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.

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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.