Why isn’t Andrej Babis in Evropské hodnoty/European Values’ crosshairs?

Why isn’t Andrej Babis in Evropské hodnoty/European Values’ crosshairs?

The Czech Republic’s most active think-tank has barely criticized, let alone mentioned their future Prime Minister Andrej Babis – a man who isn’t exactly a shining example of western liberal democracy in action.

Remember, Babis is someone who’s:

  • The second-richest man in the country, with his Agrofert conglomerate having its hands in everything from fertilizers and farm equipment, to two of the largest Czech newspapers and its most popular radio station.
  • Been accused of having been a Communist-era Czechoslovak secret police agent (though an appellate court in Slovakia “affirmed Mr. Babis was not an agent of the secret police”).
  • Been caught on tape earlier this year coordinating coverage of his political opponents with a journalist at one of the purportedly independent newspapers he owns.
  • Accused of numerous conflicts of interest, and now someone who’s had his parliamentary immunity stripped over fraud allegations.
  • Been recently described to me as “Trump, Berlusconi and Orban all in one.”
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Babis’ paper: “Accept the Euro, fast!” Non-Babis paper: “Juncker: I don’t dictate anything to Czechia” (from https://twitter.com/FilipZajicek/status/908226594979958784)

Let’s also not forget some of the Russia-related allegations that have been thrown at Babis.

  • He’s called EU and US sanctions on Russia “nonsense” and said they’re against the country’s economic interests – a line I’ve personally heard from some Kremlin-friendly figures across Europe.
  • He’s dodged questions on whether Putin bore the blame for annexing Crimea, and has said NATO “cannot stay on this idea that Russia is the biggest problem.”
  • Under his watch the Czech finance ministry (more accurately, the Czech Export Guarantee Agency (EGAP)), underwrote a loan guarantee to PhosAgro, a Russian company co-owned by Putin pal Vladimir Litvinenko.
  • In 2007 Babis’ Agrofert tried to negotiate a gas deal with the Czech subsidiary of Gazprom instead of its then-current German supplier.

These aren’t necessarily super-Kremlin smoking guns, but I’d think a group of people who are dedicated to ferreting out Kremlin interference in their country and beyond would at least be asking a few questions about the guy who’s about to run the show.

Sure, Babis is intimidating and is the kind of guy who likes to go after people who talk shit about him – I mean, look at all the corrections Foreign Policy had to add under this 2015 article when Babis went full Babis on them.

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Full Babis.

I get why you’d want to be in his good side, but European Values isn’t exactly afraid to go after some other Czech and European political figures with less-than-subtle language: the German SPD and Sigmar Gabriel (Social Democrats), who want to “please the Kremlin;” the Czech Communists, guilty of “treason” for their broken record anti-NATO stance; and, least of all, Czech president (“rezident”) Milos Zeman, the “Kremlin’s Trojan horse.”

With elections/Babis’ coronation just over a month away I’m surprised European Values doesn’t have anything critical to say about Babis – or, really, anything about him at all.

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“Study: [Czech/Slovak] conspiracy sites sell millions in ads annually” – my thoughts

“Study: [Czech/Slovak] conspiracy sites sell millions in ads annually” – my thoughts

This afternoon the Nadace Open Society Foundations (OSF) released a study (Czech only right now – Google Translate is your friend) outlining how 122 Czech and Slovak disinformation websites, by their analysis, make anywhere from €920,000 to €1.24 million a year in advertising revenue.

For background, I’ve touched on the world on Czech disinformation here (a better breakdown from 2015 on both Czech and Slovak disinformation is here). This is an interesting analysis that confirms what a lot of us already know – that some disinformation websites can make decent money from ads.

But before it breaks further in English, I’ve got a few observations and thoughts.

1) The ad revenue is ridiculously concentrated among the big players

According to Nadace OSF’s analysis the total ad revenue per month of all these sites combined is 3,357,393 Czech crowns (~€128,700).

But take a look at how much the five biggest sites take up – and, particularly the first. the popular Breitbart-esque Parlamentní listy (figures from report, calculations mine):

Website Estimated monthly income (CZK) % of all disinfo websites
Parlamentnilisty.cz 1,505,542 44.8%
Expres.cz 788,532 23.5%
Eurozrej.cz 534,972 15.9%
hlavnespravy.sk 142,633 4.2%
Ac24.com 98,098 2.9%
Total, Top 5 3,069,777 91.4%
Total, All sites 3,357,393

I think it’d be more effective to point out how much ad revenue a few specific Czech and Slovak disinformation websites take in, rather than lump them all together to get a higher dollar/Euro value. Also, not all these websites have the same reach and, it has to be noted, some of them even have ad revenue – Slovakia’s Slobodný vysielac (Free Transmitter) and Zem a Vek (Earth and Time, though that translation’s always sounded wonky to me) among them.

But another website in that list threw me…

2) Why is Expres.cz included?

I’m not asking this in a snarky way – I’ve always considered it more likely a sleazy Daily-Mail-esque tabloid than a disinformation website like the others here. I see the inclusion of Expres.cz was sourced from http://www.konspiratori.sk, who I assume have a good argument for including them here. (Not sarcasm – I really assume they do.)

3) Careful with the scary, sexy-sounding higher figure

OK, this is a relatively minor data wonk quibble, but the report gave an estimated range of how much ad revenue these sites can pull in over the course of a year – from €900K to €1.2m. The range is there for a reason – it could be that high.

If you’re tweeting about this I think it’s important to state that this €1.2m is the high end of the estimate.

4) Advertising boycotts won’t make these sites go away

Presumably the point of this study is to try and build pressure to get advertisers to pull their ads from disinformation websites (i.e., like Breitbart’s advertisers fleeing in droves). I think this is a worthwhile endeavour, but anyone promoting this in CZ/SK and beyond should recognize that:

a) some of the websites, like PL, seem like they have enough financial resources behind them that a dent in ad revenue won’t cripple them much at all.

b) some of these websites (i.e., most of the smaller ones) are so low-grade and piecemeal they either don’t have any ad revenue or don’t need it, since some of them are literally a guy or two in a basement somewhere doing this stuff on the side.

c) some sites, like the aforementioned Slobodný vysielac and Zem a Vek don’t have any ad revenue at all, so obviously they couldn’t care less about an ad boycott.

Want to promote an ad boycott of disinformation websites? Go ahead, but don’t expect to choke these websites out. At best, expect it (and aim) to raise awareness of why people shouldn’t bother with these kinds of websites (e.g., “hey, if [insert company X] thinks it’s wrong to advertise on PL maybe there’s a good reason why”) and use it as a tool to talk even more about disinformation and the “fake news” phenomenon.

My $0.02/Kč0.44

some random stats on Muslims in Canada, Czech Republic and Slovakia

some random stats on Muslims in Canada, Czech Republic and Slovakia

Because I am without a doubt the coolest kid on my block in Prague (and didn’t particularly feel like writing some dumbass numbered THREAD on Twitter), I spent a few minutes on Saturday night trolling through Canadian census data on Muslim populations in census metropolitan areas (CMAs: basically cities + suburbs and/or commuter areas), seeing how big or small they are compared to the population(s) of Muslims in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. (FWIW, all part of prepping a piece on Islamophobia in Slovakia and the general theme of Islamophobia really being trendy in places with barely any Muslims).

Background: there’s between 10-20,000 Muslims in the Czech Republic – a country of 10.6 million people, so at best 0.2% of the population – and around 5,000 next door in Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million (i.e., not even 0.1%). On the other hand, Canada’s got more than a million Muslims, making up more than 3% of the population.

Using the 2011 National Household Survey data (the most recent where religion is broken down by CMA), I estimated just how different some cities/CMAs in Canada are from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia:

  • Saskatoon: Around 295,000 people – the 17th largest CMA in Canada – with around 5,600 Muslims (~1.9%), more than the entire country of Slovakia.
  • Halifax: Around 400,000 people – the 13th largest CMA in Canada – with around 7,500 Muslims (~1.9%), also more than the entire country of Slovakia.
  • Winnipeg: Around 778,000 people with around 11,200 Muslims, as much as some of the low estimates of the Czech Republic and twice as many as Slovakia.
  • Edmonton (the entire CMA including us assholes from Sherwood Park, not just the city): 1.3 million people, with around 46,000 Muslims (3.5%-4% of the population).
    • In other words, my hometown has almost twice as many Muslims as the Czech Republic and Slovakia combined.
    • Even Fort McMurray (“Wood Buffalo,” technically) has around 3,400 Muslims in a population of around 73,000 and, unlike Slovakia, has a mosque.
DSC02555
Something Fort Mac has that the entire country of Slovakia doesn’t – a mosque (taken by me, November 2015)

Even tiny Lac La Biche, AB, population 8,300, has a mosque thanks to a longstanding Lebanese community there. It also has a community of Russian Old Believers outside of town. #TheMoreYouKnow.

Recent Czech survey data + elections = a disinformation site’s dream

Recent Czech survey data + elections = a disinformation site’s dream

The most recent round of Eurobarometer stats just came out, and they’re bad news for pretty much anyone in Czech politics right now.

Only 18% of Czechs trust their government right now, a decline of 10% from autumn 2016 – by far the sharpest decline in the EU – and only Greeks, Italians and Spaniards distrust their government as much as Czechs do.

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Oy.

Still, this isn’t nearly as ugly as the table for the question on trust in parliament…

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Double oy.

Nobody in the EU distrusts their country’s parliament more than Czechs do right now, all thanks to the Czech government’s farcical three-part comedy act/political crisis over the past few months (yeah I linked to a Wikipedia article I don’t care).

This level of (dis)trust shows up in recent Czech Public Opinion Research Centre (CVVM) survey data too – their numbers also show that trust in President Miloš Zeman , the government (“Vláda”) and the Chamber of Deputies (“Poslanecká sněmovna,” the lower house of the Czech parliament) has completely tanked.

may 2017
“Table 1a: Population’s confidence in constitutional institutions (%) – comparison over time”

Worse, look at the way Czech satisfaction with the current political situation has driven right off the cliff after a slow recovery from 2013’s scandals.

political cvvm
“Graph 4: Satisfaction with the current political situation from 2011-2017 (Satisfaction Index 0-100)”

And, as if you needed another graph to show how bad it is, look at the drop for both president and government here (the blue and red lines, respectively).

cvvm trends
“Graph 3: Confidence in institutions 2011-2017 (confidence index)”

Numbers like this should be worrisome for a country at any time, but remember the Czechs are going to the polls in just under four months to elect a new parliament – and at the polls again not long after to vote for president.

If I were, say, part of a government of an unnamed country’s efforts to interfere and meddle in other countries’ elections, I’d be all over the Czech Republic this summer.

…to that end, another set of numbers I’ve had kicking around for a few weeks from two previous Eurobarometer surveys (both autumn 2016) show just how said unnamed country’s efforts could actually work.

One, Czechs seem to trust social media more than most other Europeans. While it’s still a minority (40% disagreeing that “information on political affairs from online social networks cannot be trusted,” which is a mouthful of a double negative but yeah), it’s also more than any other EU country.

cz

Eurobarometer’s data is free to download for losers like me, so I took a look in more detail at who exactly in the Czech Republic thinks information on politics from social media can be trusted (to the extent the data can tell me – the sample size is ~1,000, so it can’t be parsed all that much, and Eurobarometer IMO doesn’t have the best questions about education level and essentially not much useful on income or a proxy for income).

As shouldn’t be any surprise, it’s the young: 60% of Czechs aged 15 to 24 disagreed that “information on political affairs from online social networks cannot be trusted” compared to 48% of those 25 to 39, 44% of those 40 to 54 and 27% of those 55 and older. Also interesting are the “don’t knows” – only 5% of 15 to 24 year olds compared to 19% of those 40 to 54 and 39% of those 55 and older.

The same trends show up in different questions about social media – in this one below, for example, Czechs are among the most likely in the EU to think social media is reliable.

social media

Interestingly, 49% of those 15 to 24 years old, 50% of those 25 to 39 and 46% of those 40 to 54 think social media is reliable – in other words, a similar if not identical proportion – but only 31% of those 55+ think social media’s reliable.

One of these Eurobarometer surveys, coincidentally, happened to ask people their attitudes about various countries, including Russia (my mention of Russia is, of course, purely hypothetical and definitely, definitely not related to the “unnamed country” above).

Run what Czechs think about social media (i.e., the agree/disagree question on whether it’s reliable) against what they think of Russia and the results are pretty interesting – Czechs who think social media is reliable also tend to be more positive towards Russia.

   Total “positive” towards Russia   Total “negative” towards Russia
 Social media reliable?  49% 49% 
 Social media unreliable?  35% 64% 

Caveat, though. This question about being positive/negative towards Russia isn’t necessarily a proxy for what they think about the Kremlin or, for that matter, anyone else in the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean the respondent is some sort of zombie “radicalized by Russian propaganda” or even necessarily positive towards the Kremlin or Russia’s foreign policy, etc. Also, some respondents may well have interpreted the question as being positive/negative towards Russian people in general. Still, it’s interesting that the data falls out this way – and falls out this way across many other EU countries – and merits a hell of a lot more study than it’s getting.

There’s a ton more numbers I haven’t mentioned here (e.g., Czechs get more news from websites and trust the Internet more than most other Europeans) that, in all, paint a potentially very ugly picture – a population that increasingly distrusts its politicians and tends to trust social media and the web more than most other people. It’s a disinformation site’s dream.

A lesson on how not to fight disinformation

A lesson on how not to fight disinformation

In the wake of its annual Bratislava Global Security Forum at the end of May, Slovak think tank GLOBSEC released a report of what it called a “comprehensive analysis of public opinion surveys” from surveys in seven central and eastern European (CEE) countries.

Compared to ugly Word reports I’ve spit out in my time, this one’s got no shortage of big bold headlines, shiny graphics and sexy graphs. But as someone who writes a lot about pro-Kremlin disinformation in Europe, it’s probably no surprise which page caught my eye.

fakenews
You’ve got my attention.

“Almost 10% of people in the CEE trust online disinformation outlets as relevant sources of information on world affairs,” they say.

Well. I’m hooked.

The next page was even better…but it’s when I started asking questions.

media d and e
Wait…what?

According to their surveys a range of 1% of people in Croatia to 31% (?!) in Romania “consider online disinformation websites as relevant sources of information.”

This is where I started realizing how many pieces of the puzzle are missing here.

1) How exactly did you ask this question? You can’t just ask someone “do you consider online disinformation websites as relevant sources of information?”

So how did you ask it? Was it a proxy question, like the way that the International Republican Institute (IRI) asked in their recent Visegrad surveys (i.e., “Do you watch or read media outlets that often have a different point of view than the major media outlets?”) Was it a series of questions, or what? Without the actual questioning wording here it’s hard for me to take this seriously.

2) How many people were asked the question? This is so ridiculously basic and yet it’s nowhere to be found.

The methodology “section” is up at the front of the report and it’s about as long as a calm, decidedly-non-mega Twitter thread:

“The outcomes and findings of this report are based on public opinion surveys carried out in the form of personal interviews using stratified multistage random sampling from February to April 2017 on a representative sample of the population in seven EU and NATO member states…

For all countries, the profiles of the respondents are representative of the country by sex, age, education, place of residence and size of settlement. „Do not know“ responses were not included in data visualizations.”

So we don’t know how many people were asked the question – and we don’t know how many people responded “don’t know,” so we have absolutely no idea how large or small the base are for the numbers they’ve graphed up for us here. And we don’t even know exactly what questions were asked. Weak.

3) What the hell is going on with Romania’s number? Look, in the dozens upon dozens of surveys I’ve run in my life, if I see six of seven figures on the low end and then one of them almost three times higher I’m going to ask questions. Sometimes there’s an obvious, easy explanation. Sometimes it’s a more complicated explanation. Sometimes you don’t have one. And, sadly, sometimes it’s because you screwed something up running the numbers or, worse, the whole lot of you muffed something up administering the survey.

Doesn’t look like anyone’s asking questions here. We get no explanation of why Romania’s figure should be that much higher. No explanation of why, apparently, almost a third of Romanians “consider online disinformation websites as relevant sources of information” when only 1% of Croatians (i.e., basically no one) do. Surely that merits at least some attempt at an a explanation.

4) How exactly did you arrive at the conveniently round “10 million” figure? OK, part of this is obvious – you took the percentages in each country of who said (“said”) they trusted disinformation websites and divided into the population of each country.

But what population? 18+? 16+? Official population figures? Registered voters?Transparency is a lovely thing, especially with survey numbers that you use to make bold, attention-grabbing claims.

This “10 million people in CEE trust fake news and disinformation websites” headline has already buzzed around CEE/disinfo-busting social media for a week now. It’s since made it into the East Stratcom Task Force’s Disinfo Review, and surely it’s going to find its way into a few more articles and probably even a few speeches and still more conference panels.

It shouldn’t. It’s a questionable claim based on a completely non-transparent survey analysis, delivered as part of a think tank’s glossy PR exercise. Bullshit’s no way to win the (dis)information war, guys.

The story behind that “terror attacks” map you keep seeing

The story behind that “terror attacks” map you keep seeing

You’ve seen this map somewhere on social media the last few weeks, haven’t you?

Here it is from Poland’s deputy justice minister, because somehow this is how you show solidarity with the citizens of a country millions of your own people live and work in.

2017-06-04 18.10.49

I’ve also seen it from Polish MEP and unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the European Council Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, though my favourite version is the one tweeted out by that one guy who managed to get fired from The Rebel.

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OOOOH this one has different colours!!

And last, a version I saw on Instagram this week.

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Cool.

So where the hell is this data even from? Turns out, as someone from the right-wing Polish Twitterati told me, it’s data from the reputable Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland, which is an “open-source database including information on terrorist events around the world from 1970 through 2015.” (Notice right now that says “events,” not “attacks.” This will be important). I was further informed that, for some reason, the data on this map that’s been making the rounds is only from 2001 on. OK.

So I took a look through the GTD data on some of the countries (including Poland) on this map.  There are certainly no terror “incidents” (read, “incidents”) listed in Poland from 2001 on. OK, so that seems (seems) accurate.

But what about terror in other countries? I’m particularly interested in these apparent incidents in Iceland, which shows up in some versions of the map and, having been there, doesn’t exactly strike me as a terror hotbed.

Since 2001, there have apparently been two terror incidents in Iceland that explain the two Icelandic dots on the map:

  • In 2012, “An explosive device detonated near government offices in Reykjavik city, Reykjavik North Constituency, Iceland. The explosive device was partially detonated by a robot meant to deactivate it. No group claimed responsibility for the incident.” Property damage was listed as unknown.
  • In 2014, “Assailants attempted to set a Lutheran Church on fire in Akureyri city, Northeast constituency, Iceland. No one was injured in the attack; however, the building was damaged. No group claimed responsibility for the incident.” Property damage is listed as “minor.”

No one was killed or injured in these two incidents.

Again, “incidents” is the key word. These two big red Icelandic points, and many others on the map, don’t represent terror attacks at allMany of them, including these two in Iceland, represent vague criminal acts that may not actually have anything to do with terrorism (let alone jihadist terrorism), that have barely caused any property damage and, more importantly, haven’t killed or injured anyone.

Why no Polish incidents in the GTD since 2001? Surely there’s been at least one shitty attempt at something like a pipe bomb in a car that never went off (there was one in the Czech Republic database, as I discovered) that would merit a mention in this database, though presumably this will make it into 2017’s list for Poland, given the criteria for inclusion.

So the next time you see this map, you’ve got a few options. If it’s got no legend or title, you can always tell whoever shared it that the points represent vague definitions of criminal acts that don’t always seem to be reported consistently. If it says something about “terror attacks,” tell them they’re completely, 100% wrong, and tell them there’s more than enough data on the GTD website for them to make a proper map of actual terror attacks that isn’t just a cute meme for people who don’t like Muslims.

Another quick look at Bulgaria’s “Gallup International” (aka Part II)

Another quick look at Bulgaria’s “Gallup International” (aka Part II)

I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember Bulgaria’s Gallup International (no, not that Gallup – the Gallup International “being sued by Gallup Inc. for using its name without authorization”), who very briefly popped into western headlines in March thanks to a Wall Street Journal article.

Published only days before the election, the article alleged that the pro-Kremlin Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) received a secret strategy document proposing, among other things, that they “promote exaggerated polling data” to help build momentum for the party and get them elected. Gallup International was specifically named in the article, and referred to by Bulgaria’s former ambassador to Moscow Ilian Vassilev as one of Moscow’s “Bulgarian proxies”; Vassilev, talking about a poll Gallup International published on an apparent lack of NATO support in Bulgaria, accused the polling agency of making a “wrapped-in-secrecy poll [that] had no details on methodology nor funding sources.”

Of course, the WSJ article wasn’t without its critics, myself included. One journalist in Bulgaria said the WSJ article “completely ignored all the internal political factors that led to the landslide victory of [President] Rumen Radev and focused only on Russian influence in elections,” which ultimately, in his opinion “backfired, instead of there being alarms for (legitimate) concerns about Russian involvement in Bulgaria.” (To say nothing of the role of the “crackpot outfit” at RISI apparently being involved in producing the document.)

Debates about the scope and scale of Russian influence in Bulgaria aside, I decided to take a look at polling data in Bulgaria leading up to the parliamentary election on March 26. Is there anything to support this idea that Gallup International and potentially other Bulgarian pollsters have used and promoted “exaggerated polling data” to benefit the BSP?

There might be.

Here’s a table of all the polls I’ve been able to find in 2017 leading up to the election, with levels of party support noted and the final actual election results at the bottom.

bulgaria poll jpg

(larger pdf of same chart here: Bulgaria polls)

Almost all polls from polling firms like Trend Research (3 of 3), Alpha Research (3 of 3, and, full disclosure, whose managing director I interviewed as part of my April piece for Coda Story) and Estat (2 of 3) showed Boyko Borisov’s GERB having a lead.

To break it further down (remembering that GERB ended up winning by 5.6%)

  • Trend Research: average GERB lead of 1.93%
  • Alpha Research: average GERB lead of 2.77%
  • Estat: average GERB lead of 3.47%

But the story’s pretty different with Gallup International, who one Bulgarian source described to me as “the main political/sociological advisor of the [BSP] at election time.” They published four polls during the campaign, only one of which showed GERB in the lead – their final poll, about a week before the vote, which showed GERB with only a 0.6% lead. On average, Gallup International’s polls showed an average BSP lead of 0.7% throughout the campaign.

Again, GERB ended up winning by 5.6%.

The numbers are even stranger for AFIS, a pollster run by Yuriy Aslanov, a sociologist who has sat on the BSP board. Both its polls showed the BSP in the lead by an average of 1.3%.

Again, GERB ended up winning by 5.6%.

In sum – a pollster that’s been accused as being part of an effort to “promote exaggerated polling data” on behalf of the party it’s linked to consistently showed results that played up the support for said party, contradicting most other polling firms’ results throughout the campaign. As a western observer and polling nerd who’s worked for multiple firms in Canada and the UK, I feel I’m in a position to confidently say this isn’t normal.

Of course, this all needs a few caveats. There’s absolutely no evidence of anyone cooking up numbers or anything like that – I am accusing no one of that. I’m also well aware of how statistics work and am well aware of the (however unlikely) possibility that these figures from Gallup International and AFIS are all down to random survey errors or even differences in methodology. Still, something’s off here.

Above all though, I’d stress this message to other journalists who haven’t had the pleasure of drowning a considerable part of their adult lives in SPSS – if some polling numbers look consistently very different from what other polling numbers are saying, ask why. Sometimes it’s an easy answer – a different, new methodology that may or may not pan out, a rogue poll (i.e., the one out of 20) or the polling firm just really sucks. But sometimes it’s not that simple.