A glossary of words is also published online.
This story was produced in partnership with Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
He created a fake Gmail account and wrote to a general email address of a popular Slovak disinformation website. “I am a fan and would like to write some stories, too,” he told them.
Robert Sopko, editor-in-chief of Hlavné Správy (Top Stories), one of the websites flooding the Slovak online space with disinformation, responded by saying he would decide on whether to cooperate after the contributor had written his first piece.
Sopko did not do a background check into this aspiring writer Marek Bakeš, nor did he ask for his CV or clippings of his previous work. If he had bothered to google Bakeš, he would have found no digital trace of him, which might have led him to realise that Bakeš was not a real person.
Marek Bakeš was an alias of Jakub Goda, the Slovak writer who became famous in Slovakia for writing about hoaxes and disinformation. That was in early 2018; today, he works with the Slovak Health Ministry on its communication strategies to counter the mass of disinformation that has spread around the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was about having hands-on experience. I can say that Hlavné Správy spread nonsense, so I know what I am talking about,” Goda said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
Satire presented as truth
Goda wrote about ten stories for Hlavné Správy. To be fair, Goda admitted, they were not satisfied with all those stories, since two were not published. But he did succeed in having a story run about a Muslim mayor of New Jersey who wanted to ban the word “Christmas”. This was a story taken from a satirical website, completely made up and even badly translated into Slovak.
“That I was able to write such nonsense [and they published it] is a sign that they work very poorly,” Goda noted. “This has nothing in common with how serious media should function.”
Ironically, Goda/Bakeš was “fired” when the editor-in-chief found out that the story was a hoax. By that time, however, it had been on the website for about 12 hours and widely read.
When Goda began dedicating his time to uncovering hoaxes and exposing disinformation four years ago, few people were involved in this sphere. But in the years since, a whole community of NGOs, media and individuals is now concerned with it.
With his “infiltration” of Hlavné Správy, Goda said he wanted to highlight the problems of disinformation websites not only to people who were not aware of them, but also to readers of Hlavné Správy itself. He noted that his article and also the reaction of the editor-in-chief on the website were widely read.
In 2018, Goda also took on the supermarket chain Billa, which was openly selling the magazine Zem a Vek (Earth and Time) – a rare exception to most disinformation outlets, as it has a printed version – that spreads hoaxes and deals in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes.
“I was in Billa today, planning to do a big weekend shop, when I saw Zem a Vek in the newsstand among the other magazines,” he wrote on the Facebook page of Billa back then, adding that it made him lose his appetite.
The Austrian supermarket chain, which operates across Central and Eastern Europe, replied to Goda’s post after nine days, promising that the Zem a Vek magazine would no longer be available at the counters of its supermarkets from the following month. This decision attracted widespread support as well as criticism. The Slovak designer Peter Hajdin pushed a similar initiative with Tesco, which reacted in the same way.
“Companies that have their own ethical code and are multinationals cannot sell anti-Semitic magazines that photoshopped a ‘Jewish nose’ onto the president’s face and spread insane conspiracy theories from chemtrails through to hoaxes about cancer,” Goda said.
The usual suspects
The GLOBSEC study, “Voices of Central and Eastern Europe”, published in June, showed that Slovaks tend to believe disinformation the most out of all the ten countries surveyed. Goda finds that hard to explain.
“In a way, it is a terrifying thought,” he noted, adding this seems to go beyond the internet and social networks, with perhaps older people trusting fake news the most. “It seems that there are types of narratives or thinking that offer an instant explanation of the world and that people tend to resort to these solutions towards many difficult questions.”
Disinformation outlets, financed often by hostile states such as Russia and China, often spread hoaxes, unverified information and conspiracy theories to erode people’s trust in institutions and undermine democratic values. Some aim to spread propaganda about other countries and weaken the particular country’s position within international unions and other organisations. Others are engaged in it for profit, first telling people that the cure for their disease will not work and then trying to sell them their own products.
Goda argues that government ministries need to develop long-term priorities in their communications with the public. There are positive examples, in Goda’s opinion: the Foreign Ministry has the long-term strategy of explaining Slovakia’s place in the world, its membership of the EU and NATO, and how Slovakia is not in the middle of Europe but in the west.
If I wrote today that the Roma get something for free, it would go viral.„
He is also able to predict which hoaxes will prove popular and be more widely disseminated. “If I wrote today that the Roma get something for free, it would go viral,” Goda said, adding that this is kind of Slovak evergreen. “So, we can observe the deeply rooted feeling in people that part of the population is being favoured based on their ethnicity. It should be a great topic for the Labour Ministry to expose this myth and work on countering it over the long term and systematically.”
He also cites the Culture Ministry, which could better explain to the public the economic and other benefits of culture, as there exists a narrative that artists do nothing and they are layabouts who are given money for no benefit to the wider public. And the Health Ministry needs to educate people about vaccinations and the dangers of alternative medicine.
This is currently part of his job at the Health Ministry, which sees social media as a key battleground in fighting disinformation. He is working with the ministry to broaden and deepen its communication with the public, monitoring disinformation on health matters and debunking it as it is disseminated. “In the middle of a pandemic, the urgency of this problem is even clearer,” he said.
Politicians as super-spreaders
The biggest villains in this sphere are the politicians who spread hoaxes, Goda believes. “This cannot be solved by any program against disinformation, only well-managed elections,” Goda said.
Slovakia has made some progress in this area, he notes. During the 2018 election campaigns, much of the lies and hate speech directed at the US Hungarian-born financier George Soros came out of the prime ministerial office when Robert Fico was PM, from his Smer party by MP Ľuboš Blaha and from the presidential candidate Štefan Harabin. All of them were defeated in the elections.
“But it will not disappear; when politicians feel the demand to spread such narratives, they will do it,” Goda said.
People who spread hoaxes, disinformation and unverified information often tend to use freedom of speech as justification for their actions. Goda said he has great respect for the issue of freedom of speech, but there needs to be a balance between keeping people safe and enabling free discussion of topics.
“The balance between safety, where the value is not to die unnecessarily of a disease, and freedom of speech, I think has shifted to the side of freedom of speech,“ Goda said, adding that with the advent of the internet people now have a greater opportunity to present their opinions in a way that will be heard. “So, I think we can shift towards the safety side again, for example in the protection of life.”
However, he adds that people need to constantly search for the right balance and question the approach. “We have noticed in the case of authoritarian countries, such as Hungary, Poland, there is a tendency to misuse the fight against disinformation by penalising opposition opinions, so this is something we should be very careful about.”
Note: In March 2022, the National Security Authority confirmed that it had blocked the Hlavné Správy website.
When and When Not to Respond
The sheer amount of disinformation means it is not possible to respond to every instance of it. Goda has devised a methodology for when and when not to react.
He cites three principles:
1. When a particular hoax or conspiracy theory is not very widely perceived in society, there is no need to respond. It is counter-productive to react to something that has not gained much traction and only shared by less than 100 people.
2. Consider the potential for any danger. Is it something that might persuade people to risk their health? For example, a recommendation to drink bleach. Does it involve spreading hate? If a million people think that the Roma are being given something for free and masks can cause chickenpox, these might really change people’s behaviour.
3. Are you able to react in a fast, convincing and trustworthy way. The Slovak Health Ministry has access to a wide range of experts, who can instantly provide a credible opinion, backed by hard science, on many issues.
The Spectator College is a programme designed to support the study and teaching of English in Slovakia, as well as to inspire interest in important public issues among young people.