Surge of disinformation around the Fico assassination attempt

Disinformation about the crime spread on social media shortly after the attempted assassination of Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico on May 15, reflecting Slovakia’s and the Europe’s struggling media landscapes.

EU Commission officials stated that they are constantly tracking the situation, including with foreign resources. As part of a probe launched in December 2023, the Commission is investigating the effectiveness of community notes in combating disinformation about the Fico assassination attempt, according to an official.

At the same time, Slovakian profiles were pushing misleading information about the assailant’s political views, portraying him as a harsh liberal who sought to take down Fico, generally regarded as a populist. On the other hand, global reports attempted to link the murder attempt to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the World Health Organization.

Dominika Hajdu, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Resilience at Bratislava-based think tank GLOBSEC, told Euractiv in an interview that internal politics “mostly link” the disinformation about the murder attempt on Slovakian social media. Hajdu feels the disinformation tactics have been quite quiet, demonstrating a sense of reasonableness in the face of a very dangerous situation.

Other specialists disagreed with this evaluation. Local disinformation was consistent with the current landscape that the administration has promoted till now, according to Pavol Hardos, an assistant professor at Comenius University in Bratislava and member of the project, a public database of Czech and Slovak disinformation websites. According to Hardos, the disinformation machine has attempted to link the gunman to Fico’s opposition, notably the Progressive Slovakia party.

“The disinformation is mostly about painting the domestic opposition, the civil sector, and the media as the ones who are responsible for or directly connected to the shooter,” Hardos stated. The assistant professor brought up an earlier report claiming the assailant was Ukrainian, a claim quickly refuted once police identified him. Some of the rumors originated from sites that have previously promoted pro-Russian propaganda, although it is difficult to determine who is behind the websites., a content moderation company based in Bratislava, reported a significant spike in online toxicity, such as abusive remarks, following the assassination attempt.

Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “there are still more people in Slovakia thinking that the United States is a greater threat than Russia to the security of Slovakia,” said security analyst Victor Breiner.

English-language disinformation posts have focused on speculation about Russia’s and Ukraine’s involvement.

Szabolcs Panyi, a Budapest-based journalist, released a photo on X, claiming the assailant was a member of the pro-Russian paramilitary group Slovenskí Branci. The journalist sourced the photo from a 2016 Facebook post by the group, which has garnered approximately 3 million views.

Other X accounts quickly disproved that the photo was artificially made, despite finding it on Slovensk Branci’s Facebook page.

“There was and still is a lot of pro-Russian disinformation about the assailant, including disproved claims that he’s a ‘leftist’, a Ukrainian citizen, has a Ukrainian grandfather, was a Progressive Slovakia activist, and so on.” Panyi responded to Euractiv via email, stating that these claims lack sourcing.

Profiles with tens of thousands of followers claimed Panyi’s tweet was part of a Ukrainian disinformation effort around the assassination attempt.

Even conservative US broadcaster Alex Jones, who was found guilty of peddling conspiracy theories alleging a major school shooting was a fabrication, jumped in: “Fico was supporting a peace accord between Russia and Ukraine and threatening to oppose Ukraine’s membership in NATO. “That’s why they tried to kill him,” he wrote on X. 

Another conspiracy theory that circulated in English was Fico’s position on the World Health Organization and COVID-19. The murder attempt occurred “only days after Fico formally and publicly rejected the WHO Global Pandemic Accord,” according to the self-proclaimed “conspiracy realist” account Concerned Citizen on X.

However, domestically, this “is not a salient topic of discussion,” according to Hardos. The nation is “really concerned with the domestic polarized struggle between the illiberal nationalist, far-right camp and the more pro-democratic liberal, pro-European, pro-NATO camp,” according to the professor.

Breiner claimed to have “seen photoshopped images of the shooter on Ukrainian war photos or on demonstrations organized by the political opposition.”

Given the significance of the news incident, “misinformation is everything and everywhere.”

Disinformation squads are “highly coordinated” and will “leevrage anything, any narrative.” They will “find the right angle” to appeal to both national and global audiences, Breiner said.

Source: Euractiv

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