Satire presented as truth
Goda wrote about ten stories for Hlavne Spravy. To be fair, Goda admitted, they were not satisfied with all those stories, since two were not published. But he did succeed in having a story run about a Muslim mayor of New Jersey who wanted to ban the word “Christmas”. This was a story taken from a satirical website, completely made up and even badly translated into Slovak.
“That I was able to write such nonsense [and they published it] is a sign that they work very poorly,” Goda noted. “This has nothing in common with how serious media should function.”
Ironically, Goda/Bakes was “fired” when the editor-in-chief found out that the story was a hoax. By that time, however, it had been on the website for about 12 hours and widely read.
When Goda began dedicating his time to uncovering hoaxes and exposing disinformation four years ago, few people were involved in this sphere. But in the years since, a whole community of NGOs, media and individuals is now concerned with it.
With his “infiltration” of Hlavne Spravy, Goda said he wanted to highlight the problems of disinformation websites not only to people who were not aware of them, but also to readers of Hlavne Spravy itself. He noted that his blog and also the reaction of the editor-in-chief on the website were widely read.
In 2018, Goda also took on the supermarket chain Billa, which was openly selling the magazine Zem a Vek (Earth and Time) – a rare exception to most disinformation outlets, as it has a printed version – that spreads hoaxes and deals in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes.
“I was in Billa today, planning to do a big weekend shop, when I saw Zem a Vek in the newsstand among the other magazines,” he wrote on the Facebook page of Billa back then, adding that it made him lose his appetite.
The Austrian supermarket chain, which operates across Central and Eastern Europe, replied to Goda’s post after nine days, promising that the Zem a Vek magazine would no longer be available at the counters of its supermarkets from the following month. This decision attracted widespread support as well as criticism. The Slovak designer Peter Hajdin pushed a similar initiative with Tesco, which reacted in the same way.
“Companies that have their own ethical code and are multinationals cannot sell anti-Semitic magazines that photoshop a ‘Jewish nose’ onto the president’s face and spread insane conspiracy theories from chemtrails through to hoaxes about cancer,” Goda said.
The usual suspects
The GLOBSEC study, “Voices of Central and Eastern Europe”, published in June, showed that Slovaks tend to believe disinformation the most out of all the ten countries surveyed. Goda finds that hard to explain.
“In a way, it is a terrifying thought,” he noted, adding this seems to go beyond the internet and social networks, with perhaps older people trusting fake news the most. “It seems that there are types of narratives or thinking that offer an instant explanation of the world and that people tend to resort to these solutions toward many difficult questions.”
Disinformation outlets, financed in part by hostile states such as Russia and China, often spread hoaxes, unverified information and conspiracy theories to erode people’s trust in institutions and undermine democratic values. Some aim to spread propaganda about other countries and weaken the particular country’s position within international unions and other organisations. Others are engaged in it for profit, first telling people that the cure for their disease will not work and then trying to sell them their own products.
Goda argues that government ministries need to develop long-term priorities in their communications with the public. There are positive examples, in Goda’s opinion: the Foreign Ministry has the long-term strategy of explaining Slovakia’s place in the world, its membership of the EU and NATO, and how Slovakia is not in the middle of Europe but in the west.
If I wrote today that the Roma get something for free, it would go viral.
– Jakub Goda
He is also able to predict which hoaxes will prove popular and be more widely disseminated. “If I wrote today that the Roma get something for free, it would go viral,” Goda said, adding that this is kind of Slovak evergreen. “So, we can observe the deeply rooted feeling in people that part of the population is being favoured based on their ethnicity. It should be a great topic for the Labour Ministry to expose this myth and work on countering it over the long term and systematically.”
He also cites the Culture Ministry, which could better explain to the public the economic and other benefits of culture, as there exists a narrative that artists do nothing and they are layabouts who are given money for no benefit to the wider public. And the Health Ministry needs to educate people about vaccinations and the dangers of alternative medicine.
This is currently part of his job at the Health Ministry, which sees social media as a key battleground in fighting disinformation. He is working with the ministry to broaden and deepen its communication with the public, monitoring disinformation on health matters and debunking it as it is disseminated. “In the middle of a pandemic, the urgency of this problem is even clearer,” he said.