum, pushing for more control of social networks and forming a centralised coordination mechanism within government. “The process has already started; we just need to frame it now. We would like to create the coordination mechanism by the end of the year,” Pesko told BIRN.
The proposed mechanism should create a system for dealing with hybrid threats, which includes all the ministries as well as other government offices. Its precise form, however, has yet to be decided.
In the meantime, the Foreign Ministry is organising educational programs at universities and schools; setting up workshops for Slovak diplomats and ministry employees; coordinating their policies and communication in strategic areas; and fighting disinformation online, in the media and through direct communication from political leaders.
Addressing security threats
Even before COVID-19 spread across Europe, Slovakia had been the target of propaganda campaigns by Russia and China, including various forms of hybrid warfare, according to the Slovak intelligence services.
In August, Slovakia became the 28th EU state to join the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki and the Slovak Defence Ministry has become one of the leaders of the fight against disinformation within the new government.
“The Defence Ministry wants to be active in this area,” Martina Koval Kakascikova, spokeswoman for the ministry, told BIRN. “One of the reasons is that hybrid threats will become a significant part of military operations in the future.”
In October, the ministry hired a special advisor for dealing with hybrid threats, and the communications department has taken on an even bigger role debunking disinformation and hoaxes, too.
“Moreover, the pandemic has reinforced the disinformation narratives, so the Defence Ministry has intensified its strategic communications, whether on social networks or in the field,” said Koval Kakascikova. “We also think exchanging information and experiences in the area of combatting hybrid threats and disinformation with our partners is essential.”
Although public communication from leading politicians in the previous government could be described as chaotic or conflicting at best, there is some evidence that the activities of the individual experts at the foreign and defence ministries has bolstered public support for Slovakia’s membership of NATO and the EU over the past three years. While in 2017 only 43% of Slovaks supported NATO membership, by 2019 that support had grown to 56%, according to a Globsec Trends survey. Eurobarometer, which monitors the evolution of public opinion in all EU member states, confirmed that a steady majority of Slovaks still supports the EU. Trust in liberal democracy and Slovakia’s Western allies, particularly the US, remains a challenge, however.
An additional challenge will come later this month after the Slovak government announced its intention to carry out a mass testing program across the entire country, with the aim of becoming the first country in Europe to pull off such a feat.
Disinformation experts have already warned that anti-COVID and anti-health system campaigns will definitely take off, putting an extra strain on the government’s efforts in trying to persuade people about the benefits of general testing. “In the next two weeks, so-called agitprop will take over – a fast drumming, the more absurd the better,” predicted Infosecurity.sk. “There’s nothing to lose. People are ready to listen.”
To counter this threat effectively, Marcel Pesko, the person heading up the hybrid threats department at the Foreign Ministry, admitted that, “there is still a lot of work to do in this area.”
Although all government experts agree that activists and NGOs have, until now, done a good job in fighting disinformation, they say it’s time the state picks up the baton. “The role of the state can’t be replaced by NGOs or the media,” said Pesko. “It is important to have political will to deal with these topics. And I can see that now.”