Waves of Russian online disinformation began to roll over Slovakia in 2014, following the Kyiv Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the separatist revolt in the Donbas inspired and supported by the Kremlin’s KGB-mafia regime.
Pro-Russian platforms in Slovakia
Like mushrooms after a rain shower, Slovak language websites have begun to multiply in the Slovak online space. They furnish local audiences with “true” reports about events in Ukraine, including the “fascist coup” allegedly taking place and about the Kyiv “Bandera junta,” which, with the help of overseas and Western European patrons, has seized power, established a repressive regime, and has begun to oppress the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population, setting Ukrainians against Russia, Russians, and anything Russian.
The monstrous mendacity and primitiveness of this propaganda rubbish has been so obvious that, in assessing its possible impact on the local population, many experts maintained that the work of free, independent, and professional media would not provide any openings for the semi-amateur (and in most cases anonymous) peddlers of Russian propaganda narratives. Experts believed that the Kremlin’s propaganda would not arouse any serious interest in Slovakia and would disappear on its own. A quarter of a century of experience in the development of democracy and a free press that makes it possible to quickly and competently verify any message could not yield to dubious actors, moreover those connected to a foreign state known for its aggressive foreign policy and deceitful propaganda.
Indeed, according to public opinion polls, in the initial period of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine a majority of Slovaks sided with Ukraine, supported its struggle for independent development and European prospects and for the expulsion of Russian troops invading eastern Ukraine.
Over several months, the “alternative” online platforms that appeared out of nowhere remained a marginal part of the media space, reaching with their “enlightened” messages mainly that segment of the population that was predisposed to interpret reality through a lens of traditional conspiracy theories.
Downing of the Boeing as a trigger
The situation, however, gradually began to change after the downing of the Malaysian Boeing (flight MH-17) by the Russian military. The Russian propaganda machine went into full swing after this nightmarish event, spewing versions of what happened in the skies of Donbass, each more incredible than the other. At the same time, without exception, each version jettisoned Russia’s responsibility for this war crime and shifted the blame to Ukraine and the West.
Slovak online conspiracy-type platforms got on board. They began to post stories quickly translated into Slovak taken from Russian mainstream propaganda sources – i.e., state media – and from numerous “alternative” resources, including garbage news platforms created by the Russian special services.
As a result, Slovak “alternative” resources, whose creations were considered until then the media eccentricities of home-grown conspiracy theorists, essentially became a freelance component of the Russian state propaganda machine. Subsequent events unequivocally confirmed this. Slovak trash media sites became more active and flooded the Slovak media space with their “creativity” whenever Russian propaganda needed quick friendly support, especially when local audiences needed to be told what “really” happened in cases where there were strong suspicions (and sometimes irrefutable evidence) about the Russian government’s involvement in serious crimes (e.g., the poisoning of the Skripals, Gebrev, and Navalny; the murder of Khangoshvili; and the explosion of the ammunition depot in Vrbetice in the Czech Republic). The same was seen when it became necessary to publicly lobby for Russian “proposals” (gas supplies to Europe, a Russian ultimatum to the U.S. and NATO to return to roll back to 1997) or to support the Kremlin’s attacks on the West for its strong reaction to Russian subversion (broadcast restrictions on Russian propaganda channels, expulsion of diplomatic spies, etc.).
This continued until February 2022, when the full-scale war was unleashed by the Putin regime against Ukraine. After a brief period of uncertainty, the Slovak pro-Russian rubbish sites continued supporting Russia as if nothing had happened, however this time the state deemed that red lines had been crossed and, by decision of the Slovak National Security Bureau (NBÚ), blocked access to (shut down) four main local online distributors of pro-Russian content. The NBÚ decision affected two daily online publications, Hlavné správy and Hlavný denník, the Infovojna portal, and the online journal Armádny magazín. All of these are well-known mouthpieces of pro-Russian propaganda with a relatively large audience.
Propaganda during Covid-19
It should be noted that the order to shut down the main pro-Russian online platforms was not the first decision of its kind in Slovakia. In February 2020, the state shut down several “para-medical” sham sites that were running rampant anti-vaccination propaganda and attacking government policies against the coronavirus pandemic (testing, use of masks and respirators, quarantine and lockdown, etc.). The fact that some of these resources were connected to extremist groups was obvious, as was their support of the policies of the Russian leadership. At that time, however, it was not this activity that led to the state’s decision. Fears that a segment of the population’s resistance to the government’s anti-covid policies and that refusal to comply with anti-epidemic measures would lead to a significant increase in the number of victims from a deadly disease were the top priority. The shocking reports of the deadly covid wave in Italy that caused genuine fear among the population, accompanied by television footage of endless columns of refrigerated trucks transporting the bodies of pandemic victims to morgues and crematoriums, forced the state to react swiftly and harshly and without much debate.
Total lockdown after the February invasion
From the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Slovak government openly supported Ukraine and could not ignore the activities of local agents that supported the aggressor. Pro-Russian online resources were quickly blocked. NBÚ defended its decision by maintaining that these resources distributed content that was harmful to the interests of the state. Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď directly linked the decision to block access to the Hlavné správy portal to the fact that its employees were spreading propaganda supportive of the aggressor state, with one caught red-handed while being passed money by an employee of the Russian embassy in Bratislava – an intelligence agent working under cover of the diplomatic mission. It was a payment for, among other things, authoring pro-Russian materials published on the Hlavné správy website.
Following some confusion caused by Russia’s aggression and the government’s decision to shut down pro-Russian sites in the wake of the turmoil that swept through the entire disinformation segment of the Slovak online space, the ranks of pro-Russian forces rallied again. Again, the fighters “for freedom of speech”, defenders of the “free flow of information”, raised their heads high, accusing the government of censorship, of suppressing dissent, and of rejecting the principles of pluralism. In this “holy struggle” for freedom, opposition figures, especially those leaning towards right-wing extremists, appeared chief among them, however they also included some representatives of the political mainstream.
Legal considerations have also come into play. The current law on cybersecurity has been used to justify the shutdown of online platforms because they disseminate “harmful information,” however no detailed explanation of what this harm constitutes is offered. The validity of the NBÚ decision was limited to three months (until the end of June 2022), after which the Parliament adopted an amendment to the law that would clarify the conditions for the validity and applicability of shutting down online resources to avoid situations that would allow the courts ex post to overturn decisions on blocking of sites.
Internal political problems as a restraint
Internal problems in the ruling coalition, including conflicts among representatives of individual parties in the government, however, weakened the ability of the ruling forces to quickly resolve urgent issues, including the blocking of pro-Russian platforms. A rough version of the amendment was issued that allowed the shutdown of pro-Russian platforms to be extended for the next three months, i.e., until the end of September 2022.
Meanwhile, in early September, the government led by Eduard Heger lost its majority in Parliament after the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS) left the ruling coalition. As a result, his cabinet became even less efficient and less effective. The blocking of pro-Russian websites ended at the end of September, and the main pro-Russian garbage media sites were up and running again, distributing their poisonous products, albeit more cautiously so as not to give the national security agencies an excuse to shut them down again.
In mid-November 2022, the government finally prepared a sound amendment to the law and approved it at its regular meeting. The draft was sent to Parliament for consideration and subsequent approval. However, domestic political turbulence again affected events. In the middle of December 2022, Parliament declared no confidence in the government. Significant changes were made in the composition of parliamentary factions, with some factions simply falling apart and ceasing to exist. Parliament became an arena for ambiguous action by some deputies who flooded the legislature with bills and were seeking additional political points before early elections scheduled for the end of September 2023.
In this chaotic environment in February 2023, Parliament began considering a government amendment to the cyber security law. Ultimately, the amendment did not pass the first reading, failing to gain the required number of votes of deputies, and it was formally recommended to return the bill to the government for additions and revision. Under Slovak law, however, a voted bill can only be considered again six months after its initial consideration. In mid-May 2023, a new non-partisan interim government of technocrats was appointed in Slovakia, the goal of which has been to lead the country to early September elections. And although the new government promises in its program document to continue to fight hybrid threats, hostile propaganda and disinformation, it is unlikely that it will be able to deal with bills that were returned by Parliament to the previous cabinet for revision during its short term in office. In other words, a fundamental solution to the problem will apparently be postponed until the appointment of a new government, which will be formed after the elections. It is a reality that the main pro-Russian platforms, opened after a half-year shutdown, again have a presence in the Slovak online space. And this, of course, is a problem.
What conclusions can be drawn from what is happening in Slovakia relative to the democratic state’s struggle with local pro-Russian propaganda agents? According to public opinion polls, Slovaks are exposed to various kinds of conspiracy theories and pro-Russian narratives to a greater extent than their Central European neighbors. Clearly, there are many factors that go into creating favorable conditions for the infiltration of Russian propaganda. In addition to socio-cultural and historically conditioned trends, this is primarily the activity of various types of public actors. Among them, the primary contribution is made by pro-Russian political figures, of whom there are many in Slovakia.
The media and information platforms have played a large role in this. On the one hand, mainstream media in Slovakia is essentially on the right track, truthfully informing people about events taking place in the country and in the world and emphasizing the importance of supporting Ukraine in its struggle to drive back Russian aggression. On the other hand, conspiracy and disinformation platforms that distribute “alternative” content that is overwhelmingly pro-Russian in their focus use every opportunity to promote Kremlin narratives, including those regarding Russian military aggression against Ukraine.
Public opinion polls conducted recently in Slovakia have shown a gradual weakening citizens‘ ability to effectively assess events related to Russia’s war against Ukraine. This is clearly the result, among other things, of a massive Russian propaganda attack on the population of Central European countries which had up until then prevented pro-Russian platforms from taking hold in Slovakia. The new Slovak government will have to consider this and prioritize the issue of blocking these platforms that are hostile to the existing democratic system in Slovakia and its pro-Western foreign policy and defense position.
Материал доступен на русском языке: Как в Словакии отключали пророссийские инфо-помойки