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Summary of Findings on the Czech Presidential Elections 2023

The Centre against Hybrid Threats of the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic focuses on hybrid threats related to internal security. This includes integrity of elections, which is why the Centre also monitors disinformation and manipulative narratives related to this topic that appear within the quasi-media ecosystem. By “quasi-media ecosystem” we mean both quasi-media websites and public accounts on digital platforms that focus on elections from the quasi-media perspective. The ecosystem was monitored between November 2022, which was the deadline to register as a candidate running for the Office of the President, and the end of January 2023, when the results of the second round of the presidential election were announced. 

The presidential election became visible within the quasi-media ecosystem in November, however it can be characterized as a prominent topic only from the week that directly preceded the first round of the presidential election. The number of disseminated articles/posts reached its peak on days when the results were announced, both after the first and second round of the election. During the monitored period, more posts appeared on digital platforms, but the rate at which they were published was rather unstable, marked by significant drops. Conversely, quasi-media websites produced fewer articles, but at a stable rate.

A qualitative analysis of the thematic production unveils three main themes that the quasi-media ecosystem focused its narratives on. The first theme consisted of narratives attacking the legitimacy of the election process. The second theme consisted of narratives attacking specific presidential candidates. The third theme consisted of narratives which promoted specific presidential candidates. It can be stated that most of the articles and posts produced at the beginning of the monitored period contained narratives attacking the integrity of the election process, whilst later texts focusing on the positive or negative portrayal of specific presidential candidates became more prevalent.

Thematic production containing attacks on the legitimacy of the election process followed two main lines. The first line consisted of attacks against the Ministry of the Interior with a manipulative criticism of the registration process for presidential candidates, with claims that the Ministry of the Interior deliberately excluded inconvenient candidates from the process (e.g. here, here or here). These narratives were promoted most notably by the rejected presidential candidate Pavel Zítko, who failed to provide the Ministry of the Interior with the minimum number of valid signatures from citizens that was required to register as a candidate, and who is known on the quasi-media scene, inter alia, for spreading the QAnon conspiracy theory. Zítko was later joined by activist Jana Peterková, who is also known on the quasi-media scene, and together they disseminated a narrative originated by the disinformation website Aeronet. According to Aeronet, the election process was not legitimate because the candidate petition forms submitted to the Ministry of the Interior were allegedly verified by Hewlett-Packard, a foreign company chosen for the task in breach of the law and without a proper selection procedure. This narrative, which was spread on quasi-media until the end of the monitored period, was supported by a small demonstration (fewer than 10 people) in front of the Ministry of the Interior on the day the first round of the presidential election was held. The demonstration was streamed online by the local pro-Kremlin quasi-media Raptor TV and was attended by Peterková and Zítko. The second line consisted of accusations that the election process is not legitimate because of outside manipulation, particularly by the media, opinion polls, courts and secret transnational organisations (e.g. here, here, here or here).

At this point, it needs to be stated that, although there were occasional voices accusing the election process of having been falsified (e.g. here, here or here), no larger anti-systemic movement emerged that would question the legitimacy of the election process and that would lead to concrete acts such as those following the U.S. presidential election in 2020. The quasi-media ecosystem largely accepted the election result, albeit viewing it as negative for the future of the Czech Republic.

As for manipulative and false attacks against presidential candidates, before the first round of the presidential election the quasi-media ecosystem aimed its attacks primarily at Danuše Nerudová (e.g. here, here or here), Petr Pavel (e.g. here, here or here), and Andrej Babiš (e.g. here, here or here), and marginally at some of the other candidates. As time progressed, attacks against Babiš ceased entirely, while attacks against Pavel rose up across the whole quasi-media ecosystem in a widespread and massive wave following the first round of the election. In this context, it is worth mentioning that shortly before the second round of the election, a manipulatively edited video was widely circulated in which Pavel appears to say, contrary to reality, that the Czech Republic must enter into a war with the Russian Federation. The video was first uploaded by the Telegram account “neČT24”, which is the new account of Sputnik, the Russian propaganda medium currently on the EU sanctions list. It can thus be stated that disinformation activity by a foreign power aiming to damage one of the presidential candidates was registered during the Czech presidential election of 2023.

As a third significant theme, support for specific presidential candidates appeared across the quasi-media ecosystem. From the beginning, this support was directed almost exclusively at Jaroslav Bašta (e.g. here, here or here). Bašta received support from disinformator Ladislav Vrabel, to whom he gave an interview. Shortly before the first round of the presidential election the quasi-media ecosystem began expressing support for Babiš. After the announcement of the results of the first round, the quasi-media ecosystem began expressing massive support for Babiš against Pavel, although not without a degree of hesitancy, referring to Babiš as the “lesser evil” (e.g. here, here or here).

The support given to Babiš illustrates the difference between quasi-media and digital platforms within the quasi-media ecosystem. On social media, support for Babiš appeared with a delay as compared to quasi-media, which showcases the fact that the quasi-media ecosystem is not uniform and that different dynamics are at play within its individual branches. At the same time, it can be deduced that quasi-media create a framework for the general mood on digital platforms and function as an agenda setter, which then spills over onto digital platforms, albeit with some delay and not always with 100% accuracy.

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