Prague, Czech Republic – Recent protests by far-right voters and Kotleba supporters against the COVID-19 restrictions in Bratislava, along with polls suggesting that less than one-fourth of Slovaks would agree to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, reveal that the scourge of widespread disinformation and the spread of conspiracy theories are neither harmless nor benign, but may very well have fatal consequences in this highly unusual day and age.
A violation of fundamental rights?
The seriousness of the pandemic and public health crisis, in Slovakia and elsewhere, however calls for greater caution and responsibility, and urges us not to give way to our anger over the people and organisations spreading fake news. At a time where social problems take on a life-threatening dimension, the last thing Slovakia needs is deeper polarization. This is a challenge to politicians and policy-makers, to the media and opinion-makers, and to every single individual.
When the news broke in Slovakia that a young mother from Košice had refused to wear a face mask and undertake a COVID-19 test before giving birth, a heated discussion on social media unraveled. The mother’s infuriated lawyer Adriana Krajnikova added fuel to the fire by writing on Facebook that government regulations to slow down the spread of the virus are a manifestation of “fascism”, and that the state of emergency was contrary to the Constitution and violated people’s individual and fundamental rights – including the right, according to her, not to take a COVID-19 test.
There are several arguments in favour of questioning the legality and constitutionality of the government’s emergency powers – extraordinary powers that, by their very nature, represent an infringement on people’s rights – albeit for a limited period of time and with a number of institutional oversight.
These doubts could very well be raised in a court of law, but should not be expressed in a way whose only purpose is to spread panic and disseminate unverified – and often unverifiable – claims. In reality, these doubts had already been raised prior to the Kosice scandal, and the Constitutional Court had ruled that the state of emergency is in accordance with the Slovak Constitution.
Living in an ideological bubble
This affair is just one of many others occurring in Slovakia, and a sad proof of the vulnerability of Slovak society to fake news and disinformation. Our leaders, politicians and journalists, responsible for initiating and shaping the public debate, also contribute, often unconsciously and unknowingly, to fueling ideological bubbles. This is properly alarming, especially at a time when disinformation can become a matter of life and death. It should also serve as a wake-up call for each and everyone of us not be extra-sensitive and attentive to how we react to anyone who expresses a different opinion than the one we’re commonly used to.
For who can really claim that they listen to and try to understand, in all honesty and candor, the arguments of the other party in a heated debate? More often than not, we all navigate the chaotic world of news and information by passively accepting the majority opinions and judgments of others located in the same ideological and digital bubbles as ourselves.
Why are Slovaks so vulnerable to disinformation?
Disinformation, a term commonly associated by the deceptive and manipulative techniques of communist propaganda, is far from being a new phenomenon in Slovakia, quite the contrary. The most infamous, mass disinformation campaign experienced by the country no doubt being the USSR’s propaganda leading up to the 1968 invasion and crushing of the Prague Spring, and aimed at convincing Warsaw Pact allies and neighbours that Czechoslovakia needed assistance due to an imminent military intervention allegedly prepared by Western powers.
The Slovak people were essentially deceived on a daily basis during more than forty years of communist rule. One could think that the population’s long-standing experience with government-led fake news and disinformation would have given them the tools to identify and combat them more efficiently than other nations. But the truth is more complex: the reality was so often distorted by the political ruling class and the media all the way down to one’s colleagues and neighbours that people simply did not know who to trust and what to believe.
The legacy of communist propaganda is more pervasive: instead of providing reliable tools and well-known bearings for the population to navigate the information world, it catapulted them into the post-truth era armed with an ingrained mistrust towards the “mainstream” discourse and an attraction for “alternative” sources of information – an incredibly fertile breeding ground for the spread of disinformation. The fact that the origin of the concept comes from the system in which we lived just thirty years ago aptly emphasis the depth of the problem in our country, and in the wider CEE region: the legacy of shattered trust continues to accompany us to this day.
Although the post-1989 generations were born and grew up in a democratic regime, institutional change does not guarantee a change in the population’s mentality – the latter being closely intertwined on whether or not parents and older generations taught their children and grandchildren the importance of civic engagement and trust in the system. In most households, this was not the case, a phenomenon partly due to Slovakia’s catastrophic first “democratic experience” under the rule of Vladimir Meciar in the 1990s. To some large extent, the belief in conspiracy theories remains built into the mindset of many Slovaks.
Anyone aware of the value of dialogue and of the importance of building bridges with anyone we don’t agree with has a responsibility to act towards that goal, now more than ever. To come back to the Kosice scandal mentioned earlier, lawyer Adriana Krajnikova must clearly and unequivocally be told what’s wrong with her actions and what’s at stake: someone else’s life.
But when semi-righteous liberals from Bratislava start, as they did, to insult and shame the young mother on social media in incredibly offensive ways – telling her, among other niceties, to go and give birth in the hospital’s nearby trash cans, bridges are not being built, but burnt. Witnessing the outburst of anger and outrage on social media, the management of the Kosice hospital said it feared riots would break out in front of the facility. This is the reality that is starting to set in, and the reality that we must combat at all costs.
By Lenka Hanulová
Originally from Bratislava, Lenka studied politics at King’s College and UCL in London, with a special focus on Russian and post-Soviet politics. She cooperated with several Slovak media and currently lives in Prague.