The ‘Sudeten card’ influenced the first direct election of the President. We can expect disinformation attacks this time, too, says Štěpán Mikula

20 Jan 2023 Jana Sosnová

Štěpán Mikula at Faculty of Economics and Administration MU | Photo: Peter Mikuš

In 2013 it was the Sudeten Germans, five years later it was migrants. Disinformation and fake news have played a significant role in both presidential elections so far. Will it also influence the current presidential election? According to Štěpán Mikula from the Faculty of Economics and Administration at Masaryk University and the SYRI Institute, who, among other topics, researches electoral behaviour, it is very likely.

Is it possible to trace a link between the disinformation people share on social media and their actual voting behaviour?

The role of disinformation is a hot and widely discussed topic. In our academic research we try to go one step further and show its influence with a higher degree of certainty. Unfortunately, because elections are anonymous, we cannot analyse the link between actual voting behaviour and social media activity.

So how did you investigate the role of disinformation and fake news?

Researchers often try to simulate voting behaviour in laboratory experiments. But we took a different route. Some specific events allow us to study the effect of disinformation on real voting behaviour, at least at an aggregate level – we call them natural experiments. In our research, we specifically focused on the 2013 presidential elections and the effects of playing the so-called ‘Sudeten card’. Our results showed that disinformation attacks can have a significant impact also in the Czech Republic.

What was specific about the disinformation campaigne in 2013?

The disinformation campaign started after the first round of the presidential election, from which Karel Schwarzenberg unexpectedly advanced. It was epitomised by the infamous “Don’t vote for Karel Schwarzenberg” advert that appeared in the tabloid newspaper Blesk between the first and second rounds. This created a unique natural experiment that allowed us to compare voting behaviour influenced and not influenced by the disinformation attacks over a limited time of two weeks. The results of the research show that it did, in fact, help Miloš Zeman to win. However, there is no indication that this was the decisive factor of the presidential election at the time.

Can we expect fake news and disinformation to influence this year’s presidential election?

Candidates will certainly adapt their campaigns to maximise their chances of victory. If disinformation campaigns can increase electoral support – and we know they can – then we can expect at least some candidates to resort to them. On the other hand, a strategy of rejecting disinformation may also be attractive to a certain group of voters. Of course, the likelihood of the targeted use of fake news may also be influenced by the personality traits of candidates. We know, for example, that one of the candidates in the second round of the current presidential election has made his relationship with the truth obvious in the past.

Is there any part of the population that is more susceptible to disinformation campaigns?

Research on the impact of disinformation campaigns usually takes into account the different effects of fake news on different population groups. We used this strategy in our analysis of the 2013 election. At the time, the topics of the Sudetenland, the post-war expulsion of Germans, and the Benes Decrees came up in a televised debate between Karel Schwarzenberg and Miloš Zeman. One of the widespread interpretations of Karel Schwarzenberg’s statements was that he was going to return confiscated property. Although such a thing was legally and politically unthinkable, it might have raised concerns among the current owners of such property. The long-delayed adoption of church restitution, which shaped the context of the 2013 election, could have intensified these fears. Our research shows that in municipalities with a higher number of owners of properties seized after the end of World War II, support for Karel Schwarzenberg declined between the two rounds of the presidential election, while support for Miloš Zeman grew.

How is this surprising?

Although this result may strike one as obvious, it is particularly interesting from an academic point of view. The specific situation of 2013 allowed us to identify the causal effect of the disinformation campaign on real voting behaviour. Something like this is still very rare in the academic literature.

The region of the former Sudetenland has also entered the debate in the context of the current presidential election. It is not only on social media that we can find all kinds of analyses linking support for Andrej Babiš in the first round of the presidential election to the region of the historic Sudetenland. Are border regions really ‘different’?

The spatial correlation is clear, but I would be careful with its interpretation. In the first round of the presidential election in the former Sudetenland, Andrej Babiš received more electoral support, i.e. the share of votes in the population with the right to vote. Petr Pavel, on the other hand, lost. But the key question is what explains this observation.

Electoral support for Andrej Babiš
Note: Electoral support is defined as the percentage of votes for a candidate in the total number of potential voters. Data: CZSO (Czech Statistical Office)
Electoral support for Petr Pavel
Note: Electoral support is defined as the percentage of votes for a candidate in the total number of potential voters. Data: CZSO (Czech Statistical Office)
Electoral support in the first round of the presidential election in municipalities and urban districts
Note: The Sudetenland is defined as municipalities in which the proportion of the German population exceeded 50% in 1930.

The data show that the area of the historic Sudetenland differs, for example, in levels of educational attainment and other socio-economic factors. If we compare the electoral support for both candidates at the level of municipalities and districts with the educational attainment level of the local population, it is clear that people with a higher level of education were more likely to support Petr Pavel. Those with less formal education supported Andrej Babiš. However, this relationship is the same in other regions of the Czech Republic.

Electoral support and education in municipalities and urban districts
Note: The Sudetenland is defined as municipalities in which the proportion of the German population exceeded 50% in 1930.
Electoral support is defined as the percentage of votes for a candidate in the total number of potential voters. Data: CZSO (Czech Statistical Office) Guzi at al. (2021)

And what do the so-called ‘soft’ data tell us about the historical Sudetenland?

Our analysis of the ‘soft’ data from the questionnaire surveys has shown that people living in the former Sudetenland are on average no different from the rest of the Czech population. Their pro-social behaviour and value structure is basically the same. In contrast, they tend to have lower so-called social capital, i.e. a smaller and weaker network of social relations with their neighbours. Higher support for candidates who define themselves against the system could also be explained by different levels of trust in state institutions. However, we do not have enough data to reliably test this hypothesis.

What role does the specific history of the region of the historic Sudetenland play?

The 'otherness' of the former Sudetenland is indeed a legacy of historical events, i.e. the expulsion of ethnic Germans and the subsequent resettlement of the region. The literature confirms that, for example, the educational attainment level or migration behaviour of the population changes dramatically at the border of the former Sudetenland and nowhere else.

But lower education is only one channel through which history influences the present. We cannot change history, but we need to look at how mechanisms through which it affects our present work. Understanding them will enable us to design effective policies that can effectively help the long-neglected peripheral regions. One of the consequences of this neglect may be the shape of our current political scene.

Štěpán Mikula is a researcher at the Faculty of Economics and Administration, Masaryk University, and he also works at the National Institute for Research on Socioeconomic Impacts of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI). His research focuses on empirical microeconomics, particularly on labour market and migration issues. He is also involved in researching voting behaviour.

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