In the Czech Republic, the media ecosystem is plagued by disinformation. A group of PR professionals have teamed up to cut off dodgy outlets from their main, and often only, source of income — online ads.
The shadow of Soviet-era influence still looms large over the Czech Republic. Recently, it has experienced a spate of disinformation and fake news — a blend of pro-Russian propaganda and anti-EU rhetoric.
Besides media outlets like the Russian government-sponsored Sputnik, there are dozens of other online media platforms churning out popular Kremlin talking points to the country's unsuspecting audiences. According to various estimates, the Czech-language disinformation outlets reach about 10% of the country's population.
While some of those outlets show a clear political orientation, often strictly anti-EU and anti-liberal, others seem to favor whatever type of content can generate the most clicks, from anti-5G conspiracy theories to pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel standing alongside Adolf Hitler, drawing parallels between today's Germany and the Nazi Third Reich.
Roman Cihalik, a Prague-based PR professional, says that he and his colleagues could no longer bare seeing their work on one of the many disinformation websites on the Czech internet.
"From our experience, the absolute majority of companies who advertise online have no idea where their ads end up," Cihalik says.
In order to help companies safeguard their reputation, as well as to cut Czech-language disinformation outlets from their key source of revenue, Cihalik teamed up with others to set up an association called Nelez ("Do not lie").
The initiative offers free-of-charge consultations for companies, providing guidance through the muddy world of online advertising, and making sure their clients' online ads don't end up on sites spreading falsehoods.
Cihalik says they mostly work with multi-national corporations that have the resources to systematically nurture the reputation of their brands.
"We also approach companies ourselves when we find their ads on websites that share disinformation," he explains. "The vast majority of them react positively. They work with us on putting together a 'blacklist' of websites where they don't want to advertise."
It would, of course, be much easier if the advertising platforms themselves made it impossible for their clients to place online ads on websites that share disinformation.
Like in most other countries around the world, Google is the most widely used search engine in the Czech Republic. But the country also has its own, home-grown search engine — Seznam. According to an analysis by E-visions, an online marketing company, the two tech companies combined hold 96% of the Czech search engine market.
Since 2018, Seznam, which, like Google, runs an online advertising platform, has offered its clients the option to block their ads from appearing on websites listed byKonspiratori.sk, a public database of Czech and Slovak websites that traffic in disinformation.
However, the Czech tech company steers clear of outright blacklisting those websites from its ad pool.
"We don't think it is our place to make the judgement upon what does and does not constitute disinformation," Seznam's spokeswoman Aneta Kapicanova says.
Cihalik appreciates the fact that Seznam is at least making an effort in the fight against disinformation.
"With Seznam there is at least a will to do something to improve the situation. It is much worse with companies like Google and Facebook," he says.
Google Czech Republic's spokeswoman Alzbeta Houzarova says that the world's largest search engine has a more difficult job fighting disinformation given its global presence. "The situation is more complicated for us because Google Ads is a global product which is available to our clients worldwide," she explained via mail.
This makes it more difficult to target websites in a particular country. Instead, Google's Publisher Policies, which regulate the type of content that can be used for monetization, apply to websites worldwide.
Too close to Russia
Frantisek Vrabel has been working in the defense and security sector for almost 20 years. He now runs a company named Semantic Visions. Using latest technologies such as web mining and data semantics, the Prague-based data company analyzes and synthesizes 90% of web news content in real time.
Vrabel is now working alongside Cihalik and others to bring down the Czech-language disinformation websites. Specifically, his company tracks sources of disinformation globally and helps with the identification of those Czech-language websites that propagate those narratives.
"Although it is not our primary business, the technology we use allows us to detect disinformation. We are able to track the disinformation narratives," Vrabel says.
Vrabel says that the Czech Republic is hit particularly hard by Russian disinformation. "Our analysis suggests that the closer to Russia you are, the more exposed you are. In relative numbers, there is twice as much Russian disinformation in the Czech online space than in Germany. In turn, Germany has to deal with twice as much Russian disinformation than the United States."
Strong civil society
Although the Czech Ministry of the Interior works for internal purposes with a list of Czech-language disinformation outlets, there is still no official body in the country to identify which websites spread disinformation, let alone shut them down.
Vrabel says that Czech politicians lack the courage to take a strong stance. "Many of the politicians that have the authority to do so are either too closely linked with the disinformation scene or just fear being seen as censors."
Still, the Nelez initiative is determined to reach its ultimate goal.
"We want to stop the spread of the disinformation virus. We will do so by cutting those websites from their often only source of income — ad revenue," says Vrabel.