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Unpacking disinformation and the Slovak election with Dominika Hajdu

To celebrate the launch the PRINCEPS Risk Intelligence Institute, we invited Dominika Hajdu who heads GLOBSEC Center for Democracy and Resilience to share her commentary on the Slovak election. She was kind enough to sit down for an interview, during which she explained the actual role that disinformation played in the election and what this means for risk intelligence analysts looking at the region.

In articles about the Slovak election, Russian propaganda seems to have had a significantly greater impact in Slovakia, due to its culture, than in the Czech Republic and Poland. So now that the votes have been counted, how much of an impact did disinformation actually have on the results, or was it just a symptom of an already existing problem?

That's a very complex question because there are several elements. One of them is pro-Russian influence. So there is Russian influence per se, which is exercised for example through Kremlin-backed sites and news outlets like Newsfront and also a lot of different actors who then also spread these sources like RT and Sputnik. This is one of the factors that contributes to people believing these pro-Russian narratives.

But why is it so popular, right? Cultural issues play a role, I think the cultural and historically positive attitude towards Russia is one of the reasons that these narratives resonate with people. The other important factor is Slovak political actors who used this vulnerability to further spread pro-Russian content and disinformation that is anti-West.

In that sense, yes, pro-Kremlin propaganda plays a role, but then there are enablers who use disinformation to fuel anti-West narratives. Disinformation to spread fear has been one of the key tools in the election. This targets groups like immigrants, LGBTI people, and of course liberalism. Anything liberal is perceived as a threat.

In the coverage it all seemed to be grouped together, which I think makes it easier to dismiss the issue with the argument that "propaganda has always been used in elections".

Of course, it's difficult to categorize because political operatives tend to lump everything together. The articles about the Slovak elections in international media were mostly about foreign, international and geopolitical issues, because they are intended for an international audience. That is why they used "pro-Russian" as an umbrella term to describe this complex situation.

Among the Slovak audience, yes, there is a part among whom geopolitical issues like support for Ukraine resonated. But what resonated more was the idea of internal threats. This anti-liberal rhetoric, building on traditional values, building a family consisting only of a man and a woman. These narratives that are typical of all populist leaders across Europe and Kremlin's rhetoric. It's almost a template. What's crucial is recognizing when politicians employ these dangerous tactics.

When it comes to direct Russian influence in Slovakia, it peaked in 2014, but since then it has been largely domesticated. Now you have a lot of domestic outlets – “media” is too strong a word for them – that use Kremlin metanarratives, but they create their own stories that resonate among the local population.

Risk intelligence is a discipline developed in the West. What would you say to risk intelligence analysts looking at Slovakia? Could you elaborate on this domestic scene and why they shouldn't confuse it with a general Western media narrative about Russian disinformation?

I think – this is what we are doing in a way – they should begin by scrutinizing foreign-backed media whether it's the Kremlin or, in some cases in the Czech Republic, Beijing. Then examine the outlets utilizing these sources; who is citing RT, Sputnik or Newsfront and look at the scale, impact, and resonance of these sources. Russian-originated information poses a risk because it fulfills the Kremlin’s objectives. But I would separate that from the risk that disinformation poses to certain communities. Of course there will be huge overlaps, but I would treat the rhetoric around the LGBTI community or the migrant community almost as a separate issue, because these can have real, sometimes violent, consequences. So this is what I would do, I would start with primary sources and then branch out into thematic analysis based on their resonance.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Thank you for the opportunity.


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