In the Czech Republic, a prime ministerial candidate created his own fact-checking site
Editor's note: This article has been updated with comments from Václav Štětka, a lecturer at Loughborough University.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right?
That’s what Demagog.cz, a fact-checking outfit based in Prague, Czech Republic, would like to believe. The organization recently inspired prime ministerial candidate Andrej Babiš to create his own “fact verification” project named Můj Demagog, which translates to “My Demagog.”
"I could not listen to the lies,” reads the first paragraph on the site. “So let's just say how it really is.”
But the project, which is mostly aimed at addressing allegations made against Babiš by political opponents, isn’t really a fact-checking project at all. It’s more spin.
“It’s basically like fact-checking (in appearance), but he’s just talking about his opinions,” said Ivana Procházková, an expert at Demagog. “He’s defending himself, but without sources. And if there are any sources, it’s usually just media links or any of his previous opinions.”
Babiš’s project comes days ahead of the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections, which will result in a new prime minister. Pundits say Babiš — the billionaire leader of the populist ANO 2011 party and one of the most popular politicians in the country (despite having been ousted as minister of finance in May and being charged with tax fraud last month) — is likely to win the prime ministership.
"The polls consistently show that voters' support for ANO is unrelenting, regardless of the multiple scandals surfacing around its leader," said Václav Štětka, a communication and media studies lecturer at Loughborough University, in an email to Poynter. "This campaign is not about facts, it is about emotions, particularly negative ones."
So why would he want to create a site that pays homage to a fact-checking organization?
“He has a great reach to the people,” said Michal Ischia, digital media editor at the Prague-based Respekt magazine. “I think his aim is just to create chaos — to create something that has a similar name (to Demagog).”
Aside from being a leading anti-establishment politician, Babiš is also one of the biggest newspaper owners in the Czech Republic. In 2013, he purchased the MAFRA publishing house, which owns Lidové noviny and Mladá fronta Dnes — two of the country’s main dailies — in addition to radio, television and internet properties.
On his new website, Babiš disputes that he has ever used his media outlets for political gain.
“One of the accusations was that he influenced his media to write bad things about his opponents and good things about himself,” Procházková said. “The thing that he’s providing on the website is explaining that he never influenced anyone, he doesn’t attend the meetings of the editors (and) that he loves democracy and transparency of media.”
Babiš supposedly created Můj Demagog in part because he likes Demagog’s work (on the site, he calls the fact-checking team “super” and says it’s a “great site”). He’s even using the same true/false graphics that the organization uses in its fact checks.
Procházková said Babiš’s team reached out a day before they launched the project to ask if it was OK to use Demagog’s brand. The fact-checking organization declined, but the site was published anyway — a move that Demagog decided not to pursue, legally or otherwise.
“We’re trying to make it a little humorous and a subsidiary problem,” she said. “But we clearly stated why we don’t like this project. It’s not carrying any of our values: being nonpartisan, being very objective and putting sources into explanations.”
Babiš isn’t the only politician to create their own fact-checking project. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign team used a section of her website to live fact-check Donald Trump during the debates. Wired reports that it got millions of views.
Procházková said Demagog isn’t going to fact-check Můj Demagog, which had labeled all of its 21 published claims as false as of publication, because it isn’t worth doing it in the midst of elections, which are set to take place Friday and Saturday. Additionally, she said the fact-checking organization has actually seen bumps in traffic and social media engagement due to the prime ministerial candidate’s new site.
But by creating a project branded as a fact-checking endeavor, Babiš is essentially subverting the role of the media in covering him ahead of the election.
“His voters are completely satisfied, obviously — they think it’s great to have such a webpage where he can explain everything without being questioned by the journalists,” Procházková said. “However, the most people that are into fact-checking and know how it works are kind of angry, mostly … they are used to some kinds of standards, and here it’s completely different.”
Some of the most problematic “fact checks” are those that address details of Babiš’s past endeavors as the former CEO of the Agrofert holding company (for starters, they lack links to outside sources altogether).
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Demagog is the only dedicated fact-checking outlet in the Czech Republic, and both Procházková and Ischia said people aren’t very familiar with the format in general. Most Czechs still get their news from TV and print products — not the internet, according to the 2017 Reuters Institute Digital Media Report.
However, while fact-checking is relatively unknown in the Czech Republic, it’s also unlikely that Babiš’s new site will determine the outcome of the elections.
"This last-minute initiative by Andrej Babiš's marketing team is not likely to have any significant effect on the elections," said Štětka, who authored the Czech Republic section of the Reuters Institute report. "I don't think that many Czechs will even notice this project, and if they do, I doubt they will be motivated enough to actually visit the website and bother checking some 'facts.' The whole project seems to be more of a PR stunt."
Corrections & clarifications: A previous version of this story stated that Demagog initially declined and later approved Můj Demagog. In fact, they simply decided it wasn't worth pursuing, legally or otherwise. Additionally, Babiš is the former CEO of Agrofert, not Agrovert, as previously reported.