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Slovakia’s shock election: a disinformation case study

November 2023
 by Tom Stewart-Smith

Slovakia’s shock election: a disinformation case study

November 2023
 By Tom Stewart-Smith

On 30 September 2023, Slovaks went to the polls following the collapse of the government amid continued infighting. The vote resulted in a shock victory for the nationalist Smer-SD (Direction-Social Democracy), defying the exit polls which had predicted a victory for the pro-European Progressive Slovakia. Smer’s leader, former Prime Minister Robert Fico, has made international headlines for his staunch opposition to arming Ukraine, as well as multiple corruption allegations against him.

As is increasingly common, disinformation proved to be a factor in this divisive election. But unlike in other electoral disinformation campaigns, where trolls and conspiracy sites are typically the main drivers of disinformation, in this case frontline politicians themselves appear to have been involved. Slovak disinformation investigator Peter Jancarik reports that party leaders presented disproven claims to gain support and coverage.

Assessing the reach of Slovak electoral disinformation

We’ve investigated several false statements that dominated the election cycle, to gauge their reach. These popularised false statements include a claim that the country’s President Zuzana Čaputová was a puppet controlled by George Soros, and a narrative asserting that forces in the country were attempting to commit electoral fraud to cause Smer and other nationalist parties to lose the election.

The final theory alleged that the arrest of the country’s former Police Chief and Smer party member Tibor Gašpar for corruption during the election cycle was carried out as a way to suppress Smer. This links to wider claims from Smer and its supporters that Slovakia is facing a policajný prevrat (police coup), a narrative that suggests police attempts to crack down on corruption and organised crime are being carried out as a means to politically control the country.

These conspiracies tend to focus on framing Slovak society as divided between ‘globalists’ – such as the EU, President Čaputová, migrants and several political parties who are against the ‘patriotic’ elements of society, such as Smer and their voters – and ultranationalist parties, such as the neo-fascist party Republika.

Our analysis of social media activity during the campaign

By comparing the use of key phrases on Twitter/X and Facebook, we found that most of these discussions were taking place on Facebook, where Smer has a strong social media presence, and the posts there received more engagement. While the election’s runner up, Progressive Slovakia, has over 56,000 followers on Facebook, Smer has 153,000 – a figure that could be significant given only about 150,000 votes separated the two parties on election day.

To understand the difference in engagement between Facebook and Twitter, we conducted searches on both platforms for the phrase “policajný prevrat”, meaning “police coup”. This term is used by nationalists to refer to the alleged conspiracy that the police services are attempting to take over the country under the guise of cracking down on corruption. The term was notably used after the arrest of several members of the Slovak security services for corruption in mid-August.

From 15 December 2022, when parliament was initially dissolved, to election day on 30 September 2023, our proprietary technology identified just 24 instances of the phrase being used on Twitter/X, with limited engagement in the posts. In contrast, a search for the same phrase on Facebook during the same time period returned far more results. It is worth noting that these results only contain publicly-available posts, and many more private posts were likely made and shared during the period.

A post published on 17 August 2023 by Smer leader Robert Fico supports the unevidenced claim that a police coup was underway. At the time of writing, this post has received over 3,800 likes, 568 comments and 446 shares.

A screenshot of a social media post
Description automatically generated

It was not just mainstream politicians that saw traction for the term “policajný prevrat” on Facebook. The online influencer Ľuboš Kabát created a post saying that the alleged police coup was in fact a liberal coup. His post, which featured no sources or links to articles, and included a series of unsubstantiated claims about the supposed involvement of liberal-leaning politicians in the police service’s decision, received 288 likes, 76 comments and over 1,100 shares.

While Facebook has a fact-checking feature to flag potentially inauthentic content, no label was attached to this post. The low number of likes in comparison to the number of shares may suggest the post has been artificially shared by bot accounts to boost reach – human users tend to like posts that they share.

An analysis of the accounts that shared the post showed they have similar characteristics to each other, suggesting coordinated behaviour. For example, on 17 October 2023, two accounts shared the same French-language post from 12 August 2020 – despite both accounts usually posting content in the Slovak language.

The majority of the accounts posted political content many times a day on Facebook. There are similarities in the content of the posts they shared – such as the same posts from Robert Fico, anti-LGBT memes, and pro-Russian content. Many of these posts are then shared on Facebook groups, some of which are public. For example, an article containing dubious screenshots that claimed to show text messages discussing corrupt dealings between senior members of non-nationalist parties was shared on a public group, receiving over 100 likes.

The article was from a site called koalafeed.com. Konspiratori.sk is a Slovakian anti-disinformation site that provides a list of all Slovakia sites that its researchers determine are hosting conspiratorial and propaganda content. Koalafeed.com is listed on the website with a 7.6/10 risk rating, suggesting researcher analysis of the site has determined it is likely to be hosting potentially untrustworthy content.

The Facebook post sharing the article was posted in a group called “METRIX – ogrgeľ Matovic a jeho Himmler Lipšic patria do basy!”. The group, which has over 5,300 members, features numerous posts that have been identified as misinformation, alongside videos and statements from politicians of the far-right Republika party.

Our analysis of Facebook activity also identified users sharing videos that furthered certain narratives but had no sources linked. Our searches for “Čaputová” and “Soros” on Facebook revealed a post from a page called “Zaujímavosti Slovenska” that has over 43,000 followers. The post contains a video that shows a large crowd of exclusively male migrants being moved into a warehouse. The caption of the post provides no source, and makes references to George Soros opening champagne in celebration at the entry of migrants into Slovakia. Commenters on the post allege that the migrants are sent to cause chaos to disrupt the election. However, the post and comments fail to state where the video is sourced from.

Using reverse image search tools, we identified that the same video was shared by Slovak nationalist-affiliated accounts across social media sites including TikTok, which has a younger user base than Facebook. The video was also shared by the Twitter account Visegrád 24, which has been accused of receiving funds from the nationalist Law and Justice Party in Poland, where it has received over 165,000 views. It is not clear whether this video is direct misinformation, as no further context can be identified. However, it acts as an example of how unsourced content can rapidly spread across social media platforms by ideologically-aligned accounts.

Disinformation has been a major issue on platforms such as Facebook for some years now, and it is clear that it remains a problem for democracies today, with social media companies still struggling to limit the spread of unchallenged disinformation on their platforms.

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