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World

New Czech Government Unit Seeks To Monitor Fake News

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Beyond the U.S., many countries are concerned that fake news stories could influence voters. The Czech Republic has elections later this year, and the country is so concerned about this problem that it has opened a new center against terrorism and hybrid threats. One of its key missions is to monitor social media and identify stories that it deems to be false. To talk about it, we are joined via Skype by Tomas Prouza, the Czech government state secretary for European affairs. Welcome to the program.

TOMAS PROUZA: Thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: What is a specific concern that this center is trying to address?

PROUZA: What we have seen in the last two years was growing number of Russia-connected websites who've been reporting blatant lies. And they spread alternative versions on events to make sure that people have no idea what is true any longer, and they simply start doubting the very basics of democracy, and that is the key worry we have.

SHAPIRO: You say that these are connected to Russia, what evidence do you have that Moscow is behind this?

PROUZA: One is that many of these websites share stories that originally appear on Russia Today or Sputnik, which are the two key Kremlin propaganda tools. And we also been looking at financing of some of these websites, and some of the leads we have fall in towards financial sources from Russia.

SHAPIRO: Has Russia responded?

PROUZA: Well, not officially. Anytime we bring that up in the discussions with them they of course deny any involvement, but friends of Russia have been attacking this center from day one.

SHAPIRO: So when this new center against terrorism and hybrid threats identifies one of these fake news stories, what does it do?

PROUZA: It publishes the facts. It uses social media, primarily Twitter, to get things out as quickly as possible, and saying this is a story we have found, these are the facts so use your brain and compare these two. So it's not censorship, they're not trying to close the websites, but they're trying to show very clearly that these things are really false. It's not alternative truth, it's really a falsehood.

SHAPIRO: Should it really be the business of the government to determine what is fake news? I mean, here in the United States, President Trump has referred to unfavorable media coverage that is in fact grounded in facts as fake news. It seems as though this center could easily go from identifying fake news stories to limiting a free press and targeting unfavorable media coverage.

PROUZA: We've been very careful. The only mandate they have is to identify stories, verify the facts and publish that. And it's also only one piece of the puzzle. We of course have several NGOs that act as fact checkers. We have some of the traditional media who also cover some of these stories, and we felt that this government center should be part of it. It's not the only thing we do, but we still believe that government needs to defend itself. If we don't defend democracy, it will be gone very quickly.

SHAPIRO: You said that the center will not go after every fake news story that's out there. How large is the volume, and how many do you plan to go after on a given day or week?

PROUZA: There's about 40 websites that peddle these stories, so you have dozens of websites that appear. The goal is for them to pick up a few a week. One of the stories we've seen repeatedly was claiming that the migration away from Syria to Europe has been caused by American activities in Syria over the last year or so. That for me is one of these major stories we need to debunk. They're not American activities in Syria, they're Russian activities, Russian bombing in Syria that has been driving people out from their homes. So this is the type of the stories they will go after.

SHAPIRO: There's obviously an urgency in Prague to do this because the Czech Republic has elections this year, but are some of your European colleagues in other countries talking about doing similar things?

PROUZA: Very much so. Germany is now discussing how they should address that. For them one of the key areas to focus on so far has been trying to force Facebook and Twitter to go after the fake news themselves. Sweden has been one of the targets for Russia as well. Finland faces similar problems we have, and even the United Kingdom. Each country is trying to see how they can deal with this.

SHAPIRO: Tomas Prouza is the Czech government's state secretary for European affairs. Thanks very much for joining us.

PROUZA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEATH IN VEGAS SONG, "ALL THAT GLITTERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.