Over the past few months, Czechia has experienced an alarming rise in disinformation campaigns, presenting formidable obstacles to its democratic foundation and information landscape. This policy brief provides a comprehensive overview, encompassing the legal strategies combatting disinformation, the vital contributions of civil society, advancements in media literacy, and the implementation of strategic communication.
Kremlin Watchers Movement is a project which is running for almost 3 years now within the effort to fight Russian malign influence and disinformation in Europe. Gathered authors, junior analysts are producing content about Russian malign influence and disinformation on social media, informing not only expert society but also wide population about latest events in this field.
In recent months, Czechia has witnessed a surge in disinformation campaigns, posing significant challenges to its democratic fabric and information ecosystem. The Security Information Service (BIS) of Czechia, under the leadership of Director Michal Koudelka, has unveiled alarming revelations concerning these disinformation activities, many of which are believed to be of Russian origin.
One of the most notable incidents involved a manipulated video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi during his visit to Prague Castle. This deceptively crafted video, which portrayed Zelenskyi being booed by the Czech public, was later found to have been overlaid with an unrelated sound clip from 2014. Despite its misleading nature, a significant portion of the Czech population believed the video to be genuine, underscoring the potency and danger of such disinformation campaigns.
Furthermore, the BIS has identified instances where prominent figures in the Czech public space were allegedly paid by long-standing Russian agents to promote narratives aligning with the foreign political interests of the Russian Federation. This includes the promotion of views related to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Such interventions not only threaten the integrity of Czechia‘s information space but also have broader geopolitical implications, potentially destabilizing European democracies.
Given these challenges, it is imperative for Czechia to adopt a comprehensive approach to counteract disinformation. This includes fostering public awareness on media literacy, strengthening collaborations with European allies, and leveraging advanced technologies to detect and counter AI-driven disinformation campaigns. By taking proactive measures, Czechia can safeguard its democratic values, ensure the authenticity of its information ecosystem, and fortify its defenses against external manipulations.
Russian Intervention in Czechia’s Information Space
Czechia’s Security Information Service (BIS), led by Director Michal Koudelka, has highlighted a serious discovery in the area of disinformation spread within the country.
According to available information, one of the long-standing Russian agents paid prominent figures in the Czech public space to promote views and narratives supporting the foreign political interests of the Russian Federation, particularly in connection with the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Vice Prime Minister Vit Rakusan acknowledged the severity of this issue, emphasizing that even though this might be an exceptional case in the Czech context, it is crucial for security forces to pay proper attention to this problem. Also, Prime Minister Petr Fiala admitted that the long-term activity of disinformation channels and propaganda operating on behalf of the Russian Federation in Czechia is a persistent issue. Fiala expressed his confidence in the professional approach of all security agencies and their efforts to curb the influence of Russian agents.
In addition to this specific event, Koudelka also pointed to other incidents that show increased disinformation activity of Russian origin. In one case during the presidential campaign in January of this year, Sputnik, a state-owned Russian agency, created a fake video featuring presidential candidate Petr Pavel. It claimed that Czechia should actively engage in the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Furthermore, Koudelka mentioned that the disinformation environment in Czechia mostly operates spontaneously and is not centrally directed. Direct interventions by Russia in the Czech information space seem to be in the minority compared to domestic disinformation production. However, Identifying the true origin and extent of the involvement of the Russian Federation can be complex. Koudelka also warned of the potential risk posed by the use of artificial intelligence in disinformation campaigns by states such as Russia or China. He believes that artificial intelligence might soon dominate the information space in favor of the attacking party, which could have serious consequences for democratic societies.
The incursions into Czechia’s information space can be attributed to broader geopolitical strategies by Russia to extend its influence and potentially destabilize European democracies. Such interventions, often rooted in historical and political dynamics, aim to sow discord, weaken trust in national institutions, and tarnish the global image of targeted countries. If left unchecked, these actions could erode public confidence in governance, deepen societal divides, and compromise Czechia’s standing both regionally and on the global stage.
The Alarming Spread of Disinformation: The Case of Zelenskyi’s Manipulated Video
In the age of digital information, the rapid spread of disinformation poses a growing threat to the democratic fabric of societies. The recent case involving a manipulated video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi provides a stark example of this menace.
During a visit to Prague Castle, an altered video purported to show Zelenskyi being booed and jeered with shouts of “shame” by the Czech public. This video, however, was deceptively crafted by overlaying an unrelated sound clip from 2014, where then Czech President Milos Zeman was the actual subject of public discontent. Despite the misleading nature of this video, an Ipsos sociological study found that a staggering 40% of Czech citizens believed the manipulated footage to be genuine or somewhat credible.
The inception of this misinformation campaign can be traced back to a Telegram account, from which the video gained traction on popular social media platforms such as TikTok, Telegram, and the Russian social network VKontakte. Intriguingly, further investigations by the project Demagog revealed connections between the originating Telegram account and the official Kremlin propaganda site, Sputnik, suggesting an orchestrated intent behind the video’s dissemination.
Pavel Havlicek from the Association for International Affairs emphasizes the long-term implications of such disinformation campaigns. He highlights that a portion of Czech society is consistently influenced by misinformation, resulting in the potential radicalization of certain societal segments. “In recent times, we’ve observed a series of disinformation campaigns targeted against Ukraine, and notably against refugees. There’s a significant potential for further radicalization and sharpening of societal tensions,” Havlicek warns.
This incident underscores the pressing need for states to treat the spread of misinformation as a serious issue. It serves as a reminder that in today’s interconnected world, unchecked disinformation can quickly take root, manipulate public opinion, and potentially alter the course of national and international events. As societies grapple with the challenges of the digital age, ensuring the integrity and authenticity of information must become a paramount concern.
Cyberattacks on Czech Banks: An Extensive Campaign of Fear and Disinformation
Recent cyberattacks on Czech banks and the country’s stock exchange have raised concerns about the nation’s digital security landscape. Experts believe that the cyber onslaught, which temporarily disrupted online banking access for numerous customers, was orchestrated by NoName057(16), a Russian hacktivist group. This group allegedly demanded that the targeted institutions end their support for Ukraine.
The impact of these cyberattacks was felt across major financial institutions. Big players in the Czech banking sector, such as Komereni banka, CSOB, Air Bank, Fio banka, and Ceská sporitelna, experienced service disruptions due to the onslaught. The mode of these attacks was primarily through Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), where targeted systems are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of traffic, rendering them inoperable for end-users. DDoS attacks, while disruptive, typically do not compromise the financial data of customers. However, the motive behind such assaults often goes beyond mere disruption. In this instance, the hacktivist group, NoName057(16), appears to be politically motivated in its demands for institutions to cease their support of Ukraine. Such attacks aim not just to disrupt services but also to sow panic, garner attention, and instill fear among the public.
Interestingly, NoName057(16) seems to have an active presence on the messaging platform Telegram. With a primary Russian-speaking channel boasting over 20,000 members and an English channel, they actively recruit volunteers for their DDosia Projects. Some of the most active participants reportedly receive financial rewards of up to 25,000 Czech crowns.
From the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, there has been a noted spike in DDoS activities through malware like Bobik, which blindsides victims who remain unaware that their computers are being harnessed for these attacks. NoName057(16) later pivoted its strategy, openly encouraging individuals on social media to join their ranks as hacktivists and use the Dosia tool to target websites with anti-Russian content.
While these DDoS attacks may be viewed as simplistic or mere nuisances, the coordinated nature targeting multiple banks simultaneously is unusual and cannot be taken lightly. Such coordinated efforts could potentially serve as smokescreens for more sophisticated cyberattacks, especially when banking IT departments are preoccupied with countering the DDoS campaigns. In today’s digital age, the lines between warfare, politics, and cyber activities blur ever more frequently. The recent cyberattacks on Czech financial institutions serve as a stark reminder of the evolving nature of threats in cyberspace and the need for nations to bolster their cybersecurity defenses.
Given the alarming revelations regarding Russian interventions in Czechia’s information space, it’s paramount for the Czech government to adopt a multifaceted response. This should encompass heightened public awareness campaigns on media literacy, fostering stronger collaborations with European allies to share intelligence, and leveraging advanced technologies to detect and counter AI-driven disinformation campaigns. Such proactive measures would not only safeguard the nation’s democratic values but also ensure the integrity of its information ecosystem.
In light of the growing challenge of disinformation, especially as presented in the manipulated video of President Zelenskyi, it is crucial for nations worldwide to prioritize media literacy and discernment among their citizenry. Governments must invest in education and public campaigns that equip people with the skills to differentiate between genuine and fabricated content. Collaboration on an international scale is essential to pool resources, share insights, and develop best practices. Moreover, with the increasing sophistication of AI-driven disinformation tools, nations must leverage cutting-edge technologies and establish dedicated task forces to monitor, detect, and counteract these threats proactively.
By embracing such a comprehensive approach, countries can better protect their democratic principles and fortify their information landscapes against external manipulations. This is especially pertinent for Czechia, which, as highlighted, has already witnessed the dangerous implications of unchecked misinformation.
Building on the steps already outlined, it’s imperative that Czechia not only focuses on defensive measures but also takes on a proactive role in global cyberspace. By spearheading international forums and workshops dedicated to cybersecurity, Czechia can foster an environment of shared knowledge and mutual trust. This would position the nation as a vanguard in the fight against digital disinformation. Furthermore, collaborating with tech companies and startups can pave the way for innovative solutions that address the root causes of these cyber threats. It’s equally essential to keep the public informed about these initiatives, reinforcing their confidence in the nation’s commitment to safeguarding its digital realm. Such strategic advancements, combined with international cooperation and technological innovation, will provide a robust shield against future cyber manipulations and ensure the resilience of Czechia’s information domain.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations