Analysis of Antisemitic Trends in Czech Websites between 1999 and 2022

Ideological Background, Geolocation, Transparency, and Attitudes on the Russian-Ukrainian War

Author
Zbyněk Tarant
Abstract
This article provides an original and up-to-date overview of the main trends in Czech online antisemitism by analysing aggregated data from multiple surveys made by the author, which cover two decades spanning from the pioneering era of the Czech internet in the late 1990s to 2022. The study has noted some profound changes in the main sources of contemporary Czech antisemitism – from various flavours of the far-right in the mid-2000s to conspiracy narratives without a clear Left-Right distinction since the mid-2010s. This new generation of antisemitic websites was found to have a longer lifespan and significantly larger audiences while operating with a higher degree of self-confidence from all regions of the country. A strongly pro-Kremlin inclination was found to be a significant feature of almost all antisemitic websites in the country to the extent that they were directly impacted by the February 2022 government crackdown against “pro-Kremlin disinformation platforms”. The aftermath of this crackdown is discussed in the final chapter.
Keywords
Czech Republic; antisemitism; cyberhate; internet; website disinformation; conspiracism

Introduction

The issue of defining antisemitism

Methods of Data Collection

Findings

Total Numbers of Antisemitic Websites in the Country

Influence and Audience of Czech Antisemitic Websites

Secrecy and Transparency of Czech Antisemitic Websites

Gender Distribution

Geographical Location of Czech Antisemitic Websites

Attitudes towards Russia

The 2022 Crackdown and Its Impact on the Scene

Conclusion

Acknowledgement

Bio

Bibliography

Suggested Citation

Introduction

This article aims to map the main trends of Czech online antisemitism by analysing hundreds of antisemitic websites in the Czech language over the past twenty years. According to the Annual Reports on Antisemitic Manifestations published by the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, almost 98% of all antisemitic incidents reported in the country take place online, and the total rates have been increasing in the last three years (FŽO 2022). This makes it all the more important to acquire accurate data about the size, influence, geographical distribution, geopolitical inclinations or main ideological background of the antisemitic scene. While the main research focus of online antisemitism is currently shifting towards analyses of social media (“Web 2.0. & 3.0.”), including the implementation of artificial intelligence and deep learning algorithms as performed by the Decoding Antisemitism project, for example (Becker and Allington 2021), the “Web 1.0.” or the scene of “traditional” websites and blogs are far from having said their last word. As this article shows, they continue to play the role of essential antisemitic content producers and conveyors to such an extent that the phenomenon has raised national security concerns.

The Czech Republic, or Czechia, is traditionally considered to be a safe home for its small1 Jewish community with relatively low levels of antisemitism. However, this popular notion may cause the country to be somewhat overlooked in surveys, where limited budgets force researchers to prioritise other countries despite the fact that Czechia is comparable in terms of its population to Hungary or Sweden. In combination with the linguistic barrier, this may lead to a certain research gap. The last ADL survey in the Czech Republic was performed in 2014 (ADL 2019) and, while there are other more recent surveys (European Commission 2019; Wike et al. 2019, 86–87), most were performed before the Covid-19 pandemic. The only comparative survey by an international agency performed during the pandemic was published by the Hungarian-based think-tank Tom Lantós Institute in 2022 and has noted increased latent susceptibility rates to antisemitic content in the majority population, namely in connection to Holocaust remembrance and conspiracy theories in all Visegrád Four countries, including Czechia (Gliszczyńska-Grabias et al. 2022). The country is expected to be included in the upcoming Fundamental Rights Agency survey,2 but its results were not yet available by this article’s deadline.

The issue of defining antisemitism

According to the so-called IHRA Working Definition, “antisemitism” is defined as: “certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” (IHRA 2016). The more recent, somewhat competing Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) defines the phenomenon as: “[d]iscrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)” (JDA 2021). Both definitions have their supporters and critics to the extent that the decision to prefer one definition over another may be seen in certain milieus as a manifestation of the author’s political stance (Harrison 2022; Steinberg 2022; Shamir 2023; Hirsh 2017). The reason for this is mainly due to the annexes to these definitions, which manifest contradictory opinions regarding certain issues, such as antisemitism in anti-Israel rhetoric, where the IHRA definition is considered to be stricter in its response to delegitimisation, demonisation and double standards vis-á-vis Israel as well as calls for boycotts, as opposed to JDA. In the Czech Republic, the IHRA definition has been adopted by the Czech Parliament in 2019 as a legally non-binding declaration (AJC 2019), yet its adoption within academia remains contentious depending on the personal political preferences of each individual scholar.3

The Czech Federation of Jewish Communities which is the central institution representing Czech Jews, has adopted the IHRA definition, a full citation of which is provided in the introduction to each of its Annual Reports on Antisemitic Manifestations. In order to enable mutual compatibility, the preference to IHRA is also kept in this study. The case of the Czech Republic is peculiar in that the majority of antisemitic incidents in the country would likely be seen as antisemitic under both of the definitions, since the “grey-zone” cases of anti-Israeli criticism exceeding the threshold of antisemitism, as defined by Nathan Sharansky’s “3D-test” (Sharansky 2004), for example, represent a small, albeit recently growing minority of incidents (FŽO 2022). Given these qualitative characteristics and the dominant ideological background of Czech antisemitic websites (see 2.1), dropping the IHRA and using JDA or other definitions (e.g. Nexus Task Force 2021) would have little to no impact on this study’s validity or general conclusions.

Methods of Data Collection

Attempting to probe the entire online antisemitic scene seems like a daunting task and, in most countries and linguistic contexts, this would indeed be the case. The Czech Republic is very specific in that the country is relatively small in terms of population size (10.5 million), and its language (i.e. Czech) is rarely used outside the state’s geographical boundaries, let alone in antisemitic contexts. Making use of these unique factors and clear linguistic borders allows one to create a map of the entire scene of antisemitic websites in the Czech language and even to repeat this task over the course of multiple years.

The main focus is the scene of antisemitic “websites” as the more traditional form of the online medium. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “website” as: “a set of pages of information on the internet about a particular subject, published by a single person or organisation” (“Website” 2022). The aspect of being published by a “single person or organisation” is crucial, as this study intends to learn more about the “persons” or “organisations” from the nature of the “particular subject” they deliberately publish on their websites. I further define an “antisemitic website” as “any website that has published at least two articles or posts during its lifetime that can be, beyond reasonable doubt, evaluated as antisemitic according to the IHRA definition adopted above”. One antisemitic article could still be discarded as a random mishap, editorial mistake or vandalism, yet, two or even more are usually a sign of systematic editorial policy.

This study summarises the results of eight content analyses of Czech antisemitic websites performed between 2006 and 2022, which were further extrapolated by Excel macros to generate a smooth timeline over the entire time-period. Additional historical records (Who.Is records, old links, Wayback Machine, references in fanzines) made it possible to further extrapolate the data and estimate the main trends since 1999, which was still a rather pioneering era of the Czech internet. Due to the frequent lack of a clear distinction between certain “websites” and blogs within the antisemitic scene, the latter were also included under the definition of website (some blogs may serve as a replacement for party websites, etc.).

In an attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of the entire scene of Czech antisemitic websites, several important hubs within the scene were identified during pre-research using a combination of keyword searches, reports from colleagues and informants, media reports, field discoveries (e.g. URLs in protest banners), as well as third-party lists and reports on political extremism or antisemitism, some of which are quoted below. From these starting points, links recommending other websites were manually followed using the snowball method during each of the eight surveys. This was possible thanks to the fact that the majority of websites on the Czech antisemitic scene still tend to maintain dedicated sections with links to recommended like-minded websites, usually titled as: “links”, “cooperation”, “we support”, “our friends”, “friendly voices”, etc. These are links that are hard-coded into the websites’ core structure by their editors and, as such, are records of interactions and decisions made during website design and maintenance. From an anthropological perspective, the exchange of links within the online scene can be seen as a form of reciprocity and a potential source of social capital (Schechter and Yuskavage 2012; Schnegg 2006; Pelaprat and Brown 2012; Molm 2010), here in the form of higher search engine ratings (Google PageRank) or increased status within the scene. In order to visually track down the progress of the highly complex task and map the relationships between the particular websites, Visone software for Social Network Analysis (SNA) developed at the University of Konstanz was used (Baur et al. 2002; University of Konstanz 2022).

Relevant texts and statements within texts were identified by limiting the Google search to a particular website and using sets of keywords (e.g. “keyword site:https://www.website.com”). The vocabularies of keywords used for the identification of antisemitism are still in development (Jikeli et al. 2021; Mikulášek 2021), but in the Czech case, the most effective keywords in rough order of relevance were found to be the following: Žid (Jew), Izrael (Israel), Sionismus (Zionism), Globalismus (Globalism), Chazar (Khazar), NWO (New World Order), Nový světový řád (ditto), Holokaust (Holocaust), Zednáři (Freemasons), Ilumináti (Iluminati), Palestina (Palestine). The fact that this particular selection of keywords yielded the most relevant antisemitic results (while others did not, such as “Khaibar” used in Islamic references) does indeed already testify to some of the qualitative characteristics of Czech antisemitism, which is dominated by conspiracy narratives. Using the keywords made it possible to narrow down the amount of text that needed to be manually processed for each website and locate key points of the corpus, in which the context and attitude of the author can be evaluated for the final decision whether to include the article’s hosting website into this study as “antisemitic” or not. About four hundred websites were excluded after this stage.

Only articles approved and published by the editors as part of the body of the website were considered to be decisive for the website’s inclusion in the list. User comments were not taken into account and were disregarded, even when they appeared in the search results for some websites. This is because not all of the websites in question have comment sections, which would lead to inconsistencies in data. Antisemitism in readers’ comments deserves its own dedicated study with its own set of methods (e.g.: Becker 2021).

Background research on each newly discovered antisemitic website was performed by using rudimentary methods of OSINT (“open-source intelligence”). The abbreviation refers to the mining of online data and information that the subjects of investigation themselves willingly publish in publicly accessible venues (websites of companies and political parties, public social media profiles of politicians, legal documents of e-shops, etc.) or publicly accessible databases (Czech Business Registry, Who.Is, EurID, Archive.org, Google Maps, etc.). The collected data were used for building aggregated statistics of the scene, such as gender ratio, the changing tendency of the editors towards remaining anonymous, or average website lifespan. This method of collecting background information was particularly important in the case of geolocation, where the goal was to manually locate the place from which the websites are actually physically operated by their editors using contextual data provided by OSINT to avoid sole dependence on inaccurate domain registry records or unreliable IP geolocation.

Findings

Total Numbers of Antisemitic Websites in the Country

During the two decades between 1999 and 2022, this research discovered 292 websites in the Czech language that could be labelled as antisemitic. The majority of antisemitic websites in the Czech language between 1999 and 2022 would fall under the label “Conspiracism” (165 out of 292, or 57 %), followed by the diverse streams and factions of the radical right-wing (108 out of 292, or 37 %). Out of the labels used in this article, the term “Conspiracism & Esotericism” may require further definition. Coined in 1985 by Frank P. Mintz (1985), the term refers to an esoteric, quasi-religious worldview that the world is ruled by supreme, omnipotent conspiracies. While Mintz originally coined the term in reference to the American far-right movement Liberty Lobby, it today refers to wider cluster of political and esoteric ideologies without clear left-wing or right-wing allegiance, yet still notable for their almost quasi-religious nature and esoteric methodology (astrology, numerology, alternative medicine etc.). Within this cluster of websites and their ideologies, omnipotent conspiracies represent the “rejected knowledge” (Hanegraaff 2013) available only to those, who are initiated enough to be able to read the hidden clues. Typical western examples of this phenomenon, which brings together postmodern Western Esotericism with political extremism, would be the QAnon movement4 or the personalities of David Icke and Alex Jones (Smith 2018).

Other ideological milieus were less important in the Czech context, such as Christian traditionalism (14 out of 292, or 5 %) or the left-wing (3 out of 292, or 1 %). The rather low representation of the far-left may feel surprising to some, but even the Jewish Community noted in its 2021 report that: “Followers of the far left traditionally maintain a very critical stance on Israel, which however meets the criteria of the definition of antisemitism only in certain cases” (FŽO 2022, 85). While there were some antisemitic incidents linked to the Muslim community in the past, no specifically Islamic or Islamist website hosting antisemitic content was found in the Czech language, so the category was excluded from the results. For example, there was a Czech branch of the Radio Islam website in the 2000s, yet the Czech version was in fact run by a neo-Nazi sympathiser who was only using Radio Islam’s free web-hosting at the time to convey neo-Nazi and Holocaust denial literature without any references to Islamic teachings (Tarant 2010).

Not all of the 292 antisemitic websites were active at the same time. The lifespan of each website is influenced by a wide range of internal and external factors (budget, motivation, technology, time, health, relationships within the scene, etc.). By comparing the dates of each website’s establishment (using either Wayback Machine snapshots or author’s own archival records and website snapshots) with the date of either their last activity or complete shutdown, the mean lifetime of an antisemitic website in the Czech language was calculated to be about 6.7 years. The longevity was shortest for right-wing websites (4.8 years), while a typical conspiracist website manages to remain active with regular updates for two years more (6.6 years) before being abandoned or deleted altogether. The averages for Christian traditionalist (10 years, 14 websites) and far-left (5.6 years, 3 websites) should be interpreted carefully considering the small size of the relevant sub-samples. Two antisemitic websites in Czechia have been in existence for an outstanding 23 years since 1999, while 56 websites (mostly far-right and neo-Nazi blogs) were shut down or abandoned only after a single year or just several months of activity.

Apparatus16_ZbynekTarant_final.docx.tmp/word/media/image6.png
Dominant ideological background of antisemitic websites in the Czech language, 1989-2022. Note the declining role of the far-right combined with the growth of Conspiracism after 2010.

Taking longevity into account and projecting it onto a timeline (see Figure 1), it can be concluded that after the initial boom of the 2000s, the yearly numbers of active antisemitic websites in the Czech Republic stabilised between 100 and 150 during the 2010s with a peak in 2015. There were 120 active Czech antisemitic websites in 2022 when this article was completed. Figure 1 shows numbers of active websites each year, along with their prevailing ideological background. Noteworthy is the changing role of the far-right (category “right-wing”), which dominated the antisemitic scene until 2010; its importance then began to fade away in favour of conspiracist websites.

There were two significant growth periods in which dozens of new websites were established. The first was in the late 2000s in which the peak of far-right activity correlated with the growth of broadband penetration following the break-up of the state monopoly on internet connections. To quote exact statistics – according to the International Telecommunication Union, the number of internet users in the country almost doubled from 35 to 64 percent in the four years between 2005 and 2009. Throughout the next decade, it slowly progressed to 81 percent in 2020 (ITU 2022). The growth of internet penetration further coincided with the global boom of the blogosphere, which allowed the decentralisation of online self-presentation without the need for sophisticated IT skills. According to the former product manager of the leading Czech blogging service Blog.cz Jiří Vojáček, there were hundreds of thousands of active blogs in the Czech language between 2008 and 2010 on his company’s platform alone (Vojáček 2020). The several dozen antisemitic blogs thus represented only a tiny drop in the vast ocean of the Czech blogosphere. Social media came only later, but a spokesperson for Facebook for example announced an increase “from around 300,000 users in January 2009 to just over 2 million users now [in January 2010]” (Borufka 2010). The internal dynamics of the scene contributed to this growth as well. Annual Reports on Political Extremism from 2007-2009 showed a temporary increase in both events organised by far-right groups, crimes with an extremist subtext, as well as crimes with an antisemitic subtext, peaking in 2009 (MVČR 2021). This increased period of activity was marked by notorious neo-Nazi marches in 2007 to the Jewish Town in Prague on the anniversary of the Reichspogrom (Associated Press 2007), by the Great Synagogue in Pilsen in 2008 (Spritzer 2008), and culminating in the violent anti-Roma riots in the streets of Litvínov-Janov on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on 17 November 2008 (Der Spiegel 2008).

The second growth period came in the mid 2010s with a peak in 2014 and 2015, during which the total numbers of antisemitic websites in the Czech language peaked at 151 unique sites. The main triggering events were the first Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, the Refugee Crisis and Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead”. Suddenly, a temporary growth of verbal antisemitic manifestations was reported at the time both by the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities (FŽO 2016) as well as the Ministry of the Interior in its annual reports on political extremism (MVČR 2016, 38). The same institution had already noted the strongly pro-Russian inclination of newly emerging “alternative news sites” (MVČR 2016, 22), which will be discussed below. There was one additional, smaller peak that came between 2019 and 2021, when the activity of anti-vaxxers within the conspiracist scene culminated.

Influence and Audience of Czech Antisemitic Websites

Not all websites are created equal, and some are more influential than others. But how many readers do antisemitic Czech websites attract in the first place? To acquire at least a rough estimate, data from the SimilarWeb (Similarweb 2022) were used for each of the websites that was previously identified as antisemitic. Three-month visitor averages were calculated for this article, using data from August, September and October 2022. In total, antisemitic websites in the Czech language received about 8 million visits per month, yet this traffic was very unevenly distributed – 3.9 million, i.e. almost half of all the total traffic in Autumn 2022, was taken by the top-five most visited websites. A total of 7 million visitors (87.5%) was allocated to the top twenty websites. The average antisemitic website from the right-wing category, which also includes neo-Nazi sites, receives between units of thousands to tens of thousands of monthly visits. The majority of the most frequently visited antisemitic websites belongs to the category of “Conspiracism”. Out of the 120 active antisemitic websites in 2022, about 53 received less than 5 thousand monthly visits, rendering them too obscure for SimilarWeb to even measure.

The number of visits cannot be directly translated into the amount of actual users. One user may visit the site multiple times during a month, and traffic can be also influenced by the activity of search engines and other kinds of automated crawlers. A relative comparison with some established websites may provide a better picture. For example, the largest mainstream news sites in the country such as iDnes.cz or the websites of Czech Television attracted up to eighty million monthly visits according to SimilarWeb during the same time-period. Slightly more niche news outlets in the Czech Republic, such as the liberal Forum 24 or the Eurosceptic Parlamentní listy received between five to ten million monthly visits at the time. In this regard, most of the antisemitic websites feel more like niche venues, some of which fall directly into the category of obscure personal blogs. Nonetheless, there are large conspiracist portals whose influence and impact should not be underestimated, such as CZ24.cz, which can attract around 1.3 million monthly visits (although 70% of them from Slovakia), AC24, with 840 thousand monthly visits, or Asian European News (a.k.a. Aeronet), with about 650 thousand monthly visits.

Where visitor statistics make it possible to estimate the external influence of the websites among the general public, the percentage of incoming links (indegree) provides additional insight into the website’s authority as a content source for other creators within the scene. The table in Figure 2 was compiled by combining two lists of the top-twenty antisemitic websites in the Czech Republic – the top-twenty by average monthly visitors according to SimilarWeb and the top-twenty by indegree value calculated by using Visone software during the last survey in August 2022. There was a roughly fifty percent overlap between the two resulting lists, which means that some websites were leading the lists both in terms of incoming links and visitor traffic (such as the conspiracist sites Aeronet, Protiproud, AC24 or Zvědavec), but others excelled only in one of the two values. A case in point would be the neo-Nazi intellectual blog Deliandiver, which has a highly dedicated fanbase and ranks among the most linked far-right websites of all time in the country, yet fails to attract visitors from outside the far-right niche. The opposite example would be the website CZ24. Despite being launched just two years prior, it established itself as one of the most frequently visited conspiracist websites in the country in the autumn of 2022, yet is not as often linked to by other conspiracist websites as one would expect for a medium of such size and audience. This may correlate with the fact that about 2/3 of the traffic was coming from neighbouring Slovakia. It may also be argued that CZ24 served as a content aggregator and one-way funnel from within the scene into the general public, as almost all of its articles and posts are taken from elsewhere.