Tuesday

20th Aug 2019

Investigation

Slovakia - the latest front in the alt-right EU infowars

  • Allegations that the mainstream Slovak media avoid negative reporting on migration are unfounded (Photo: Miroslav Petrasko)

A fierce information war is taking place in Slovakia.

On one side is the mainstream media, which presents itself as the defender of journalistic values against disinformation. On the other side, there are the so-called 'alternative media', which claim to fight against censorship.

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  • Over half of Slovaks get their news through social media - and 47 percent of those, trust it (Photo: Kyra Preston)

Migration has become their prime battleground, and refugees the victims.

Slovakia has hardly felt the migration crisis that has affected Europe since 2015. There are only a few hundred refugees in the country.

Still, many people feel uneasy about them. According to a 2016 poll by Gallup, 61 percent of Slovaks were against accepting any migrants. This makes Slovakia the fifth-least welcoming country of some 138 polled.

"The mainstream has refused to give these people [those against immigration] space. It has pushed them into the role of 'disgusting racists'," claims Juraj Polacek, who runs the website Medzicas.

"Debate should include those who disagree, and you cannot find that in the mainstream," he says. "Medzicas is the voice of these people. We founded it so that we can present events as we see them without being banned from the mainstream media blogs".

In fact, Polacek runs several media projects that challenge Slovakia's pro-Western orientation.

Such media have mushroomed in recent years and some have drawn a big audience.

They have been called by a variety of names, from alt-right to anti-system, to conspiracy and disinformation. Depicting the West's moral, economic, political and social degradation, they have also been accused of being Kremlin agents.

However, direct links between these media and Russia have never been proved.

'Greedy, violent refugees'

Their migration stories are overwhelmingly negative, portraying refugees as violent murderers and rapists and warning that Islam will destroy Europe as we know it.

Negative migrant stories published by the alternative media focus on depicting refugees and Islam as a danger.

They also suggest refugees do not appreciate the help they get.

Other themes that appear less frequently include sexism, migration routes, integration problems, criticism of the EU and political elite, opposition abroad, and personalities that are opposed to refugees and censorship.

Results are based on the analysis of the most-shared migrant stories (according to Buzzsumo) published between August 2017 and January 2018.

"We inform about the things that the mainstream media refuse to publish," says Norbert Lichtner.

He founded two internet radio stations - Slobodny Vysielac in 2013 and Infovojna, which translates as Infowar, in 2015. "I don't mind looking like a xenophobe if it means that a lorry won't drive into my wife," he says - arguing that the mainstream media would never admit the EU has failed to control who gets in.

"If they did their job well, if they were balanced as they claim, we would not exist."

However, allegations that the mainstream media avoid negative reporting on migration are unfounded.

An analysis of coverage between August 2017 and January 2018 shows that about a third of the mainstream media stories were negative.

Neutral stories made half of their coverage.

In comparison, three quarters of the stories in the 'alternative media' were negative. The analysis is based on 109 articles retrieved through Buzzsumo, an online tool that allows identifying the most popular content shared on the social media.

Facebook power

The alternative media claim their coverage completes the picture of migration crisis. However, several studies in the neighbouring Czech Republic suggest that only a part of those who read alternative media balance their views through the mainstream media.

The alternative media dominate the debate on migration on Facebook.

Hlavne Spravy, the most popular alternative website in Slovakia, has pushed on social media more refugee stories than any other media outlet, according to the analysis.

These were twelve times more shared than the stories by the mainstream daily SME, which receives almost seven times more visits, according to the data-analytics tool Similarweb.

There are no studies on the influence of the alternative media on the public opinion in Slovakia. Slovak attitudes towards migrants were overwhelmingly negative even before the alternative media started catering to them.

But, according to the 2017 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, over 50 percent of Slovaks ( and 68 percent of 18-24 year olds) consume news through Facebook. According to the 2018 Eurobarometer, 47 percent of Slovaks who get their news through social media, trust them.

Journalism or propaganda?

While the alternative media criticise the mainstream media for the 'censorship' of dissenting voices, the latter denounce the former's lack of journalistic values.

"They do not care about the ethics. Their mission is not to inform and watch the state power, but to campaign: against the system, the Muslims, the West," says Vladimir Snidl, a journalist who specialises in alternative media with the mainstream daily Dennik N.

"The refugee crisis was a blessing for them. A few years ago, the critics of the EU didn't have any big themes. Now they use migration to question the whole European project," he said.

Since 2016, a database called Konspiratori has been listing websites which it says spread disinformation, conspiracy theories and propaganda.

The goal is to cut their revenues by persuading companies that advertising on these websites would damage their brand.

A commission made of journalists and academics evaluate websites against a set of criteria, including respect for journalistic ethics, transparency of sources, contributors and ownership structure.

In this evaluation, Infovojna scored 8.8 out of 10 negative points, ranking it 63rd among 120 websites on the list. Medzicas is at 86th position with 8.3 points, while Hlavne Spravy received 7.9 points, at 93rd position.

Another popular 'alternative' website, Parlamentnelisty.sk, challenged their inclusion with a lawsuit. However, they dropped it after being removed from the list last October.

Jan Urbancik, the head of NetSuccess, a marketing company behind Konspiratori, told Strategie magazine that Parlamentnelisty.sk has improved. "We are glad to see that because of our initiative several websites have become stricter with their content and sources", he said.

However, for the alternative media and their audiences, Konspiratori itself is yet another proof of censorship.

The owner of Hlavne Spravy, Robert Sopko, called Konspiratori "a smear campaign" by the mainstream media with the goal of knocking out the competition.

Six out of Konspiratori's 14-member evaluation commission have links to the major mainstream dailies SME and Dennik N. Moreover, the CEO of SME's publisher is its honorary member.

Hlavne Spravy seems to have been affected by the list.

At the beginning of 2017 Sopko asked its readers "more intensively than ever before for donations" - implying that, despite the reported 20-30 percent increase in daily visits, the website's advertising revenue had fallen.

The killing of a journalist

The recent murder of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak seems to have given a stronger impetus to the mainstream media's case.

Visits and subscriptions to all major media outlets have grown dramatically.

"There has been an increased interest in the work of journalists and a greater respect for this profession," says Jakub Goda, a blogger specialised in the media. "The question is if the mainstream media will be able to maintain this heightened attention."

Mira Galanova is a Slovak journalist covering human rights and security, now based in Colombia. This article was developed with support from Journalismfund.eu.

EU tells platforms to sort fake news by October or face new law

The European Commission wants results by October against fake news - or it may impose regulations targeting "a few platforms." But its current plans are not acceptable to everyone, with civil groups saying more evidence is needed to shape policy.

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