The pandemic has exposed how important it is to effectively and quickly fight against disinformation campaigns. The Czech Republic has long underestimated this problem.
Despite this, a leading analyst company focusing on the fight against disinformation – Semantic Visions – has decided to withdraw from a cooperation with the Czech Ministry of Health.
“It is time to back off. The government ignores us so there is no point in continuing,” František Vrabel, the head of Semantic Visions, told the Hospodářské noviny, EURACTIV.cz’s media partner.
The Semantic Visions is a Prague and London-based analytics company focusing on deep analysis of disinformation campaigns and disinformation narratives on the internet. Since last October, the firm formally cooperated with the Czech Ministry of Health on mapping and analysing disinformation about COVID-19. It has also provided recommendations on how to tackle disinformation and how to communicate with the public.
However, the company decided to end this cooperation in February. The reason is that the ministry and also the government ignored recommendations the Semantic Visions has provided them with.
Moreover, František Vrabel added that his company is now negotiating new cooperation with the US Ministry of Foreign Affairs that allegedly asked the Semantic Visions for cooperation in this field.
Nowadays, it is clearer than ever that if a state is not able to sufficiently tackle on-line disinformation campaigns and fake news, its impact on society and public opinion is enormous.
This is precisely what happened in the Czech Republic during the last twelve months. As the coronavirus pandemic situation was getting worse, disinformation campaigns on social media were getting stronger and more frequent.
As a result, there is plenty of disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccination, and death tolls – a large part of Czech people believe that the pandemic is a falsehood, vaccination is just a way to control people or to kill them, and death tolls statistics are fictional or at least to a large extent manipulated. Around 17% of Czechs think that covid-19 is not worse than the flu, 46% of the population do not consider it as a threat, a STEM agency survey from October 2020 shows.
“There is no doubt about the adverse effects of disinformation, especially during the coronavirus pandemic – there is plenty of false information regarding the prevention of Covid-19 or disinformation fuelling hate towards others, but there are also cybercrime and consumer fraud,” member of the Czech Parliament and its Permanent Commission for Hybrid Threats Jan Lipavský (Pirates) told EURACTIV Czech Republic.
“This in turn impacts, apart from the immediate negative effects, trust among people and institutions. This distrust can then be exploited by various actors, posing a challenge to democracy as a whole,” he added.
No data, no campaign
According to Dominik Presl, an expert focusing on disinformation, strategic communication, and propaganda from the Association for International Affairs, the impact of disinformation is obvious, however, more empirical studies are needed in this field.
“Unfortunately, we lack a sufficient amount of data on this topic and we do need more scientific studies that would look into, for example, the correlation between vaccine disinformation and tendencies to reject vaccination,” he explained.
“However, around 40% of the population is likely to refuse Covid-19 vaccines, despite the vaccines being certified and tested as safe and harmless, mostly out of fear of negative side effects. I believe that this irrational behaviour is largely caused by the ´infodemic´ that the Czech Republic is facing at the moment,” he stressed.
The main question that many countries are currently asking is quite clear. What should national governments do about it, how should they fight against disinformation? Pundits such as Dominik Presl have a clear answer to this.
“The most effective way of tackling disinformation right now is an appropriate active government communication. Once we find ourselves in an already ongoing crisis, it is unfortunately already too late for preventive methods, such as resilience-building,” he warned.
“Unfortunately, there is an almost complete absence of any counter-disinformation government communication in the Czech Republic. We have not had a single communication campaign debunking disinformation or promoting vaccination and government measures, despite the government talking about launching such campaigns for months,” he said.
Edited by Samuel Stolton