The Czech Elves are a volunteer organization inspired by a similar movement in the Baltic states. Their aim is to fight against disinformation in cyberspace.
Part of this fight involves mapping the phenomenon of chain emails, a tool for spreading disinformation that is relatively popular in some countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Czech Elves collect these emails, analyze their content, and save them in a database. They examine the metadata and a special software tracks the spread from specific addresses. Because the texts are usually based on false, ambiguous, or unilateral information, the Elves also create factual replies.
The Czech Elves publish a monthly report about the Czech disinformation scene, in which they summarize the activity of the groups propagating disinformation (see reports for March, April, May). This article builds on these reports.
In the Czech Republic, chain emails constitute one of the most important channels through which disinformation spreads. In a country of 10 million people, the emails have an impact on tens of thousands of readers, reaching numbers comparable to the readerships of some well-established daily newspaper outlets.
The design of the emails is intended to convince the recipient of their organic origins. The emails are typically written in a tabloid-like, drastic tone; some portions of the content are intentionally vulgar; and the emotional statements are stylistically imperfect. All of this is used to convey the genuine emotion of the sender, since no authentic sender would send such messages without emotion, and to produce a sense of spontaneity and authenticity behind the emails through the language imperfections. The final product is a chain email whose consumers have the feeling that they themselves create and spread the emails as part of a wider community.
Pensioners form one of the groups most frequently involved in the consumption and spread of chain emails. According to research conducted in 2018 by the Elpida Organization and the O2 Foundation, over 90 percent of seniors report interacting with chain emails. Importantly, 20 percent of those surveyed also reported participating in the next step by which disinformation spreads: dissemination.
The average consumer in the Czech Republic receives these emails on a daily basis. The messages amuse, impress, horrify, or embitter them. And animated by these emotions, they forward these messages to other friends in order to share those feelings with them.
Much of the content of these emails is not overtly political, but emotional. The emotional appeals suffusing the messages distract the consumer from the subtle political goal: building trust among a community of “ordinary people” united by their affinity for the messages. The emotional content takes many forms: funny photos with kids, cute animals, “ten most stunning landscapes that you want to see,” “five most romantic hotels,” or promoting nostalgia for the “good old times” in communist Czechoslovakia. This positive, alluring content is mixed with warnings and conspiracy theories about catastrophic events in the world, threats from outsiders, “the newest virus that corrupts all your data,” or a dangerous substance in laundry detergent.
The combination of emotional, relatable content and seemingly helpful political messages builds trust among consumers for the source of these emails and creates an emotional bond with the messages. The consumer does not imagine anything pernicious coming from their forwarding of the emails; on the contrary, they may be sharing positive or even useful information with the people they care about. The daily receiving and sharing of these emails establishes a confidential habit, and through the ritual the consumer comes to trust the source, made easier by the fact that the emails often come from family members and friends.
Once trust is built among the emails’ consumers, it is not difficult to add and tailor political content in pursuit of shaping consumers’ views. Typical political messages inserted into the emails include those that spread the fear of migration (“nurses in Germany are not safe due to immigrants”), or messages promoting or denigrating specific politicians (“President Zeman is a wall against migrants”).
The emails’ topics are often timed to coincide with specific events. In the last month before the EU elections, numerous emails denigrated EU and pro-European and pro-Western candidates. Similarly, the emails’ creators disparaged the organizers of the ongoing protests against the government of Andrej Babiš.
Furthermore, many of the emails attempt to inspire hatred of migrants and Muslims. This strategy often involves using tragic, highly public events like the recent fire in the Notre Dame cathedral, of which migrants have been falsely accused of starting, to sway public opinion against immigration and the political forces that support it. (EUvsDisinfo has documented a similar disinformation campaign about the Notre Dame fire waged via more traditional means.)
The dispersal of chain emails, and the nature of their content and its relation to contemporary political debates, suggests coordination with other segments of the information space. These segments include fringe online outlets, social media groups dedicated to spreading disinformation, and the messaging of some politicians who use and multiply disinformation in their political campaigns. The corollary is that behind the primitivism of the language and messaging of these channels, there appears to be a sophisticated and multifaceted propaganda machine which works thanks to the unknowing participation of the people involved.
Sometimes, observers put forth the argument that people are, or should be, intelligent enough to recognize their manipulation by a hostile actor. The reality is more complicated. First, any given individual, in this case an individual consumer of a chain email, will always be at a comparative disadvantage when it comes to recognizing and fighting sophisticated manipulation. Few individuals are well-informed enough to unfailingly discern harmless content from ill-intended disinformation.
Second, we know from various fraud scams that the elderly are unfortunately more vulnerable to these techniques since they might be lonely and more trusting. Information manipulation is just another manifestation of the same vulnerability in an information space populated by individuals.
Third, the popularity and persistence of chain emails, and the disinformation that spreads through their forwarding, relies on these individuals’ sense of loneliness and the need for contact. “At least somebody writes to me” is a common explanation of the pensioners involved for why they hold such an affinity for the emails.
For the generation above 60, learning to use computers and communicate over email was frequently the last technological skill people had to learn before retiring. Connection through social media or online chatting is often beyond their knowledge or perceived as a less community-based manner of staying connected with their social circles. Handwritten letters are widely regarded as obsolete and rarely used, so telephone calls and emails function as the only substitutes for in-person interactions. And unlike telephone calls, emails allow the older generations to share memes and pictures.
Research and efforts to fight disinformation often focus on social media platforms and media outlets. As a result, the habits and vulnerabilities of the younger generations often command the greatest attention from researchers and activists attempting to combat disinformation’s spread. The older generations, however removed from the latest online trends they may be, are subject to similar tactics and, as the elderly also vote, their manipulation by hostile actors through chain emails has consequences for domestic and regional politics. As such, disinformation spread through chain emails in the Czech Republic should be a serious concern for anyone studying how the propaganda machine functions.
Vít Kučík is the spokesperson of the Czech Elves.