By Lóránt GyőriPatrik SzicherleVeronika VíchováDaniel Milo, Katarína Klingová. Photo: Flickr|Darron Birgenheier, licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0.
23. Nov 2016  |  Strategic Communication  |  Central Europe

GLOBSEC Policy Institute’s bi-weekly overview of conventional and social media discourse in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia monitors propaganda and disinformation attempts, as well as democratic responses in the on-going information war, in order to increase awareness about this recently emerged challenge and promote fact-based discussion in Central Europe.

Policy changes anticipated by the Russian propaganda from the new president of the United States:

  • During the American presidential campaign, Russian propaganda websites were exaggerating Trump’s criticism of NATO and his claims about the need for Russian-American cooperation, suggesting that he finally realized that the United States does not need to be the police of the world.
  • After the election on the 8th November 2016, the pro-Russian media outlets showed a cacophony of enthusiasm over the outcome of the elections - wishful thinking over the dissolution of NATO and the withdrawal of its forces from Eastern Europe were followed by strong reservations towards the new Trump administration.
  • Disinformation outlets have clearly been putting pressure on US foreign policy to “normalize” relations with Russia, accepting the de-facto status quo or “facts on the ground” in the Middle East and in Ukraine.
  • Still, there are some signs in Russian and pro-Russian news outlets that the new Trump administration will face similar challenges concerning the information warfare as the previous one. For example, Russia Today extensively reported on anti-Trump protests following the election result, depicting the United States as falling into total chaos.
  • There is a possibility of a “Russian test” of the new President in Ukraine or Syria. Furthermore, the influence and activity of Russian intelligence and disinformation mechanisms in Europe have already become more apparent. In Moldova and Bulgaria politicians with pro-Russian attitudes are bound to take the office of the President and challenge the countries’ Western orientation – yet another sign that Russia is playing a long-term game to regain its sphere of influence. 

In support of Trump

During the presidential campaign, the pro-Russian media depicted Hillary Clinton as a “hawk” in foreign policy matters. The pro-Russian media forecasted that the victory of the Democratic candidate would lead to the eruption of a war in Ukraine and foresaw Clinton transporting  lethal weapons to the Ukrainian Army even for free. Hungarian media outlet Hídfő quoted the interview of the pro-Russian Republican representative Dana Rohrabacher with the Russian state news agency Sputnik, where Rohrabacher explained that Trump was the candidate of peace, while Hillary was the candidate of war. According to the article, Rohrabacher actually admitted that the United States “encouraged revolution” to overthrow the elected government of the Ukraine to form a puppet government – despite the fact that the original article the fringe outlet referred to contained no such thing.

Furthermore, the pro-Kremlin outlets promoted Donald Trump’s pessimistic attitudes towards NATO, which supported the Russian narrative – that NATO was obsolete, it’s completely financed by the United States as its main contributor, and NATO was an organization which for the past 25 years had been protecting its European members against its already non-existent enemy, the USSR. 

Responses on Donald Trump’s victory

The pro-Russian media in Central Europe widely reported that Vladimir Putin was among the first to congratulate the new President-elect of the United States, expressing his hope that Russian-American relations might enter another golden age during Trump’s presidency. During the first official telephone call between President-elect Donald Trump and the President of the Russian Federation, according to Putin, both parties expressed some willingness to normalize relations between the two nations, and to move towards a constructive cooperation “on the broadest possible range of issues”. Furthermore, many alternative media disseminated information that Donald Trump will “re-evaluate NATO’s policies”, quoting Russian author Ruslan Davtletšin.

After the phone call between the President of the Czech Republic and the US President-elect, the Czech disinformation outlets were quite optimistic. One of them commented on the new “era of constructive cooperation” causing chaos within EU leadership and pointed out that Trump might bury sanctions against Russia soon. Several websites were especially hopeful concerning the agreement of Russia and the United States in Syria, which might allegedly happen despite the resistance amongst the “war-thirsty elites” of the US.

Still, the results of the presidential elections in the United States - the victory of Donald Trump - caught disinformation websites slightly unprepared, since the pro-Kremlin media had for weeks promoted the narrative that Donald Trump would not win because of rigged elections. While the victory of Donald Trump proved them wrong, instead of amending the narrative about the state of democracy in the United States, the pro-Kremlin fringe media in Central Europe avoided this topic completely and criticized other issues connected to the results of the presidential elections.

Concerning the US domestic reactions, many fringe outlets pointed out the alleged hysteria and confusion amongst the American public, elites, and even the intelligence services. Several articles reported protests and rallies against Donald Trump all over the United States and accused George Soros of financing these protests and riots. However, the main target of the pro-Russian media in Central Europe was the Western mainstream media, which fringe outlets criticized for being hysterical, unable to accept that the unipolar world is over, or for concealing the facts that the people in the United States had actually supported Trump. One Slovak article quoted former Slovak politician and author Jozef Banáš, claiming that the victory of Trump was the defeat of mainstream. The article also drew parallels of brainwashing methods during Brexit and the US presidential election. One fringe outlet also wrote that “the truth had not been silenced, despite being labelled as ‘Russian propaganda’” and the nightmare of ‘self-proclaimed civic society activists’ - “slniečkárov“ - had come true. Another pro-Russian alternative website informed that while European elites failed to establish contacts with Trump’s election team, since they favored Hillary Clinton, the Russian Federation pursued relations with both presidential candidates.

Sputnik, the Czech variant of the official Russian website, published an article summing up the results of several polls stating that the campaign led by the Western mainstream media resulted in Europeans being more supportive of and favoring Hillary Clinton more than American citizens. Other fringe media criticized mainstream media in the United States as well as in Europe for being biased towards some presidential candidates and their staff. In particular, Stephen Bannon, a chief advisor to Donald Trump and the head of Breitbart news website, was  defended by the pro-Russian portals against the Western media’s “distortion” as being depicted as a controversial, negative figure. The Czech Aeronet outlet pointed out that Donald Trump surrounded himself with people from the US alternative political scene and they are now going to participate in his decision-making processes.  Thus, in a sense, the victory of Donald Trump was perceived by the pro-Russian fringe media as the victory of an alternative American anti-establishment group, while in reality most of his appointments to key Administration posts come either from the Washington political or the Wall Street business establishment.

Edited by Katarína Klingová, GLOBSEC Policy Institute; Daniel Milo, senior fellow at GLOBSEC Policy Institute; Veronika Víchová, analyst of Kremlin Watch Program, European Values Think-Tank; Lóránt Györi, Political Capital Institute; Patrik Szicherle, Political Capital Institute. This document was published in the framework of projects run by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. 

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The opinions stated in this report do not necessarily represent the position or views of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute or the National Endowment for Democracy. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the authors.