Petr Nutil wasn’t expecting much. So when his fact-checking project exceeded 1,600 volunteers and 80,000 pageviews on its first day, he was taken aback.
Then it passed 150,000 pageviews. Then 250,000.
Now, PoPravde.cz is using the momentum to fact-check fake news going into this weekend’s presidential election runoff in the Czech Republic. The temporary project — a collaborative effort of fact-checking site Manipulatori.cz, the think tank European Values and the Prague Security Studies Institute — launched more than a week ago to debunk hoaxes about incumbent President Miloš Zeman and challenger Jiří Drahoš.
Volunteers are broken up into two buckets: a 30-person team that actively fact-checks and a 2,000-strong Facebook group that flags false claims and distributes fact checks. Nutil, a journalist for Manipulatori, said the project aims to fill a gap in the Czech media landscape.
“From the beginning, there was a call for people that care about the truth,” he told Poynter. “Commercial TV programs are based on creating fear (about migration)."
In many ways, PoPravde — which translates to “for the truth” — addresses a problem that didn’t even exist prior to Zeman’s victory in the first round of the election Jan. 13.
Kristýna Šopfová, a journalist for the fact-checking site Demagog.cz, told Poynter in an email before the runoff that misinformation wasn’t really a big problem yet. There were a few hoaxes floating around the internet from pro-Russian sites like Aeronet, such as one alleging Drahoš was a former member of the Státní bezpečnost (ŠtB) — the communist secret police force in Czechoslovakia — and another claiming a George Soros-related conspiracy.
But they didn’t seem to be having any effect on voters.
“We do not have any clear data that would confirm or deny this assumption. But, according to public opinion polls, there are no significant changes while publishing those hoaxes,” she said Jan. 10. “Those hoaxes (were) not discussed for a long time and it probably did not disturb many supporters.”
Since then, misinformation has ballooned in the Czech Republic, a phenomenon that Šopfová correctly predicted due to the polarizing effect of President Zeman himself. Nutil said most hoaxes are targeting Drahoš since Zeman’s supporters have been using fake news as a means to wage political attacks.
While Nutil vouches for the project’s goal of impartiality, the associated think tanks are pretty clearly pro-EU and skeptical of Russia at a time when those issues constitute a major cleavage in national politics across the continent. European Values has even taken a clear position on Zeman, dubbing him in one report “the Kremlin’s Trojan Horse.”
When asked whether or not PoPravde has a political bent, Nutil said that since the project consists of volunteers who come from different organizations, they naturally bring their own biases to the table. But the overall aim isn’t to push an agenda.
“Some who offer to us their sources are from pro-EU organizations,” he said. “The reason why they do it is simple — Jiří Drahoš is (the) candidate of liberals, pro-EU and west-orienting people. And the whole initiative was created to fight with misinformation, which most have attacked him.”
Václav Štětka, a communication and media studies lecturer at Loughborough University, told Poynter in an email that, despite the project’s affiliation with pro-EU think tanks and focus on Drahoš, he doesn’t think PoPravde is partisan. According to him, most of the hoaxes are just targeting Drahoš.
“The project might appear to support Drahoš and his agenda, but I don't think it is driven primarily by an effort to help Drahoš,” he said. “After all, the website lists and debunks some hoaxes concerning Zeman as well.”
Regardless, people have taken notice of the project.
The false ŠtB claim, which was published by Aeronet over the summer, was refuted by Drahoš — but it still had more than 2,000 engagements on social media as of publication, according to BuzzSumo (There was no available data for the debunks, but the Facebook post from Jan. 16 only had one like as of publication). That doesn’t take into account how many times the hoax was shared via WhatsApp or email, which Markéta Krejčí, a junior analyst for European Values, told Poynter is increasingly a source of misinformation for older Czechs.
Other false stories and memes have focused on the refugee crisis, with one claim alleging that Drahoš supports migrant quotas (he has denied that). To Nutil, whose Facebook status announcing PoPravde had more than 1,000 shares as of publication, those kinds of fake news stories have one clear goal in mind: Stoke fear in a polarized electorate.
That’s where PoPravde comes in. The site has published comprehensive lists of debunked hoaxes about both Drahoš and Zeman, which it then promotes on Facebook. But another effort PoPravde.cz’s volunteers are undertaking is a little more analog.
“We made a big poster about the main disinformation that is being (published) to disinformation webpages, which can be downloaded,” Krejčí said. “We called on people to print it and put it in some public place.”
While one printout addresses general pieces of misinformation about each presidential candidate, the other details hoaxes specifically about the EU. Think neighborhood fliers warning against some local danger, but for fake news.
Although PoPravde has more debunks for anti-Drahoš hoaxes than anti-Zeman ones — which often portray the president in a negative light — Nutil insisted that the project isn’t part of any opposition to Zeman. It’s just indicative of the sheer volume of misinformation against Drahoš.
“We’re just trying to debunk and correctly inform — we are not a part of opposition to Miloš Zeman,” he said. “There are some personal attacks on Drahoš; for example, pedophilia. It’s really disgusting, but we found absolutely crazy fake news about him … there are many different kinds of them.”
Nutil has past experience creating fact-checking projects from scratch. In summer 2015, he created Manipulatori with a few of his friends to write about hoaxes related to the ongoing refugee crisis in the EU — a project that led to collaboration with other fact-checkers.
This time, Nutil said he hopes to improve election discourse a little bit. But until the vote this weekend, it’ll remain unclear to what extent PoPravde’s debunks had an impact.
“I can say that the interest is really great, both in the media and in the public,” he said. “I wonder if and how we finally can change political discourse. Let us be surprised.”