PRAGUE — The target of high-stakes Kremlin power plays during the Cold War, the Czech Republic is again on the front lines of a contest with Russia and its sympathizers — this time in the Information Wars.
Inside a mustard-yellow stucco building in northwest Prague, Benedikt Vangeli is a commander in that fight — leading a new SWAT team for truth. Armed with computers and smartphones, the freshly formed government unit is charged with scouring the Internet and social media, fact-checking, then flagging false reports to the public.
“Truth is important to a democratic state,” Vangeli said.
Following the fake news barrage during the U.S. presidential race, the worried Czechs are not the only ones suddenly breaking into the fact-checking business. Nations including Finland and Germany are either setting up or weighing similar operations as fears mount over disinformation campaigns in key elections that could redefine Europe’s political map this year.
The stakes are high: If pro-Kremlin politicians win in an anchor nation like France, it could potentially spell the end of the European Union.
Here in the Czech Republic — a nation that was once a Cold War hub for the KGB — intelligence officials are charging Moscow with rebuilding its spy operations and engaging in “covert infiltration” of Czech media ahead of elections later this year. And the new government truth squad will pay special attention to a proliferation of opaque, pro-Russian websites in the Czech language that officials say are seeking to gaslight the public by fostering paranoia and undermining faith in democracy and the West.
Using methods reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda, such sites offer a vision of a world where no Russian soldier set foot in Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a Muslim-hugging menace and the United States is behind Europe’s refugee crisis.
Some are running the same disproved stories that tainted the U.S. election — including false allegations that Hillary Clinton’s campaign dabbled in child trafficking and the occult. But they are also curated for local audiences. Pro-Russian Czech politicians, for instance, are exalted, while Moscow’s critics are torn down. The E.U., such stories suggest, is power grabbing and inept.
There is some evidence the assaults may be having their desired effect — with opinion polls showing the number of Czechs who trust the E.U. slipping to just 26 percent.
“We have no ability or political will to close all these websites,” said Ivana Smolenova, a fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute. “The only thing we can do is work on our self-defense.”
Yet the new unit’s creation has brought countercharges of state-sponsored spin from the sites and their supporters, who argue that the government is picking sides in a nation still divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western sympathies.
“Nobody has the monopoly on truth,” said Czech President Milos Zeman, a pro-Russian politician who fills a largely ceremonial role and is at odds with the Czech government over Russian sanctions he wants lifted. He maintains a special adviser with financial links to Russia’s energy giant Lukoil, and Zeman’s interviews frequently appear on pro-Russian websites.
“If you have some views, for instance, Russians have some views, and you want to formulate it publicly in the media, it is not misinformation, it is not propaganda,” Zeman said.
In the Czech Republic, the tug of war for influence between Moscow and the West has lurked just below the surface since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But it reemerged, officials say, following the 2014 Russian incursion into Ukraine — denied by the Kremlin — that led the West to impose sanctions on Moscow.
A Czech intelligence report issued last year asserted that Moscow’s embassy in Prague — with staffing far higher than those of other nations — has become a beefed-up den of spies. It also warns that Russian covert use of Czech-language media and its state-sponsored propaganda are “exerting influence on the perceptions and thoughts on the Czech audience” and promoting a “relativity of truth.”
It cites no smoking gun linking the Kremlin to the 40 or so pro-Russian websites published in Czech. But the Russian government, for instance, backs the Sputnik News Agency’s Czech-language service. Smolenova said she has also identified at least one other site as being funded and directed by Russian citizens.
But most of the pro-Kremlin websites here have opaque operations and complex ownership structures. At least some appear to have adopted a favorable stance on Russia after years of publishing conspiracy theories and bizarre news. The extent to which they are actively doing Moscow’s bidding, or simply trafficking in echo chamber economics, remains unclear.
Jan Koral, the publisher of one pro-Russian site — www.nwoo.org — said half of his revenue comes from digital ads and the other half from reader donations. Some of those donations, he noted, are made anonymously.
Many of the stories he publishes — such as a recent piece alleging that the pro-Western government in Kiev is leaving war veterans to die in the snow — are simply translations from Russian-language news sources. He said he does not try to “verify” the stories he runs.
Koral, a 39-year old former Web designer, also said he has attended events at the Russian Cultural Center — an extension of the Russian embassy in Prague. But he insisted that he is not on Moscow’s payroll.
“I would be happy if Russia finally paid us,” he said.
Yet there is also a darker side to the pro-Russian sites. Ondrej Kundra, a local journalist who is investigating Russian influence in the media, said Koral stopped him last month as he was exiting a speaking engagement.
“ ‘You’ll come to a bad end,’” Kundra said Koral warned him.
In an interview, Koral did not deny the incident, saying mainstream journalists had it coming.
“The nature of our nation is not violent, so they will not hang in the streets,” he said. “They should. They are liars. They are criminals.”
The new “fake news” unit is still in the midst of hiring its full contingency of 15 agents and has only begun preliminary operations. Among the false claims flagged in test trials so far: a Facebook post asserting that the perpetrator in last month’s attack on a Berlin Christmas market was based in the Czech Republic, and one from a Russian news outlet claiming Moscow’s agents had already managed to penetrate the Czech Republic’s elections system.
The unit responded using some of the same social media techniques deployed by fraudsters.
“We just tweet them to the public as false reports,” Vangeli said. “That’s how we fight back. We don’t take them down. We don’t censor.”
Yet critics — including free speech activists — call it a fine line. More often than not, offending stories are simply spun and twisted rather than entirely fabricated. And it is potentially dangerous, some argue, to have a government — even a democratic one — deciding on recommended reading for its public.
“This would put the government in the position to act as a media outlet, which should be the task of classical journalism,” said Markus Beckedahl, a prominent German Internet activist and blogger.
Vangeli said his unit will pursue fake news regardless of its source, operating out of offices he described as looking like a “poorly funded newsroom.” Some politicians here say the new unit needs to act fast given that national elections will be held later this year.
Ivan Gabal, a senior lawmaker politician, for instance, has been routinely attacked in the pro-Russian media for his tough line on Moscow. Last year, his emails to the prime minister on Europe’s refugee crisis were hacked. They were then published on a white supremacist website, and portrayed as evidence of his pro-migrant bent in a country resoundingly against taking in Muslim asylum seekers.
There is no hard evidence, he concedes, that the Russians were behind it.
“The Russians have learned that it’s better to sway elections than to spy on our tanks,” he said.
Katerina Santurova in Prague and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.