The Center for Combating Hybrid Threats of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Czech Republic deals with hybrid threats in the field of internal security, which also includes the issue of election integrity, and therefore monitors disinformation and manipulative narratives that appear on this topic in the quasi-media ecosystem. A quasi-media ecosystem means both quasi-media websites and open accounts on digital platforms that address the topic of elections from a quasi-media perspective. This ecosystem was watched from November 2022, when it was no longer possible to run for president, until the results of the second round of elections were announced at the end of January 2023.
The presidential election became more visible within the quasi-media ecosystem in November, but it can be described as a dominant topic only in the week preceding the first round of the presidential election. Quantitatively, production was at its highest on the days when the results of the first and second rounds of elections were announced. On digital platforms, there were usually more posts with a theme, but the rate at which they were made was very unstable, and there were big drops in interest in the election topic during the period that was watched. In contrast, quasi-media sites had a lower but more stable output.
As for the quality of thematic production, there were three main themes that the stories in the quasi-media ecosystem centered on. The first theme consisted of narratives attacking the legitimacy of elections, the second consisted of narratives attacking specific candidates, and the third consisted of narratives promoting specific candidates. It can be stated that at the beginning of the monitored period, texts attacking the elections as such dominated, but during this period, texts positively or negatively connected with individual candidates began to predominate.
ATTACKS ON THE LEGITIMACY OF ELECTIONS
The production on the topic of attacks on the legitimacy of elections followed two basic levels. The first consisted of attacks against the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic and was a manipulative criticism of the registration of candidates, when it was claimed that the ministry had deliberately eliminated inconvenient candidates (e.g. here , here or here). These narratives were promoted in particular by the rejected candidate Pavel Zítek , who did not provide the Ministry of the Interior with the necessary number of valid signatures, and who is known on the quasi-media scene for, among other things, spreading the conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Zítek was later joined by the activist Jana Peterková, also known on the quasi-media scene, and together they spread the narrative from the disinformation website Aeronet, according to which the elections were not legitimate, as the petition sheets of the candidates for the Ministry of the Interior were allegedly to be verified by the foreign company Hewlett-Packard, chosen in violation of the law and without a proper selection procedure. This narrative, which appeared continuously until the end of the monitored period, was then supported by a small demonstration in front of the Ministry of the Interior building on the day of the first round of elections, which was streamed online by the pro-Kremlin quasi-media Raptor TV and which was attended by units of people, including Peterková and Zítka. The second level of this theme of illegitimate elections consisted of the claim that the elections are manipulated from the outside, while the main culprits are supposed to be the media, public opinion polls, courts, or transnational secret organizations (e.g. here , here , here orhere ).
At this point, it should be noted that, while there were isolated voices after both rounds of elections that the election results were falsified (e.g., here, here, or here), there was no larger anti-systemic wave of questioning the legitimacy of the elections, which would lead to physical action, as seen, for example, in the presidential elections in the United States in 2020. Even though the election results were seen as very bad for the future of the Czech Republic, the quasi-media system as a whole tended to accept them.
ATTACKS AGAINST CANDIDATES
In terms of manipulative and even lying attacks on individual candidates, prior to the first round of elections, the quasi-media ecosystem primarily targeted Danua Nerudová (e.g., here, here, or here), then Petr Pavl (e.g., here, here, or here), and Andrej Babi (e.g., here, here, or here), and marginally some other candidates. Attacks against Babiš then disappeared during the monitored period, while against Pavlov after the first round, a widespread and massive wave of online attacks across the entire quasi-media ecosystem arose. In this context, it is worth noting that before the second round of elections, a widely shared and manipulatively edited video appeared, in which Pavel seemingly declared that the Czech Republic must enter the war with the Russian Federation, although he never actually declared this publicly. The video appears to have been uploaded to the digital space for the first time by the Telegram account ” neČT24 “, which is the new account of the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik , which is on the EU sanctions list. It can thus be concluded that disinformation activity by a foreign power, aimed at damaging one of the candidates, was recorded as part of the Czech presidential elections in 2023.
As a third prominent theme, support for specific candidates spread across the quasi-media ecosystem, while from the beginning it was practically exclusively about support expressed for Jaroslav Bašt (e.g. here , here or here). Bašta also received support from disinformer Ladislav Vrabel , to whom he also gave an interview . In the period before the first round, the quasi-media ecosystem began to express support for Babiš as well, while after the announcement of the results of the first round, the quasi-media ecosystem began to en masse express support, albeit with reservations, for Babiš against Pavlov, while Babiš was referred to as the “lesser evil” (e.g. . here , here or here ).
On the topic of the support expressed by Babiš, it is possible to illustrate the difference between quasi-media and digital platforms. Babiš’s support spread to social networks with a delay compared to quasi-media, which points to the fact that the quasi-media ecosystem is not a homogeneous mass, as different dynamics operate within the individual components. At the same time, it can be inferred that the quasi-media creates a framework for moods on digital platforms and therefore functions as an actor setting an agenda, which, however, manifests itself only with a noticeable delay and not always completely 100%.