Dispatch

The Brief Life, and Looming Death, of Europe’s ‘SWAT Team for Truth’

The Czech Republic launched the continent’s first center to combat fake news in January. It might not survive the year.

The silhouette of Saint Vitus Cathedral (L), a part of the Prague Castle is seen on April 20, 2015 as the sun sets in the Czech capital. AFP PHOTO / MICHAL CIZEK        (Photo credit should read MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)
The silhouette of Saint Vitus Cathedral (L), a part of the Prague Castle is seen on April 20, 2015 as the sun sets in the Czech capital. AFP PHOTO / MICHAL CIZEK (Photo credit should read MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

PRAGUE — This past January, as the world was still reeling from the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the idea that disinformation may have played a role in his victory, the tiny Czech Republic unveiled, with great fanfare, its new Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats.

The initiative captured the world’s attention. News organizations from the BBC to CNN to the Guardian to Deutsche Welle gushed about how the center’s work would be a bold new weapon in the fight against fake news. A crack team of analysts based at the center would be tasked with scouring the web to debunk fake news stories for the Czech public and providing a shining example for other countries fighting similar foes on their own soil. The Washington Post described the team at the center as a “new government truth squad,” and a “SWAT team for truth … armed with computers and smartphones” led by “commander” Benedikt Vangeli.

Just six months on from that dramatic debut, however, the center hasn’t exactly met these outsized expectations. And, with Czech politics in the midst of an upheaval, there’s no guarantee the center will even survive past this year.

While the center has been touted in media coverage as a bold new initiative, the reality has been more mundane. Its analysts, far from being foot soldiers in a new sort of “truth squad,” generally spend their days monitoring various threats to Czech security, passing on their findings to Czech police, military, and intelligence services, and occasionally tweeting. Center director Vangeli has sought to downplay expectations, saying that, despite the rapt headlines upon the center’s opening, that disinformation and “anti-fake news busting” is just a tiny part of what the center actually does.

The center has become a political football, facing accusations that it simply duplicates work the Ministry of the Interior and others already do — like monitoring social media for extremist content — and that its output is paltry, having debunked only a handful of fake news stories via its Twitter account since January. Meanwhile, two of the center’s biggest opponents have become increasingly dominant figures in Czech politics: the billionaire former finance minister Andrej Babis, whose populist ANO 2011 party looks poised to depose the Social Democrats as the largest party in Parliament after October elections, and the bombastic, aging pro-Kremlin president Milos Zeman, set to win re-election early next year.

Like many countries, the Czech government has worried for some time that it has a fake news problem. Last year, the country’s counterintelligence agency publicly warned that foreign actors, most notably Russia, have been trying to spread disinformation and fake news in Czech media, with the goal of destabilizing the country and making Czechs less sympathetic to the West. One of the main ways they are trying to do this, government officials have argued, is through a network of a few dozen shady websites that push skewed stories, conspiracy theories and flat-out fake news. These websites run the gamut from the popular Breitbart-esque Parlamentní listy (Parliamentary Journal) with its lurid headlines and stories that blur the line between fact and opinion, to more fringe sites like Lajkit.cz (“Like-It”) and Svět kolem nás (The World Around Us), which peddle pure conspiracy about chemtrails and the illuminati but also run inflammatory screeds about migrants and Muslims and peddle the Kremlin line on the European Union and NATO. These stories, the argument goes, need debunking.

The push to establish the Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (abbreviated, in Czech, as CTHH) in fact began before Trump was elected. Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec announced the formation of the center in May 2016 upon the release of the first stages of the country’s National Security Audit, commissioned in response to the terror attacks across Europe in 2015. Chovanec said the threat from disinformation was so dire that the government couldn’t wait for the audit to be complete (in December 2016) and needed to respond immediately.

At the time, Chovanec’s descriptions of the center were a far cry from the specialist fake-news-busting outfit that would be presented in later press coverage. He talked about forming a “very small department” within the Ministry of the Interior, within which one of its “smaller cells” would focus on analyzing disinformation. The bulk of the center’s work, as he described it then, would focus on monitoring terrorist threats and protection of “soft targets,” like the Prague Metro.

In January 2017, the center finally got down to work inside the main Ministry of the Interior building in Prague. Created within an already-existing division within the Ministry of the Interior and funded from existing ministry budgets, the center slowly built a staff of more than two dozen analysts, whose jobs include monitoring online media for threats — including disinformation — and communicating with other Czech ministries and intelligence services, both domestic and foreign, about these findings. The center also started training staff from political parties on how to guard against attempts to hack their systems, as occurred in both the American and French presidential elections.

Around the same time, however, how to fight fake news and disinformation was shooting up the priority lists of countries around the globe. Czech officials and others within the country suddenly found themselves with an opportunity to present the Czech Republic as a world leader on an issue of global importance — and they took advantage. “[The center] has generated a lot of interest outside of the Czech Republic,” Tomas Prouza, the former Czech state secretary for European affairs who helped establish the center, told reporters in January. “We are in the lead on this, so that is important,” he said, adding that the Czech government has been advising officials in countries like Germany and Sweden on how to set up similar centers. “The Czech Republic is taking a leading role in Europe’s response to disinformation,” Giles Portman, the British head of the EU’s Brussels-based East Stratcom (Strategic Communications) Task Force, told a Czech think tank. (The task force is an EU unit set up in 2015 to push back against Russian disinformation campaigns.)

A few months later, however, the gap between expectations and reality has become apparent. Despite the headlines in January proclaiming the center would focus on publicly debunking fake news stories, it’s hardly done any of that. Since the beginning of May, the center’s dedicated Twitter account — it doesn’t have an account on Facebook, by far the most popular social network in the country — has only debunked a few pieces of fake news, including stories about a ramming incident falsely described as a terror attack, safety standards at summer festivals, and lithium mining.

For his part, CTHH head Vangeli has argued that, despite the thrust of the press coverage earlier this year, disinformation and fake-news busting are not the center’s primary concern. “We deal with all manner of hybrid threats, not just disinformation,” Vangeli told Czech news site aktualne.cz in February. (The Ministry of the Interior denied Foreign Policy’s request for an interview with Vangeli.) “Responding to disinformation is only between 5 to 9 percent of our work.” The other 90 percent, Vangeli said at a public debate at Charles University in Prague in May, is devoted to assessing all manner of threats to the country’s security, including terrorism and extremism, and passing on its findings to Czech police, military, and intelligence services. It also includes, Vangeli said, developing a network of similar centers across other Czech government ministries.

But if that’s the case, some say the center falls short even by its own standards. “There seems to be a disconnect between the center’s grandiloquent title and its actual mission,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. The center, Galeotti argued, doesn’t appear to tackle issues that could, in theory, fall under its remit like monitoring extremists, developing anti-terror measures, or combatting corruption, which Galeotti stresses is “a crucial force multiplier” of hybrid threats. To Galeotti, this disconnect suggests the center is indeed more an anti-fake news unit than an anti-terrorism or anti-“hybrid threats” center.

Part of the problem is that for all the widespread concern about the threat of disinformation, there is no unanimity on the exact scope of the fake news problem in the Czech Republic or how to fight it.

No one doubts that there are several dozen websites in the country that regularly push inflammatory, conspiracy-laden content, get much of their traffic from social media, and are almost always pro-Kremlin. But while some observers and government officials contend these websites have the power to slowly destabilize the country and pivot it away from the EU and NATO, others caution against exaggerating the threat and argue these websites are the preserve of a small, albeit significant, minority.

Parlamentní listy, the most popular site widely considered to be spreading “disinformation,” receives around 8 million visitors a month as of August 2017, which places it among the top 100 most popular websites in the country. But it receives far fewer visitors than the most popular mainstream Czech news sites — iDNES, novinky.cz and blesk.cz — which received 95 million, 84 million and 27 million visitors a month, respectively, as of August 2017, and after Parlamentní listy, there’s a sharp drop off: The next most popular disinformation website, AC24.cz, pulls in 1.5 million visitors a month to its site (where readers can learn about apparent discoveries of “ancient pyramids” on the moon or how much aluminum there is in Czech vaccines). Websites like Lajkit.cz or Svět kolem nás, which mostly operate under murky ownership structures, don’t fare even that well: These two sites pull in fewer than a million visitors a month each and aren’t even among the top thousand most popular websites in the country, according to SimilarWeb, a web traffic analytics site.

According to Benjamin Tallis, a senior researcher at the Centre for European Security at Prague’s Institute of International Relations, the Czech Republic has opted to take a reactive approach to online-driven disinformation and fake news, exaggerating the extent of external threats, while neglecting the weaknesses that leave the country vulnerable to fake news sites. The current debate in the Czech Republic, including over the center’s work, “distracts from the real solutions to disinformation,” Tallis said, which include education and combating widespread public cynicism. Findings from recent Europe-wide surveys suggest that Czechs, thanks to a series of political scandals and crises, have among the lowest levels of trust in their government in the continent. The Czech government also is negligent when it comes to investing in education, spending well below EU and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development averages, with teachers’ salaries among the lowest in the OECD.

“There are expectations that some have from the CTHH, like it will solve the whole problem of disinformation,” said Ivana Smolenova, a fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute who studies pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns and considers herself a supporter of the center’s work. “But it can’t.”

Come October, the center could find itself with fewer friends in Parliament: In addition to Babis’s ANO, which is expected to win the October elections, parties as diverse as the Pirate Party, which focuses on civil liberties and scored almost 9 percent in a recent poll, and the Communists, who are the third largest party in the country, aren’t fans of the center and its work. The CTHH — once held up as a potential model — might not have much time left to win over skeptics.

Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Colborne is a journalist based in Prague.

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