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article imageWith fake news on rise, Czech unit targets Russia

By Jan MARCHAL (AFP)     Feb 11, 2017 in Internet

A Czech unit fighting fake news ahead of elections has scored an early success -- debunking online footage that purported to show Muslim migrants attempting to rape a young girl.

The video, in fact, was of young Czechs involved in a drug turf war in Prague. The false claim of whoever posted it on a Canadian Facebook page has added to suspicion of foreign interference.

Established in January by the Czech interior ministry, the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats is a direct attempt to combat fake news, with Russia facing particular scrutiny.

The centre's launch followed a report by the BIS Czech intelligence agency that identified efforts to "weaken" the EU and NATO member state "through indirect infiltration of media and the internet".

It cited "a massive distribution of propaganda and misinformation by the Russian state."

Twenty experts at the Prague-based centre have been tasked with evaluating the threat disinformation poses to national security and to propose ways of stopping its spread before October's general election and a presidential election next January.

A special team met for the first time this week to begin "examining all potential scenarios of attack on democratic elections."

"We can't go on pretending we don't know about efforts originating in a foreign country," Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said of cyber attacks, without naming any state.

- Attacks on elections -

The BIS Czech intelligence agency identified efforts to "weaken" the EU and NATO member co...
The BIS Czech intelligence agency identified efforts to "weaken" the EU and NATO member country, citing "a massive distribution of propaganda and misinformation" by Russia
DOMINIQUE FAGET, AFP/File

But Czech general Petr Pavel, head of NATO's Military Committee, has been more blunt.

Russian propaganda sought to "seed panic and fear" in the Czech Republic and beyond using a broad range of tactics, he said late last year.

Aware of reports that fake election news got inordinate attention on Facebook during the final months of last year's US presidential campaign, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec recently hailed the centre's efforts to unmask potential attacks on free elections.

According to Jakub Janda, deputy head of the Prague-based European Values think tank, there are around four dozen Czech websites spreading fake or misleading news, often favouring Russia.

Websites such as www.skrytapravda.cz (Hidden Truth) or www.ac24.cz share content created by Czechs "showing their ideological sympathies towards Russia," Janda told AFP.

He spoke of a "realistic" danger that the upcoming Czech elections could be influenced by disinformation and by "websites supporting President Milos Zeman, the Communist Party or the far right."

The staunchly anti-Muslim, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese Zeman, in office since March 2013, has missed no opportunity to slam the new centre, accusing it of censorship.

The 72-year-old former communist is expected to reveal whether he will run for a second term on March 9.

"The Czech Republic is a strongly eurosceptic country, which is in line with the theme of these websites suggesting it should leave the EU to steer clear of Muslim immigration," said Janda.

- Mainstream mistrust -

"The eurosceptics are more likely to believe false news about the EU, which is of course in Russia's interest," he added.

A recent survey by the STEM polling agency showed that a quarter of Czechs prefer "alternative news" sites such as www.aeronet.cz over so-called mainstream media outlets.

"We must be able to offer explanations in reaction to this type of information," Interior Minister Chovanec said, but he has ruled out any talk of censoring the internet.

He also insists that debunking disinformation works best when it is done swiftly, "within a minute or an hour".

The Czech drive to expose fake news comes as the EU faces several high-stakes national elections where populist parties with anti-EU agendas could make inroads thanks in part to voters being influenced by fake news.

Facebook announced in mid-January it was introducing new measures to take down "unambiguously wrong reports" being shared on the social media platform.

It also changed its system for showing trending topics to include headlines and sources in a bid to curb the spread of disinformation.

Google and Facebook also cut off advertising revenue to fake news sites last November following criticism over the role misinformation played in the US presidential election won by Donald Trump.

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