On February 27, 2020, the Republikon Institute organized the conference Fake News in the Region – The Impact of Fake News on Central and Eastern European Countries, supported by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
The event consisted of two main parts. After the introduction by Gábor Horn from thw Republikon Foundation, Tanja Porčnik’s delivered a presentation about the state of media freedom in the region, along the lines of the latest Human Freedom Index.
After the presentation, the four speakers, namely Leszek Jażdżewski, Editor-in-Chief of Liberté! (PL), Viera Zuborova, Executive Director of the Bratislava Policy Institute (SK), Roman Máca, analyst of Institute for Politics and Society (CZ) and Péter Krekó, Executive Director of the Political Capital (HU), talked about the effects of fake news in the Central-Eastern European region, and its possible influence on elections in the countries. The session was moderated by Dániel Mikecz.
The second part started with a presentation delivered by Ferenc Vicsek, Director of the Dimenzió Média Alapítvány, providing an overview of his latest research about fake news. After the presentation, a roundtable discussion with Levente Bánk Boros, Director of the Médiakutató Institute, Balázs Böcskei, Director of Research at the Idea Institute, Dóra Ónody-Molnár, a journalist at 168óra, and Andrea Virág, Director of Strategy at the Republikon Institute, took place. The debate was moderated by Dávid Király.
Recording Data to Avoid Totalitarianism
Tanja Porčnik’s presentation was based on the 2019 Human Freedom Index. Consisting of 76 indicators, it tracks 162 countries, making it the broadest measurement of freedom at the moment.
The indicators include economic freedom (for example, access to foreign newspapers) and personal freedom (for example, consisting of political control exerted over the media). According to the latest data, the first few areas that received the best results are North America, Western Europe, Oceania, and Eastern Europe.
In Eastern Europe, for example, the Czech Republic and Cyprus scored better than they have before. On the other hand, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Greece, Russia, and Ukraine all dropped in the ranking.
Ms Porčnik also mentioned that although people think that the size of a country plays a big role in this regard, this does not seem to be the case.
Following the featured indicators is crucial, because they can warn us about the risk of totalitarianism.
Radicalized is Normalized
Firstly, in the discussion the participants were asked to reflect on the freedom of the Visegrád countries. Viera Zuborova stated that in Slovakia, after the death of Ján Kuciak, there have been mainly three types of media ownership: oligarchs, pro-Europe and pro-America philanthropists, and pro-Kremlin actors.
From Roman Máca’s point of view, the year 2014 was a milestone for fake news, when Russia showed its aggression towards Ukraine. From then on, there emerged many fake news websites in the Czech Republic, featuring Russian content.
A “patriotic” campaign against Muslims and immigrants was launched, with chain e-mails targeting older citizens – all claiming that the opposition’s candidates were being paid by George Soros.
Péter Krekó noted that there is no perfect recipe for well-functioning and free media. He said he believed that more independent media in an unregulated media market may lead to proliferation of fake news, and, therefore, public state media could be the cure the region is looking for.
Leszek Jażdżewski added that a very important question is who owns the media we are talking about, and governments know that as well. For example, in Poland, a large chunk of the media is owned by foreign capital, which is immune to a lot of political preassure, and is primarily business-oriented.
The moderator, Dániel Mikecz, asked the participants what were the conditions a country would need to meet to have free press?
Leszek Jażdżewski started the conversation by stating that with free speech comes great responsibility - there is a strong pressure on the press to only criticize the government or the opposition, because being radical grants visibility in the media.
Viera Zuborova agreed with that, claiming that the journalistic ethics is failing, and what is radicalized has been normalized. This is a huge problem, especially when we keep in mind that only 16% of the younger generations double-check the news they’re reading.
Roman Máca drew the attention to the following questions: Should media be completely balanced? Is it good if we hear, for example, a flat-earther and a professor arguing on the radio? Of course, this is not the answer either. Overall, media should not work in a manner based on a premise “5 minutes for the Jews, 5 minutes for Hitler”.
Corruption Limits Free Speech?
Ferenc Vicsek, Director of the Dimenzió Média Alapítvány, presented his latest research in the first part of the second panel. According to him, what people think about the news and how they see it should be analyzed.
In his study he focused on how the government changed the public discussion on some topics. He asked participants to decide whether an article or a report is fake news or not.
People Have a Grasp on Reality
Balázs Böcskei talked about the facts, the importance of verifying sources, and about how to define fake news. According to him, every political side has its own “truth”, because each side interprets the same events differently. Because of that, it is hard to realize what is true and what is fake.
He also highlighted the importance of conducting research about fake news. However, it is hard to operationalize the phrase for scientific purposes.
Dóra Ónodi-Molnár discussed the effect of fake news on journalism as a profession. She said that a press rectification lawsuit could bind the journalist’s hands and have a long-term consequences for a given medium.
In her opinion, the rules of journalism have not changed for the last 100 years, but it’s harder to work now, according to the journalists themselves. She highlighted that journalists have to separate different roles: they shouldn’t mix facts with opinions.
Levente Bánk Boros said that he thinks fake news appeared when the Western world started using social media.
It is important to differentiate three actors in the spread of fake news: (1) who writes the fake news and why, (2) who spreads it, what media takes it over, and (3) how people process it, who believes it and why.
Andrea Virág spoke about the effects of fake news on the Hungarian politics. She said that many believed at the beginning of the social media era that it would create a more democratic and freer world, and that people could access news easier.
As she mentioned, people now blame these platforms for spreading fake news. She mentioned that people like to live in their own bubbles and to read the news they think are true, but most of them are not interested in other sources.
To the question from Dávid Király, “Which social class is the most prone to fake news?”, Balázs Böcskei replied that it is a great field to conduct studies in. He added that fake news find the ones who already have an opinion, and they accept those fake news that correlate with it.
Ms Virág added that it also matters what the structure of media is like in the said country, because if the freely distributed papers of government contain fake news, then that is a game changer.
The participants agreed that media, and news have a huge influence on elections. This is why we need to be conscious media consumers to avoid being biased.
The question is: Which side can determine what is the hottest topic, and whether people have a sense of reality that can defend them from fake news?