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Hedging Bets with Disinformation

Visegrad Insight is the main Central European platform of debate and analysis that generates future policy directions for Europe and transatlantic partners. It was established in 2012 by the Res Publica Foundation – an independent think tank in Warsaw with its flagship Polish language publication Res Publica Nowa and the New Europe 100, a network of leaders of tomorrow.

During the spring, five mainly harmful and conspiratorial COVID-19 narratives were present across the Visegrad countries, with an additional one prevalent only in Hungary. While in Czechia and Slovakia, it was mainly fringe, far-right actors as well as fake news and disinformation platforms that spread the stories, ruling parties in Hungary and Poland and their supporters in the mainstream media also played a key – and sometimes even major – role.

Whether on more reliable or disinformation mediums, the coronavirus issue was underrepresented in the public discourse of the Visegrad countries until March 2020 when all four countries introduced similar lockdown measures and declared a state of emergency. Czechia and Slovakia were the first ones to do so, while Hungary followed suit only two weeks later.

One of the reasons behind the delay was that the ruling parties in Hungary and Poland followed their political agenda and used the situation to strengthen their power.

Global control, vaccine threats and migrants

One disinformation narrative that exists in all four countries explains the pandemic as a tool of global control. According to this line of argumentation, the virus was purposefully created in an effort to dismantle personal freedoms and hence to gain political and financial control.

Believers of this idea suspect a wide range of actors of pulling the strings in the background, including some governments, the Jews, the pharmaceutical industry, banks, millionaires like Bill Gates and George Soros, the Chinese Communist Party, the U.S. and the WHO.

Related to this global control narrative, the anti-vaccination component could also be identified. According to this account, the pharmaceutical industry is behind the pandemic and aims to either profit from the vaccine or to gain control over the population by injecting nano-chips in people along with the vaccine.

An anti-migrant narrative appeared in Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia, but in Hungary this was the leading narrative for few weeks, due to the government’s promotion and support. Migrants entering the European Union pose a serious threat to public health as they can bring in the disease, according to this account. A sub-branch of this narrative goes further arguing the pandemic and associated countermeasures are just a camouflage to conceal migration to Europe.

The relativisation of the pandemic was also popular, but this was mostly in Poland and Hungary. In this version, the pandemic is not happening or at least it is by far not that serious as other diseases, and the issue is exaggerated by the media and other actors to benefit from it.

Weak EU vs. strong autocracies

One of the most prevalent and overarching versions disseminated to the public in the V4 was about the failure of Western democracies and the inability of the European Union to handle the pandemic successfully.

While emphasizing the importance of nation states, this line of thinking says that the EU is a weak and inefficient organisation that is incapable of substantially helping member states during crises. This narrative also implied that democracies and democratic institutions in general are incompetent to handle such situations.

In contrast, Eastern, authoritarian countries have dealt better with the crisis and were even able to help some EU countries.

In this regard, China’s and Russia’s political systems were applauded for their efficient management of the epidemic. The logic stemming from this viewpoint argues that authoritarian systems with strong leaders and obedient societies are more capable of handling a crisis situation such as a pandemic.

Attacking the opposition

Not surprisingly, in Hungary, an anti-opposition narrative also emerged during the first wave of the pandemic.

This argumentation was spread by the Hungarian government as an element of its approach to politically exploit the issue.

Here, so the reasoning goes, the opposition betrayed the nation and hindered the protection against the virus by not supporting the Authorisation Act in March, which provided the government with a wide range of extra powers for an indefinite duration.

In addition, the government sought to shift the responsibility and blamed opposition-led municipalities, especially the mayor of Budapest for becoming COVID-19 hotspots. The government also cut the financial resources of local governments to tie their hands and prevent them from implementing efficient protection measures.

Second wave

The second wave of the pandemic has hit the Visegrad countries much more seriously than the first one. However, the global control, the virus-sceptical and anti-vaccine narratives have become even more prominent, along with the increasing criticism of and objection to protective measures.

At the same time, the anti-West and the anti-migrant narratives as well as the theory of the artificial origin of the virus have almost vanished.

Countermeasures

The pandemic has made conspiracy theories more accepted and widespread.

This can also be observed in the composition of virus-sceptics that ranges from the far left to the far right, including people from the centre of the society as well. The threat of an almost unknown virus, which turned our lives upside down, has led to increasing distrust and seeking quick explanations.

Some of the narratives identified also carry long-term risks. For instance, arguments of the anti-EU and anti-democracy narratives have definitely damaged the reputation of and trust in democratic institutions, which can easily be exploited by those having adverse interests. This takes a long time to repair and so, we have to start it immediately.

We need clear and factual communications and transparent decisions from governments and authorities as well as direct engagement with communities at the local level. Moreover, mainstream actors like the media, local governments, NGOs and businesses have to form alliances to prevent further polarisation of societies and the spread of disinformation.

The authors of this article are from Political Capital based in Budapest, Hungary. This article presents the key findings of recent research, which investigated what narratives thrived across the four Visegrad countries, and which political actors tried to capitalise on the situation during the first wave of the pandemic, from March to August 2020. With support from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, the research was conducted by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital and its national partners, the Institute for Politics and Society from the Czech Republic, the Institute of Social Safety from Poland and the Institute for Public Affairs from Slovakia.

This article can be checked in full at https://visegradinsight.eu/hedging-bets-with-disinformation/

Photo source: Visegrad Insight

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