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Media and communication expert Eva Rybková on political communication and disinformation in the CEE

The pandemic has shown us how deeply controversial or fake information on politicians’ socials can divide society. The following interview with Eva Rybková about political communication and the associated risks in the context of the upcoming election is PRINCEPS' first look at EU digital regulations and their implications for CEE politics.

How would you conceptualise the foundation of political communication and its risks?

People expect politicians to solve their problems. In practice, that means politicians need to convince voters that they care about their opinion and understand the issues “ordinary” people face. It sounds simple. But we have all experienced that explaining something both clearly and credibly can be very challenging. We have high standards for politicians’ communication towards their voters. They should be consistent, credible, transparent, dynamic, authentic, and listen to the people. And simultaneously, they must deal with issues associated with the avalanche of disinformation coming from both outside and within.

Is the CEE region specific in this respect?

According to a public opinion survey, most CEE citizens are aware that they are exposed to disinformation. The problem is their inability to identify or verify disinformation or manipulative news. Simultaneously, our region carries a high level of distrust in state institutions, the media and NGOs. And despite all that, people expect the very governments and institutions that they do not trust to address the issues associated with disinformation.

Why is this subject particularly relevant at the moment?

The region is heading towards several elections: parliamentary elections in Slovakia and Poland in autumn, and a presidential election in Slovakia and 27 member states electing their representatives for the European parliament in the following year. We already know people are doubting the legitimacy of the elections in both Poland and Slovakia. In Slovakia, this narrative is spread mostly by political parties which actively disseminate that the election will be stolen, that it will not be transparent, and that it won’t be fair. I think we are heading into an interesting period of elections and pre-election campaigns.

How will political communication affect the development surrounding the election?

Part of political communication will unmistakably be convincing the polarised society that the elections will be free and fair. Political communication will be much more intensive, as will the risks associated with it. Political campaigns including advertising have moved from traditional media outlets to the online space. Political communication will therefore include the topic of protecting the online space from interference and dangerous disinformation. Maintaining the fragile balance between freedom of speech and the fight against disinformation will be particularly difficult in the CEE in the upcoming period. Political communication in the CEE will be impacted by a number of other factors, the state of the media market or European media legislation.

Can we expect any legislative changes in this respect?

Media technology always significantly outruns legislation. The European Digital Services Act already exists, but won’t be fully in effect at the time of the Slovak and Polish elections. The 2022 EU Code of Practice on Disinformation is currently voluntary and Twitter has withdrawn from it, but once the Digital Services Act comes into effect comes into effect, it should be binding for all platforms. EU institutions are currently deciding on the final wording of the European Media Freedom Act. Future elections will also be impacted by EU directives on the transparency and targeting of political advertising. So far, we do not know how the new legislation regulating the online space will work in practice. It will definitely place further requirements on online intermediaries offering their services in the single market in terms of information management, manipulation risk identification and analysis, fake news, disinformation and the development of effective mitigation strategies.

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