Adapt Insitute, in cooperation with the European Values Center for Security Policy and Gerulata Technologies, prepared a research study for the NATO StratCom COE. The study was published by the end of 2022. Their joint effort was to identify important actors who communicate defence and security issues in the Slovak and Czech information space. The study then analyses what specific topics and narratives there were and with what sentiment they were communicated.
This text is largely a loose transcription of a podcast by Infosecurity.sk, Disinfo Report: State institutions are more successful in communicating defence topics in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic. The guests were Veronika Krátka Špalková (VKŠ) from European Values and Matej Kandrík (MK) from Adapt Institute. In the interview, there are also included answers from our colleague from Gerulata Technologies, Martin Brezina (MB).
How much are defence and security topics communicated in the public information space in Slovakia (SR) and the Czech Republic (CR)?
MK: In the Czecho-Slovak information space defence and security topics are communicated extensively, but they are often communicated only in connection with big political topics, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine. Defence topics such as the modernisation debate, the defence budget, etc. are not so interesting to the general public.
Are the topics of defence, security or the war in Ukraine the target of disinformation actors?
MK: Absolutely. These topics are politically explosive, people are interested in them and often they are based on simple narratives and divisions, such as that the war in Ukraine is a conflict between the United States and Russia, where Ukraine only figures as some kind of proxy actor or worse conspiracy theories about fascist bands committing genocide of the Russian people in Ukraine. Thus, we see Russian propaganda narratives and their mutations being taken up and communicated in the Slovak information space, from the far right to the anti-system to actors closer to the left-wing vision of the world.
VKŠ: The Czech disinformation scene is very much connected to the Slovak one. Security issues were very much part of disinformation narratives in the Czech Republic even before the war in Ukraine, especially, in the context of the North Atlantic Alliance and the Czech membership in NATO. The long-lasting effect of these disinformation narratives may be the reason why support for NATO in the Czech Republic has historically declined in the first place.
MK: The problem is that society, in general, does not address the importance and functioning of NATO, but rather sees it as some proxy for the US and the overall anchoring of the Czech and Slovak Republic in Western structures. The discussion is more about the direction of NATO from a high geopolitical perspective rather than NATO’s specific defence planning and so on.
Why did Gerulata Technologies decide to participate in the report project for NATO?
MB: At Gerulata Technologies, we consider it to be important to look for technological solutions to societal challenges. When the Adapt Institute approached us with a proposal to collaborate on researching and writing a report for NATO, we felt it was relevant to apply our technology of monitoring and analyzing the information space to this project.
What was Gerulata’s role in the preparation of the aforementioned report?
MB: For this research, we mainly provided technological tools for monitoring the information environment. All the data was collected by the Gerulata Juno monitoring system that we developed. The system allows monitoring of different information sources, such as social networks or media and news channels. Gerulata Juno enabled the use of advanced artificial intelligence models for language understanding and other advanced data analysis techniques to improve the analysis capabilities. In addition, data annotation, filtering, and visualisation were carried out through the platform.
Why did you choose the topic of analysis of defence and security issues in the information space for your research?
MK: Both the Adapt Institute and European Values profile themselves as institutions with a focus on international security and defence. So naturally, we were interested in how topics with defence themes are communicated in the Czech and Slovak info spaces, who communicates them, with what emotions or how they are communicated, and what are the central narratives in the given communication space. The research was put together in about half a year. We annotated over 10,000 posts, and each one was personally reviewed by our analysts. There is a lot of work behind it, with good results, although perhaps not so positive, especially when it comes to the Slovak information space.
VKŠ: The comparison was multi-dimensional. We compared the timing and how security topics were communicated before and after the Russian invasion started. We also compared the differences between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Given our shared history, it is quite striking how different the situation in our countries is.
What are the fundamental differences between the Czech and Slovak information space?
MK: The most active topic during our observation time (the summer of 2021 to the summer of 2022) was the tensions in Ukraine, of course. It applies to both countries. Since February of this year, the Russian war in Ukraine has had no competition in defence and security topics. The focus has been on military aid, the arrival of migrants, whether we involve Slovakia in the war or not, etc.
VKŠ: That’s right, the Russian invasion affected these topics extremely. Before the invasion, defence topics were communicated relatively randomly but intensively. In the autumn of 2021, the topic of Covid-19 still dominated or society focused on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan or the poor quality of overpriced military material purchased in the past, which the disinformation scene tried to use to question NATO itself and Czech membership in it. Since February, we have encountered literally no other type of information from a security and defence perspective than that relating to the Russian war in Ukraine.
MK: In Slovakia, before the war, the most talked topic was the defence agreement (DCA) with the United States, which became a breeding ground and perhaps even an information operation for disinformation actors.
Can you give us an overview of the results of the study in terms of the three categories mentioned above: actors, sentiment and specific themes?
MK: The most dominant actors in the communication of defence topics in Slovakia are political actors, whether political parties or individuals on the side of the government, parliament or the opposition. Individuals have been much more successful in communication than institutions such as the Ministry of Defence, etc. Other important players have been the mainstream media and a broad group of influencers who cannot be classified as media.
VKŠ: In the Czech Republic, mainstream media are the most vocal disseminators of defence-security topics, but the most effective communicators (we took into account reach and interactions with posts) were politicians. At this point the fundamental difference between communication in Slovakia and the Czech Republic becomes apparent. In the Czech Republic, the public media function very well and play a crucial role in informing the public. The sentiment was therefore slightly more balanced than in Slovakia, as the public media remain neutral, while political actors often lean towards one of the parties. What should attract the attention of the Czech audience is that the overall most effective communication was shown by the MEP for the Communist Party, Kateřina Konečná, which means that the pro-Western politicians were still outnumbered by the right or the far left.
MK: Considering the methodology, posts with some emotion, whether positive or negative, always have more reactions or interactions in the information space than simple informational messages. This is also why we know that mainstream media information posts cannot compete in terms of effectiveness with emotionally tinged posts from influencers and political actors.
The clear winner in the emotionally coloured posts examined in Slovakia was an anti-Western sentiment, and in particular criticism of the United States, the European Union and NATO. The biggest players in this anti-Western role are influencers, political actors and not so much alternative media. All these actors had very strong positions in the Slovak information space.
Unlike in the Czech Republic, where anti-Russian sentiment was the strongest, followed by anti-Western sentiment only at a great distance.
What are the most interesting findings in the report from Gerulata’s perspective?
MB: From Gerulata’s perspective, the most interesting findings were the insights into the attitudes and opinions of the most popular actors on defence-related topics, as well as any notable trends that emerged during the analysis.
A particularly interesting output is a network graph that compares the information environment between Slovakia and the Czech Republic in the context of communication on defence topics. While the Slovak information space has more pronounced clusters, clustering is somewhat less dominant in the Czech information space. This phenomenon is, in our opinion, due to the fact that in Slovakia social media are used to a greater extent for political marketing.
Does Gerulata plan to reflect in any way on the results of the report or the experience of its preparation?
MB: The results of the report have helped to identify areas for improvement. We would like to share these findings with other relevant actors to whom our findings are relevant.
Let’s just focus on the dominant actors, how did you categorize them?
VKŠ: State institutions play a much smaller role in the Czech context than in Slovakia. That was one of the main differences. In the Czech Republic, the media and politicians are much more in the driving seat, but institutions are at the tail end of that list. If anyone can communicate these issues externally reasonably well, it is the Czech Army, which has an active Twitter account and also a Facebook account. Since the beginning of the war, the Foreign Ministry has also joined this communication, but this fact is specific to the new situation. Since the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian Embassy in Prague has also joined the communication with the public and has been really active and dominant.
MK: We see a positive trend in Slovakia and that is that institutions are managing to communicate better and better. We can see that the increase of communication capacities in individual communication departments or the creation of completely new departments in the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Office of the Government is improving over time. Of course, their communication is still somewhat weaker in terms of interactions than when it is communicated by an individual, for example, Minister of Defence Jaroslav Naď. This is probably natural, and that is why I would also like to encourage colleagues in individual institutions to continue to work on this important communication without a political face and thus increase future trust in institutions and their quality.
What do the results tell us about the sentiment on the West-Russia axis?
VKŠ: It is a bit more balanced in the Czech information space than in the Slovak space. In the Czech Republic, there is a sentiment that is pro-Western or negative towards Russia, and this is successful both among political actors and mainstream media, civil society actors, etc. Only a category of influencers divides the negative and positive sentiment towards Russia, or towards the West because we can include any individual actors under the group of “Influencers”. Only one group shows a clear anti-Western sentiment, and that is the alternative media group.
MK: We see a very similar structure of what kind of actors and how they communicate in Slovakia. The biggest players with an anti-Western sentiment were political actors, influencers and alternative media, very similar to the Czech Republic. The agents of negative sentiment towards Russia were mainly representatives of the ruling coalition so far and to a large extent the mainstream media.
What narratives were more prevalent?
VKŠ: If we focus on narratives, in the Czech Republic one of the biggest topics was the supply of weapons to Ukraine, this topic was extremely politicized. What’s different from Slovakia is that in the Czech Republic, the issue of the energy crisis came up a little bit earlier. The impact of the war on energy prices was addressed and resulted in questioning the most shared topic of the arms supply or the case of refugee support. As expected, the Czech government has been accused of supporting the war in Ukraine and thus disadvantaging its citizens.
MK: In Slovakia, we have observed the phenomenon that attention has been diverted and appeals have been made to the wars in Yugoslavia or Iraq or Afghanistan. Especially about the war in Yugoslavia, where the narrative of Slavic brotherhood was used, pointing out that NATO or the Western world has no moral credit to criticise Russia for what it is doing, “because, look what we did in Yugoslavia, what we did in Iraq…”. This is the so-called tactic of ”whataboutism” and it is quite prevalent in Slovakia compared to the Czech information space.
VKŠ: The Czech, but also the Slovak information space has been largely dominated by the narrative that we are being dragged into a conflict that is not ours, in which we have nothing to say and nothing to be interested in.
MK: Exactly, it worked in Slovakia as well. We called it the “a position of false neutrality,” and interestingly enough, it was quite often associated with admiration for the position of the current Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, which was characterized by the attitude of “humanitarian aid yes, military aid no,” because that would have undermined their neutral position in this conflict.