Slovak PM’s shooting unleashes online lies, bitter blame

Slovak PM’s shooting unleashes online lies, bitter blame

PRAGUE: Slovak social media on Thursday was rife with unfounded claims and finger-pointing after the attempted murder of Prime Minister Robert Fico, underscoring toxic divisions that have deepened since he came to power.

A barrage of online posts at home and abroad were quick to try to link the 71-year-old suspected gunman to the liberal political opposition or to Fico’s moves to shift foreign policy towards the Kremlin since his election in September.

A man from the western town of Levice was charged with attempted murder following Wednesday’s shooting, which happened as Fico spoke to members of the public after a meeting.

In the aftermath, thousands of Slovaks shared posts on platforms like Facebook and Telegram making unfounded claims that the gunman was close to the Progressive Slovakia (PS) party and its leader Michal Simecka.

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In one example, a photograph that purportedly showed the assailant with Simecka’s father — a prominent writer and liberal newspaper columnist — went viral, suggesting he had direct connections with the PS.

However, AFP’s fact-check team found the man in the photo was not the politician’s father, Martin M. Simecka, but a member of a local book club.

Other unfounded claims said the shooter was a PS sympathiser or even party member, even though nothing in his publicly available online presence indicated that was the case.

“Such claims were spread by well-known disinformers, primarily on Telegram,“ said Daniel Milo, an expert on disinformation and hybrid threats.

– Ukraine a disinformation flashpoint –

“Despite the quick identification of the perpetrator, I have seen online attempts to accuse the Ukrainians of the attack,“ Pavol Hardos, a political and social media researcher from Comenius University in Bratislava, told AFP.

Such unfounded claims, which also spread in other countries in the region, included a Telegram post by the editor-in-chief of the pro-Kremlin outlet RT saying the attack came after Fico echoed the Kremlin justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a response to “rampant Ukrainian neo-Nazis”.

Slovakia’s stance on the war in Ukraine was one of the key themes of a poisonous electoral campaign in the run-up to the vote that brought Fico to power. Analysts told AFP most of the online misinformation originated from pro-Kremlin sources.

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Fico himself promoted pro-Kremlin messages, including that the war started in 2014 after Ukrainian “fascists” killed Russian civilians.

False posts debunked by AFP also targeted Ukrainian refugees, who were wrongly accused of abusing social aid or setting buildings on fire to stir social unrest.

During this year’s presidential campaign, AFP debunked fear-mongering claims that the pro-NATO opposition candidate, Ivan Korcok, would send young Slovak men to the battlefield should he be elected — an act that the president is not authorised to do under the Constitution.

Fico ally Peter Pellegrini won the presidential ballot and will assume office in June.

– Politicians, media blamed –

At an emotionally charged press conference after the shooting, senior politicians lashed out against the prime minister’s critics including in the PS and the mainstream media.

Underscoring tensions over mainstream media is the government’s decision to overhaul the RTVS public television and radio broadcaster, which it claims lacks impartiality.

Critics say the move will turn RTVS into a vehicle for pro-government propaganda.

“Politicians blamed journalists and the liberal part of Slovak society for the attack without any evidence or even logic,“ said Tomas Krissak, an expert on information security.

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“The political leaders are abusing the situation for their gain and accusing people who are completely innocent,“ he told AFP.

Outgoing President Zuzana Caputova and president-elect Pellegrini met on Thursday to send a message of unity in a bid to calm the situation.

“Let’s step out of the vicious circle of hatred and mutual accusations,“ Caputova told reporters.

Krissak said “the mood on social networks had been very tense even before the attack”.

“Afterwards, a freezing, scary sense of desperation has fallen upon Slovak society,“ he told AFP.

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