From Slovakia: How to tame hoaxes in a society where half of us believes in conspiracy narratives?

Lessons from Slovakia Using Polis

How to tame hoaxes in a post-truth age? Through discussion or repression? These were the main questions of our Polis conversation, which enabled us to look deeper into this issue and to find unexpected consensus. In the discussion which was open in late February 2022, 91 people participated and made 51 statements.

For the context, Slovakia is particularly vulnerable to disinformation campaigns. As a GLOBSEC survey showed 52% of Slovak respondents believe, that “those world affairs are not decided by elected leaders but by secret groups aiming to establish a totalitarian world order”. With ever-increasing distrust to mainstream media, the stage for the flourishment of disinformation is set.

For this reasons, the Ministry of Justice proposed earlier this year legislation to criminalise intentional spreaders of hoaxes. Its main goal was to protect the life and health of the citizens by sanctioning the spreaders of disinformation related to pandemic measures and Covid-19 vaccination. The reaction of the public was not really welcoming, since the formulation was very vague. Nonetheless, in our team we welcomed this topic of discussion.

So we started our series of Polis discussions on this topic with our first question “How to tame hoaxes? Through discussion or repression?”. The underlying idea behind this was to find common ground on some of the instruments by which we could enhance the resilience of people to hoaxes.

Since we anticipated disagreement on the repressive measures consisting of criminalisation, we tried to lead the discussion to the question: How to improve the public discussion so that disinformation and hoaxes aren’t as successful?

Our Polis conversation showed two anticipated opinion groups. First (group A) thought that the “negative influence of hoaxes on our society is hyperbolized” and that “no-one shall censor speech in a free discussion”. On the other hand, group B reckoned the opposite – that hoaxes are a grave threat to our lives, health and societal coherency. For these reasons, the State should be more serious in finding solutions, even by the means of criminal law. The main division came along the conflicting lines between free speech and the protection of lives, health and the society as a whole.

As the prediction for these groups showed us, disagreement on this topic was quite severe. So how did we approach this consensually? First of all, almost everyone agreed that the main tool to protect us from hoaxes is prevention. Most important is “the awareness, common sense and information literacy”. For these reasons we should “verify the information (we have google) and read whole articles, not just the titles”.

Apart from this rough consensus, we were able to go even deeper. The majority of participants agreed that “we shall discuss with everyone who’s willing to discuss, despite our differences. But spreading hoaxes and hate speech isn’t a form of discussion”. In this context we also agreed that “if someone’s intentionally lying or misleading in a discussion, we’ll find the truth too late, or never”. And most importantly, we collectively stated, that “truth matters to us more than feelings”. From the set of concrete solutions we also found consensus on that the “media should visibly separate news from opinions” and that we should “moderate more effectively discussions and blogs on media web domains”.

Conversation on the topic of protection from hoaxes, free speech and discussion showed us, that people understand the problems of existing public discourse forums. We agreed that not every form of discussion is capable of fulfilling its preventive functions, because those who want to sabotage it have many advantages.

Apart from that we also learned how crucial is the framing of statements if we are to find consensus in a polarized society. For example, group A was severely against the censorship of any form of speech. On the other hand it was fifty-fifty with the support of statement that, “freedom of speech shall not protect intentionally false statements which aim to harm or decieve someone”. The underlying idea was the same, but the formulation, different. But just this small tweak lead more stable common ground.

Lastly, this Polis conversation indicated to us that with the right rules of public discussion, we’re able not just find consensus, but also lower the potency of disinformation narratives. We tested this hypotheses in our next (yet most successful) conversation on the topic “What is a hoax? And how to recognize them?” But about that perhaps some next time. Stay tuned and let’s make discussion great again!

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