Unverified and conflicting narratives swirl around shooting of Slovak Prime Minister

Unverified and conflicting narratives swirl around shooting of Slovak Prime Minister

By: sophie perryer&
May 17 2024

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Unverified and conflicting narratives swirl around shooting of Slovak Prime Minister

(Source: Reuters)

The shooting of Slovakia's Prime Minister, Robert Fico, on May 15 was motivated either by his initiative to end weapons deliveries to Ukraine, or his refusal to sign the World Health Organization's pandemic treaty, according to the unfounded narratives that began circulating in the immediate aftermath of the event.

Similarly, the suspect was allegedly opposed to Russia's war in Ukraine and Fico's pro-Russian stance, yet also had ties to a pro-Russian paramilitary organization - all unverified information which immediately began to circulate on social media despite police initially confirming no details beyond the fact that a suspect was in custody.

The dissemination of unverified information around a breaking news event is a well-documented phenomenon, as social media users fill information gaps with speculation. However, misinformation around Fico's shooting was notable for both its scale and scope, with disparate false and unverified narratives circulating across multiple platforms.

The facts as they stand

At 2.30 pm local time on May 15, Fico was shot while leaving a government meeting in the town of Handlova, about 190 km by road from the Slovak capital Bratislava. Footage from the scene shows a man firing five shots toward Fico. The prime minister is subsequently helped to his vehicle by his bodyguards, while other members of his security detail subdue the suspect. 

Fico was transported to the hospital and underwent surgery after the shooting. As of May 17, he is in a serious condition but is expected to survive, according to the deputy prime minister and doctors at the hospital where he is being treated. 

Police have confirmed the suspect in custody is a 71-year-old man from the town of Levice. In a press conference on May 15, Slovakia’s interior minister described the shooting as a "clearly politically motivated act" but provided no further details on the suspect's identity or political affiliations. An investigation into the shooting is ongoing, and security measures have been strengthened for all government officials, as well as some opposition figures and media outlets.

Unverified information begins to spread

Early footage of the shooting, which later appeared on other platforms, can be traced back to Russian media outlets Pravda and Russia Today on Telegram. A disinformation expert, who spoke to Logically Facts on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak publicly on the matter, said other unverified information was also circulating on Telegram within Slovakia, including images allegedly showing hospital admission paperwork for Fico. These images purported to show details about his condition before any official statement could be released by either hospital or government officials.

Various calls for violence, including incitements of civil war, also circulated on Telegram in the aftermath of the shooting, according to the source.

Telegram is a popular platform in Slovakia and other parts of Eastern Europe, and its privacy protections make it very challenging to identify those spreading false information or inciting violence. These protections include the ability to log in without a SIM card, using an anonymous number, and delete all chats after a certain period of time. 

WHO and the pandemic treaty

Initial footage of the shooting subsequently began circulating on X, associated with speculative captions on the motivation for the shooting. One post from a self-described “conspiracy realist” reshared footage from Russia Today with a caption insinuating that Fico’s shooting was linked to the Slovak government’s decision several days earlier not to sign the World Health Organization’s pandemic treaty. That post had garnered 5.1 million views, 13,000 shares and 24,000 likes as this article went to press.

Similar claims were also shared on TikTok and Meta. One TikTok video, which insinuated the same link between Fico’s shooting and the pandemic treaty, garnered 30,000 likes, 13,000 shares and over 2,000 comments in less than 24 hours of the shooting. 

A TikTok video with significant engagement alleging a link between Fico’s shooting and the Slovak government’s decision not to sign WHO’s pandemic treaty. (TikTok/Screenshot)

On Facebook, articles mentioning the terms "Fico" or "Slovakia", and "WHO" or "pandemic treaty" surged by 2,300 percent in the hours following the shooting. The article with the highest velocity was published by a conservative American media site, with a headline alleging Fico’s shooting was linked to both his refusal to sign the pandemic treaty and his decision to end weapons deliveries to Ukraine. 

Articles mentioning "Fico or Slovakia" and "WHO or pandemic treaty" surged by 2,300 percent after the shooting. (Screenshot: NewsWhip) 

An analysis across major social media platforms showed that unverified claims around Fico’s shooting predominantly circulated on X, as claims were reshared by accounts with large audiences. The words "Fico" and "pandemic treaty" were mentioned over 26,000 times on X on the date of the shooting.

A suspect in custody

As speculation swirled on the reasons behind the shooting, unverified information also began to circulate on the suspect's identity, with social media users seeking clues on their motive from any personal details that emerged.

A suspect was detained after shooting Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in Handlova on May 15, 2024. (Source: Reuters)

Several local media sites identified him as Juraj Cintula, a poet and founder of an anti-violence political movement. He has since been charged. One user on X posted a video claiming to be Cintula's manifesto, in which he advocates “uniting people, preserving peace and restoring democracy.” 

Screenshots subsequently emerged of Cintula in an image published in 2016 by the pro-Russian paramilitary group Slovenskí Branci, which some users extrapolated to imply that Cintula too was a pro-Russia sympathizer. At the same time, Cintula was reported to have appeared in a video in 2022 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while other outlets alleged he was opposed to Fico's pro-Russia stance and had not voted for him in the recent election.

Yet all these details remain unconfirmed by any official source. The interior minister stated in a press conference that the shooting was politically motivated, but said he was not affiliated with any political group, either right-wing or left-wing, and described him as a "lone wolf".

The Slovak fact-checking organization Demagóg has also debunked a false claim that the suspect appeared in a photo with an opposition politician.

How platforms responded

Logically Facts contacted X, TikTok and Meta to understand their responses to the spread of unverified claims surrounding Fico’s shooting on their respective platforms. 

TikTok told Logically Facts it had immediately mobilised resources in the aftermath of Fico’s shooting to address the spread of any unverified or false claims, and directed us to its overarching approach to combating misinformation on the platform.

From X, we received an automated response: "Busy now, please check back later." The platform has ceased engaging with media requests under Elon Musk's tenure, while Musk himself regularly uses X to criticize reputable media organizations. 

From Meta, we received no response.

The political backdrop

Slovakia's interior minister described the suspect as having "radicalised himself" in the period following the presidential election, but the unnamed source told Logically Facts that political polarity predates that vote in April. The country also held parliamentary elections back in September 2023, which kicked off a six-month period of intense political activity where radical moves by the government, such as the abolition of the anti-corruption prosecutor, engendered mass protests

The shooting also occurred just three weeks prior to the European Parliament elections, which are scheduled to take place in Slovakia and other EU member states in early June. On May 16, Slovakia's President-elect Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Fico, called on all parties to either suspend or scale back their campaigns in the wake of the shooting.

The source we spoke to feared further political violence was possible around next month's vote, but said the government's response in the coming days would be crucial, particularly a planned meeting of the parliamentary political parties scheduled for May 21. In the interim, Slovak authorities have called on social media users to refrain from circulating false and unverified information, lest they compromise the integrity of the ongoing investigation into the disquieting shooting of Fico.

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