One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

The Centre’s website has a handy and in some aspects disarming summary of what it is and is not:

  • What will the Centre do?

  • It will essentially be a specialised analytical and communications unit. Given the competencies of the Ministry of the Interior, the Centre will monitor threats directly related to internal security, which implies a broad array of threats and potential incidents relative to terrorism, soft target attacks, security aspects of migration, extremism, public gatherings, violation of public order and different crimes, but also disinformation campaigns related to internal security.

  • Based on its monitoring work, the Centre will evaluate detected challenges and come up with proposals for substantive and legislative solutions that it will also implement where possible. It will also disseminate information and spread awareness about the given issues among the general and professional public.

  • What the Centre is not and what it will not do:

  • The Centre will not be a new law enforcement agency, nor an intelligence service.

  • The Centre will not have a button for “switching off the internet”.

  • The Centre will not force the “truth” on anyone, or censor media content.

  • It will not remove content from the internet or other (printed) media.

  • It will work primarily with open sources available to all and will openly communicate with civil society, the media, and other subjects.

  • The Centre will not lock anyone up, interrogate anyone, or lead any proceedings with anyone.

  • The Centre will not spread any kind of propaganda, but only expertise relating to the field of internal security, and is modelled on similar strategic communications teams that already exist in the Baltic states or in the United Kingdom.

  • The Centre will also inform about serious cases of disinformation and will provide expert opinions for the public and for government institutions. These opinions, as those of a government institution, will be based on the constitutional order of the Czech Republic.

So far, so open and laudable. The first thing to say is that it is a very welcome move when any Western country demonstrates a willingness to recognise that there is a political campaign under way to undermine and divide Western nations and institutions, and to do something about it.

At the same time, though, there is something a little discouragingly conventional about this approach, especially if a recent story in the Guardian is right that “The specialists will scrutinise disinformation and attempt to counter it, via a dedicated Twitter account and a new section of the interior ministry website devoted to communicating the government viewpoint.” This is a much more limited mission than that implies by the first paragraph in its own self-description, and I hope it is not the main role of the Centre.

The current fad for “mythbusting” and countering “fake news” is understandable, but it frankly is often more the product of a desire to do something, or at least to be seen to do something, than the best thing. The idea that gullible consumers of Russian disinformation will be swayed from their wayward path because a government agency tweets a counter is pretty far-fetched. On the whole, the targets are unlikely to follow such a feed, much less believe it, and while there is value to letting news media know, the problem is that today’s information is too quick and voluminous. For every story spotted, evaluated and countered, ten, fifty more will have appeared. To be sure, sometimes there are lies so significant but also so possible to counter with objective data — the infamous German “Lisa Case” is the obvious example — that it is worth it. But more often this smacks rather more of the kind of metrics beloved of all bureaucracies, of being able to report this many stories checked and that many rebutted, rather than actual impact.

Beyond that, again quoting the Guardian, “The centre will also train civil servants to avoid blackmail and resist foreign lobbying.” This is an interesting angle, because it begins to speak to the element missing from the counter-disinformation angle: dealing with culture and mindsets. Civil servants need to realise that this is a potential threat, and be sensitised to recognise it, and to know how to respond. (Of course, so too do politicians, but that is — alas — not within the CPTHH’s remit!)

This same approach ought also to be taken over disinformation. Sure, have a specialist centre within the MVČR, but arguably even more useful would be task forces within the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sports and the Ministry of Culture, to train young Czechs to consume media wisely and sceptically and crack down on the purveyors of “fake news,” respectively. In some ways, the parallel is with fighting the drug problem. The MVČR’s approach is the analogue of arresting pushers: necessary, but an endless and thankless task in isolation, and the real, long-term answer is to educate and uplift potential users and break trafficking networks in order to tackle the market and the demand, not just the street-side supply.

But let me close by being provocative. The CPTHH is very clear that it is not a police or an intelligence service, won’t arrest people, won’t take content off the net. Why not? To put it another way, is there not also scope for such methods? given the tight relationship between the Kremlin’s media and intelligence assets, and the degree to which arguably its political war could prove more dangerous to the Czech Republic and other European states than any mere military threat, why is there not scope for such measures? If a radical preacher grooms a would-be terrorist to carry out an atrocity, that is rightly seen as something deserving of full-scale law-enforcement activity. If a government-funded disinformation network starts to pump dangerous lies into the information space which could undermine a government, foment civil tension, or even lead to the break up of alliances crucial to national security and prosperity, ought that not be treated with similar seriousness, even if not blood is directly shed?

This does not mean blacklisting websites because they dare cover alternative perspectives, or witch-hunting those who retweet a questionable story. It means going after those who actively and knowingly are engaged in the spread of disinformation directly harmful to national interests, as well as those other horsemen of the infocalypse: intelligence agents, those facilitating the covert spread of Russian economic penetration, etc. It also means the ČR needs to redouble its efforts generally to fight corruption — there is no point hoping to fight “Russian corruption” or even “foreign corruption”, so long as corruption remains a serious issue (which sadly it is, even if things are improving, and the recent claim that it “suffers from some of the worst corruption in the world” was a ridiculous exaggeration). One cannot depend on the patriotism of bribe-takers!

So in short, one-and-a-half cheers for the Czechs, for starting the process. In common with other Western states, though, they may want also to think more deeply as to what is the most effective way of dealing with the challenge on a deeper level, both educating the public, and also taking a more robust position with those knowingly engaged in political war.

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  1. Russia / Election Media Ad Hoc – Fallout – To Inform is to Influence

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