PRAGUE • A Czech unit fighting fake news ahead of elections has scored an early success - debunking online footage that purported to show Muslim migrants attempting to rape a young girl.
The video, in fact, was of young Czechs involved in a drug turf war in Prague. The false claim of whoever posted it on a Canadian Facebook page has added to suspicions of foreign interference.
Established last month by the Czech Interior Ministry, the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats is a direct attempt to combat fake news, with Russia facing particular scrutiny.
The centre's launch followed a report by the Czech intelligence agency BIS that identified efforts to "weaken" the European Union and Nato member state "through indirect infiltration of media and the Internet".
It cited "a massive distribution of propaganda and misinformation by the Russian state".
Twenty experts at the Prague- based centre have been tasked with evaluating the threat that disinformation poses to national security, and to propose ways of stopping its spread before October's general election and a presidential election in January next year.
A special team met for the first time recently to begin "examining all potential scenarios of attack on democratic elections".
"We can't go on pretending we don't know about efforts originating in a foreign country," Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said of cyber attacks, without naming any state.
But Czech General Petr Pavel, head of Nato's Military Committee, has been more blunt. Russian propaganda sought to "seed panic and fear" in the Czech Republic and beyond using a broad range of tactics, he said late last year.
Aware of reports that fake election news got inordinate attention on Facebook during the final months of last year's United States presidential campaign, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec has hailed the centre's efforts to unmask potential attacks on free elections.
But the staunchly anti-Muslim, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese President Milos Zeman, who has been in office since March 2013, has missed no opportunity to slam the centre, accusing it of censorship. The 72-year-old former communist is expected to reveal whether he will run for a second term on March 9.
A recent survey by the STEM polling agency showed that a quarter of Czechs prefer "alternative news" sites such as www.aeronet.cz over so-called mainstream media outlets.
The Czech drive to expose fake news comes as the EU faces several high-stakes national elections, where populist parties with anti- EU agendas could make inroads, thanks in part to voters being influenced by fake news.