Energy group ČEZ, transport company DHL or the oldest Czech glass factory in Harrachov have recently paid the price for misinformation that has started to spread about them. Although Internet lies threaten the good reputation and business of companies, entrepreneurs often feed disinformation. This is when websites with conspiracy content pay for their advertising. Experts therefore encourage not to advertise on them.
First, the news that the ČEZ Group was disconnecting electricity meters in South Moravia appeared, and it quickly spread on the Internet. But that was a lie, the energy colossus did no such thing. The management therefore filed a criminal complaint against the author of the post. The case from the end of last year is one of those when disinformation threatened the company’s reputation.
“We reacted immediately and tried to explain to people that this was not true. We asked the author to remove the post and publish that it was not based on verified information. However, he did not,” said ČEZ spokeswoman Barbora Peterová. Disinformation, which the secret services have been warning against in the Czech Republic for a long time, could discourage customers and direct them to competitors.
Research shows that up to a quarter of Czechs believe false news that purposefully influences public opinion. Few people can recognize them. They increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, they are also used by authoritarian powers such as Russia or China, for example regarding the war in Ukraine. Czech companies are still learning to face the impact of misinformation on business, but many do not listen to the calls of expert organizations.
In March 2021, conspiracies spread across the Czech Republic that the shipping company DHL was spreading the coronavirus over Brno from a plane. The message of the Aeronet server was also shared by then deputy Lubomír Volný from the Jednotní movement. “When it got into the mainstream media, it started to be a problem for DHL,” pointed out PR consultant Michal Vlasák, who deals with the impact of misinformation on business. The company objected and threatened the spreaders with legal action.
The most famous case in which a company paid for fake news is the case of the American beverage company Pepsi from 2016. The inaccurately quoted statement of its boss Indra Nooyi about the voters of Donald Trump was shared by people on social networks with calls to boycott the company. Within a few days, it caused its shares to drop by four percent.
In February of this year, a disinformation campaign affected the oldest Czech glass factory – Sklárna Harrachov. Liberec communists published an announcement on Facebook that it, along with other companies, had gone bankrupt. “They were killed by the antisocial purple sable and the purple disgust,” they wrote, referring to the government of Petr Fiala from the ODS. The false post was subsequently withdrawn and the glass factory apologized.
Where companies can find help
Seminars for companies are organized by the association Nelež.cz with other initiatives. They help find tools that prevent misinformation from damaging the brand. On its website, the association posts a list of disinformation sites and outlines how to recognize false content. Disinfo sites exaggerate and distort topics, give more space to one side and omit facts. A manipulative message can often be recognized by the text written in capital letters in an attempt to attract as much attention as possible. Checking the source, whether the article mentions it at all, and how credible the source is will also help to recognize it. It is important to note who is the author of the report and whether they belong to a newsroom. If it is not stated, the message is not to be believed. Disinformation often contains outrageous or shocking claims.
“People asked us about it, but we did not notice a decrease in sales,” said owner Petr Novosad. According to him, the same message appeared last fall. “At the time, we were thinking about closing for two months because of gas prices,” he confirmed, adding that the fall lie could seem believable.
190 thousand per month for disinfo websites
Spreaders of disinformation are often motivated by profit, reports Hlídací pes. False or manipulative news appears on websites that make money from advertising. According to experts, the most visited of them in the Czech Republic fetch up to 190,000 crowns a month. An analysis by the non-governmental organization Prague Security Studies Institute names Parlamentní listy or Sputnik.
Companies feed disinformation through advertising – without being aware of the danger. “As soon as a brand appears next to toxic content, it damages it in the eyes of customers. We know this from foreign studies,” said consultant Vlasák.
The Prague Security Studies Institute, together with the Nelež.cz initiative, which is trying to limit the spread of fake news, has embarked on prevention. They try to explain to companies the risks of advertising on sites with false content and advise them not to buy advertising space on them. “If a major company advertises like that, we will usually notify them personally,” explained Vlasák.
Advertisement for Billa on one of AC24’s disinformation websites. | Photo: Fair Advertising
Companies’ reactions vary. According to Vlasák, some do not respond, others respond that they will alert the marketing director, and then they do not hear back. “Others will say they will be careful and send their people for training. But there are also those who do not care. They defend freedom of speech and state that their goods are for everyone.”
By stopping advertising on disinformation sites, entrepreneurs will not lose customers, warns Vlasák. They can reach the same readers elsewhere. “It’s not like anyone who reads Sputnik doesn’t read Blesk or iDnes. Companies often hear that,” he said.
State institutions, including ministries, often advertise on websites with problematic content. The spreaders of lies are thus paid by the state. “We are trying to get the government to issue instructions. For example, when a state agency issues a tender for advertisements, it could set a condition that advertisements are not allowed on disinformation websites,” said Vlasák.
New, more sophisticated methods
The methods by which fake news is spread have recently advanced. As an example, Vlasák gives the network of Regional news websites. “They started using press releases from companies or departments. For example, they will publish a police report that they decided to detain someone. However, there is disinformation content around it with the opinions of the leaders of the disinfo scene,” he pointed out.
How to recognize disinformation messages in a text. | Photo: Nelež.cz
For example, an article with the headline Nord Stream was blown up by the British appeared on the page. It seems more credible next to neighborhood news. “It looks like normal reporting,” Vlasák warned, adding that disinformers must always be one step ahead of those who try to limit them.
For example, articles from Russian state propaganda are taken over, edited and published on websites, from where they are spread using social networks. For a large reach, it is important if a prominent person is involved, for example a politician with a lot of followers. Just as MP Volný did in the case of DHL and its plane over Brno.
Disinformation on your own skin
This text was created as part of the Disinformation Firsthand project, which is supported by Google. The project focuses on the origin of disinformation, the motivation for its dissemination, and the effects on individuals and society.
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