Czech born terrorist made of fake news

Last summer, when visiting family in Canada, I found it rather curious that Grandma was spending a great deal of time alone in a separate room ‘on the internet’. In the beginning it seemed rather amusing: this woman in her mid-seventies, barely computer-literate (earlier during our stay, I gave up after about 15 minutes of trying to explain the difference between a right and left ‘click’ on a mouse), spending hour after hour scrolling through Facebook feeds while we, having travelled halfway around the world to visit, sat in the living room twiddling our thumbs, and leafing through old magazines. We attributed her other rather odd behaviors, particularly random and jaw-dropping statements such as, ‘don’t go to <insert name of random tiny rural village>, it is being taken over by Syrians, it isn’t safe anymore,’ to overdosing on and misunderstanding the highly dramatic 24-hour commercial news channels blaring in the background during the day. At no point did we make any connection between these bizarre statements and the hours she spent shut in the den, alone on the internet.

Nor did Helena Baldová, the wife of 71-year-old Jaromír Balda, the Czech Republic’s first modern terrorist. Mr. Balda was convicted in January of this year of trying (and very nearly succeeding) to derail passenger trains by felling trees on train tracks, and trying to make it look like it was done by ‘Islamists’ by leaving notes written in bad Czech, with the odd ‘Allahu Akbar’ for good measure. Mrs. Baldová also thought it was ‘funny’ that her husband stopped spending evenings with her in the living room watching television, and would shut himself in the spare bedroom where they kept their computer. She was a too embarrassed to confront him about it, thinking that her husband was surfing erotic websites… and who could blame her? Discussing sexually explicit online content is hard enough with teenagers, much less pensioners.  In reality, Mr. Balda, who was probably no more computer literate than my grandmother, was not watching porn. He was becoming ‘radicalized’.

Although there are various interpretations of ‘radicalization’, for the most part it concerns the way in which individuals or groups adopt progressively extreme political, social or religious views and aspirations which reject basic societal norms. This doesn’t necessarily have to be problematic, as we all at one time or another embrace views that are in some way ‘radical’, but it reaches a peak of seriousness when violence becomes an acceptable way of achieving goals, or a justifiable goal in itself. Before the age of the internet, in the heyday of mass media, the scarcity of channels, and the consequential ‘mainstreaming’ function of the media meant that access to ‘radicalizing’ forces was limited, and invariably involved a strong interpersonal context combined with non-mainstream mediated content, often consisting of DIY print leaflets and fanzines. Today, it is all too easy for the lonely, bored, and socially isolated to find their ‘truth’ elsewhere.

‘Fake news’ plays a key role in propaganda campaigns by attempting to stir up discontent and anger among the population.

The reality of this came crashing down in the context of the mass shooting in Christchurch on March 15th. In the Czech Republic, there are almost three dozen active propaganda servers with discernable ties to foreign governments, and these quickly issued a flood of conspiracy theories, suggesting that the massacre was staged, conducted by actors, or did not actually happen at all. Of course, this is nothing new in an internet context. ‘Fake news’ plays a key role in propaganda campaigns by attempting to stir up discontent and anger among the population, often by giving the impression of exposing lies and fighting for freedom. It is easy to use basic video editing skills and a little persuasion to cast doubt on and manipulate accounts of violent attacks. But the repetition and energy of the fake news pages was breathtaking. The political sympathies of such sites (which I have not named here so as not to give them more traffic) tend to be transparent, and are ridiculed in many circles and dismissed as preposterous by serious journalists. However, what about for vulnerable people such as Mr. Balda? Or Grandma, locked away in her spare bedroom whiling the hours away online?

Although the classic media theories (cultivation, modelling, uses and gratifications and others) were developed long before the internet, they hold up surprisingly well in explaining what happens when people consume content that consistently drives home certain ideas. The power of identification; the influence of being publicly ‘rewarded’ for your thoughts; the very diverse types of gratification that we get from consuming certain types of content. Many of our students after a short course in communication and media theory are able to understand and independently explain possible effects. But it isn’t so easy for the elderly, the lonely, the less-educated. Feeling left out, not good enough, isolated and underappreciated no longer means keeping a stiff upper lip and getting on with it. There are short cuts that can easily be taken to beating isolation, all in the privacy of that spare bedroom.

So what can we learn from the tragic case of the Czech Republic’s most famous terrorist? How can we stop this from happening again with more serious consequences? In Mělník, in Sherbrooke, in Cchinvali? Targeted propaganda campaigns and hybrid warfare are not going away, even if corporations like Google and Facebook are somehow forced to spend at least a tiny fraction of their billions in profits to help fight them, and no matter what complex filtering technology applications the ICT developers can come up with. So what can we do on a local, personal level? The key is patience, and taking time to explain things. Resisting the impulse to make fun of the ideas of others, rejecting condescension, and appreciating the fear and anger that being left out brings. In an age when we are constantly reminded that time is the most important thing that we don’t have enough of, this is not welcome news. But the alternative, in the long run, could be much worse.

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