As concerns over fake news websites mounted in the U.S. last year, the Czech Republic decided to do something about it. With elections set for October this year, its Interior Ministry established a task force to debunk the false accusations and fear-mongering spreading online — the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats.
With voters heading to the polls on Friday and Saturday, the center’s mission is more relevant than ever. Sites with questionable content are now being read by about a fourth of all Czechs, according to estimates, and the current government is concerned that many of their owners are supporting the Kremlin in Moscow. There are viral anti-Muslim tirades, incidents are being declared terror attacks without evidence, and false rumors are circulating about NATO and the E.U.
Yet despite all that, the Czech anti-fake news task force has been rather absent.
Its Twitter account — intended to be the main social media information channel where its analysts debunk fake news — has been used only a few times over the past few months of election campaigning. Often, the tweets only link to various ministry websites, and with about 6,800 followers, the center appears to have a rather small online reach.
Is it failing in its battle against fake news?
The center’s public inactivity and accusations that it is claiming a “monopoly on truth” show how difficult it is for governmental institutions to fight fake news publicly, without being perceived as biased. Its experiences reveal the challenges other countries, such as Finland and Germany, face as they try to establish agencies of their own or draft new laws to fight fake news.
When I visited the agency’s offices earlier this year, senior officer Eva Romancovová told me that the public debunking of false information is only a tiny fraction of what the Prague-based researchers do. Most of their work focuses on collaborating with security services and other ministries to get a better understanding of how hackers and websites spreading fake news may target Czech democracy and institutions.
Hence, it might be misleading to draw broader conclusions about the agency’s performance based on its output on social media. Some of the Czech government’s others initiatives, like workshops for school students to help them separate between facts and fiction, are still being seen as role models.
“The center doesn't really have to fight fake news publicly, because there are so many think tanks and NGOs here which debunk false narratives and provide mainstream media with those corrections,” said Jakub Janda, a senior employee with the European Values Think-Tank.
Early on, the Czech agency decided against censoring or taking down websites spreading fake news. Like other countries, the Czech Republic has avoided deleting content for fear it might open itself up to censorship accusations.
Instead, the Prague-based center has relied on mass media to pick up its tweets or statements to debunk misleading online reports. The problem with that idea, however, is that many of the estimated 25 percent of Czechs who read websites accused of spreading fake news have stopped consuming mainstream media where those corrections usually appear. NGOs and think tanks are struggling with the same issue.
Even if right-wing readers come across the anti-fake news center’s exposés, they might still see them as politicized. The center’s most prominent critic — President Milos Zeman, who mostly holds ceremonial powers — slams it as a political tool for the current government. Perhaps not coincidentally, Zeman has long been accused of ties to the Russian government, from where much of the fake news is believed to originate.
“There are about 40 disinformation outlets in the Czech Republic, of which many are being run by locals who ideologically support Russia,” said Janda, who believes that those websites have helped mainstream pro-Russian attitudes in the Czech Republic.
The likely next Czech prime minister, Trump-like billionaire Andrej Babis, is not known to be a big supporter of Russia — but some of his allies are and if they convince him to tilt toward Moscow, that would not bode well for anti-fake news efforts.
“Babis’ foreign policy views are not very deep. In that regard, he’s sort of a swing voter himself,” Janda said.