On the eve of Slovakia’s snap general election on September 30, social media are being flooded with AI-engineered recordings of one of the main contenders, leader of liberal Progressive Slovakia Michal Simecka. “advocating” the rise in beer prices in a deep fake recording.
Police issued an official warning on September 28 against “deep fake technology”, “manipulated audio recordings” and “engineered videos”.
President Zuzana Caputova has been repeatedly warning that her country is in an “information storm”, saying there is “not only polarisation but fragmentation within our society.”
In May Bratislava-based think-tank Globsec published a survey showing that only 40% of Slovaks think Russia was responsible for the war in Ukraine by attacking Ukraine, while at the same time, 34% think the West is responsible by provoking Russia, confirming a trend that makes Slovakia one of the outliers in Europe.
Tomas Krissak, manager at Gerulata Technologies, a technology company providing tools for fighting disinformation and hostile propaganda, told bne Intellinews that the situation in Slovakia is “bad” and said the social media must take its share of responsibility for the unchecked flow of pro-Kremlin propaganda. “We are dealing with a wild development of technologies,” he explains.
The rapid development of new communication channels has coincided with changes in international relations in the past decade, marked by Moscow’s aggression in Slovakia’s neighbour Ukraine, which began with the seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Domestic “political parties learnt how to work with [the malign] information infrastructure developed in Slovakia since 2013”, Krissak says, leading to the current situation in which “manipulation has become the norm” in the current election campaign.
Vladimir Snidl, a journalist from the liberal daily DennikN, says his friend’s grandmother, a pensioner from Bytca, a town of some 11,000 in north-western Slovakia, was led by posts spread on social media to be “genuinely scared that American soldiers would rape her in the streets of her hometown” last year after Slovakia signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement with the USA.
Snidl says sensational and fear-igniting narratives from obscure outlets that have come to be known as disinformation hotbeds, such as Slobodny vysielac, deriving its name from the WWII-era Slovak uprising against the Nazis, InfoVojna , the InfoWars-inspired outlet, and the more mainstream sounding Hlavne spravy [Main News] flood social media.
Their headlines are repeated in numerous Facebook feeds and replicated by politicians from far-right parties Republika and SNS, as well as from the poll-leading populist Smer party.
“Russia has been spreading its propaganda through its own work, but today it is alive thanks to local actors,” Krissak explains to bne IntelliNews. He adds that social networks play a crucial role in providing communication channels to these actors.
Fico’s Facebook page and Smer’s YoutTube channel came to act as his and Smer’s personalised television, releasing videos with his statements and press conferences on a daily basis.
“Fico and Smer party got to the point where they don’t need media,” investigative journalist from the liberal SME daily Eva Mihockova explained to bne Intellinews, pointing to their digital information channels.
Weak state response
The role of social media and the unscrupulous opportunism with which populist politicians exploit these have been accompanied by the state’s failure to respond to the developments.
“[The previous cabinet of] Eduard Heger and his Minister of Defence Jaroslav Nad used disinformation agenda as buzzwords” but “failed” to bring about any meaningful response, says Victor Breiner, former Director of the Department for Hybrid Threats and Strategic Communication at the Ministry of Defence.
“Let anyone give me one example of how in the past three years Russian intelligence propaganda and information operations [in Slovakia] were curtailed,” Breiner continued. He adds that “people who built the information infrastructure amplifying pro-Kremlin narratives have a free hand”.
The Kremlin “succeeded” in that Slovak local politicians are resorting to disinformation of their own doing.
Michal Simecka, leader of Progressive Slovakia and the main challenger to Fico, told bne Intellinews that the situation in which some of the “most popular politicians are spreading propaganda in mainstream media” also contributed to “people losing trust in democratic government”.
“State administration does not enjoy a strong trust among the public,” another former state official who worked under Heger’s cabinet says.
Currently, “NGOs are the ones doing the best job in countering disinformation”, he explains, echoing Breiner’s criticism. However, this does not resolve the issue that “government needs to be involved in the strategic communication,” and “it needs to be coordinated across the ministries and needs to target the regions”.
Research Fellow at Bratislava’s think tank Adapt Institute Viliam Ostatnik pointed out to bne Intellinews that the national identity issue is a particularly exploited talking point, making propaganda channelled through social media very effective since virtually any Slovak is acquainted with history textbook stories about the Slovak national revival.
Slovak national identity is “a fluid one,” Ostatnik continued, arguing that Slovaks “are not confident in their identity”.
Senior Research Fellow at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Alexander Duleba, highlighted for bne Intellinews that there is “a history of Slovak Russian sentiment” interwoven with modern Slovak national identity.
These national narratives stretch from pan-Slavic ideas of Slovak 19th-century national writer Ludovit Stur to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. While the Soviet invasion crushed the country’s liberalisation movement, the Soviets also cosied up to the Slovak communists and carried “successful modernisation projects in Slovakia” while pursuing “divide et impera [divide and rule] policy” in occupied Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia became a federation, and a native Slovak and a 1950s’ Stalinist era prisoner, Gustav Husak, became the country’s president. Besides bringing Armenian-style brandy production into the hills of Pezinok, northeast of Bratislava, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev also redirected the Eastern Bloc energy infrastructure to run through Slovakia.
In Velke Kapusany, a town of some 8,500 in eastern Slovakia, there is still “the biggest [gas] compression station in Europe,” as there is an extensive gas transmission system in Slovakia operated by part-state, part-private company Eustream.
While the years following 1968 are largely seen as a national trauma by many Czech historians, in Slovakia, there is a prevalent 1970s and 80s “Husak nostalgia,” Ostatnik points out.
Lecturer at Bratislava’s Comenius University Alex Kazharski explained to bne Intellinews that many of the national heritage institutions in Slovakia, such as Slavica, Nase vlast – nase budoucnost [Our home – our future], or Matica slovenska have been adopting pro-Kremlin narratives without this necessarily being orchestrated by Kremlin.
When Matica slovenska celebrated the 160th anniversary of its founding, Fico was present, describing the institution as “a pearl fighting for the preservation of Slovak identity in literature, history, culture or archives” on his Facebook page.
Right to sanctuary
When asked what measures should be adopted to counter the propaganda environment which developed in Slovakia’s information networks, Krissak is quick to highlight the “protection of man and his rights”.
In her expose of the rise of the digital future, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff advocates for “the right to sanctuary,” that is “the human need for a space of inviolable refuge” from technology, which “has persisted in civilised societies from ancient times but is now under attack as surveillance capital creates a world of “no exit”.
Krissak explained that in response to the “wild development of communication technologies” there is “a generation of people who are beginning to understand this” and the risks associated with the era of rapid technological development.
“My best experience is when I can have personal contact in some [regional] part of Slovakia,” Krissak says, adding that education in humanities and social sciences is also crucial.
“EU can do a lot to address the issue of disinformation,” Simecka told bne Intellinews when asked about the measures to be implemented, recalling the EU’s recent digital act. He also said that the best tool is to implement a “combination of measures,” as efforts to counter disinformation and propaganda need to cut across fields, including education and media.
The ex-official said that the “state should ensure there is a functioning environment for media” but was wary of direct government support for independent quality media. “It is a double-edged weapon […] since every government can interpret it differently,” he says.
A similar concern was expressed by the head of the Bratislava Policy Institute, Michal Vasecka, who recalled last year’s shutdown of several disinformation websites in Slovakia. These were allowed to reopen again just a few weeks later amid fears that “Fico would do the same if back in power”, using the 2022 shutdown as a precedent to block the websites of quality liberal outlets such as SME, Aktuality.sk, or DennikN.