How a former Czech barman built a fake news empire
Growing up in the South Bohemian city of Ceske Budejovice, Ondřej Geršl started work as a bartender, a common career choice in a town famous for its centuries-old beer brewery.
Over long hours pouring drinks and listening to customers criticize the political system, Geršl’s ambitions soon took a radical turn. He started a website for news junkies like himself and now presides over one of the most popular and controversial alternative news empires in the country.
“Today’s media has the tendency to conceal important facts from the public … We bring the answers,” reads the Facebook “about” section of AC24, the crown jewel of Geršl’s news business.
Ondřej says his successful foray into the media world is a result of good business sense, a dedication to keeping costs low by repackaging news stories reported elsewhere and focusing on sensational topics. In January 2019, AC24 logged more than 1 million visits, an impressive result in a country of 10 million. On Facebook, AC24 boasts more than 100,000 followers. For the last two years, Geršl has also seen growing profits.
His detractors, however, have a more sinister view. They see AC24’s popularity as a cautionary tale in today’s chaotic and segmented media environment that illustrates how a once-fringe website promoting alternative political opinions could evolve into an aggressive disinformation outlet.
The Czech non-governmental think-tank, European Values, evaluated AC24 in an April 2016 study as a website that “employs several manipulative techniques, ranging from intentional misinformation to presenting conspiracy theories as serious news”. Kospiratori.sk, a public database of Czech and Slovak websites that traffic in disinformation calls AC24 a Kremlin mouthpiece. On 13 February, 3 of 10 articles published on the site were attributed to the Czech-language version of the Russian-owned Sputnik news agency.
AC24 could play an influential role in the upcoming European Union elections, as the last Czech presidential election was decided by a margin of just over 150,000 votes.
With the EU elections coming up this spring, AC24 could play an influential role in a country where the last presidential elections were decided by a margin of just over 150,000 votes. Populist incumbent President Milos Zeman has called for referendums on the Czech Republic’s membership in the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, two institutions that AC24 news articles spend much time criticizing.
Geršl presents himself as a man with a mission to shake up society, all while making money along the way. In a Skype interview, he said that he is not linked to any political movement or party. He also doesn’t espouse a particular ideology. He says he is capitalizing on a market for sensational and diverse news that Czechs are eager to consume.
He also concedes that he doesn’t fact check the articles posted on AC24.
“Look, our website is not the most truthful one or the most trustworthy,” Geršl said. “We do not want our readers to be dependent on just one source of information. They should be able to compare information from more sources.”
Geršl got his start as a modern media mogul around 2011, when Czechs and other Europeans were consumed with revolutions in the Arab world and the grassroots movement Occupy Wall Street.
He built a website to discuss these and other social movements he thought were underreported by the mainstream media. This early version of AC24 attracted “hard-core political junkies,” he said, and not many more viewers.
Geršl then hired two other people and launched a magazine called “Consciousness,” a platform he intended for long form essays and journalism. The magazine’s motto was to “wake people up”.
Jan Cemper, the editor-in-chief of a Czech fact-checking website Manipulatori.cz, has followed AC24 since its inception. He met Geršl at an Occupy rally, and watched closely as the website underwent a radical transformation.
“They were providing information about the demands of the protestors,” Cemper, said.“They were giving voices to all those student movements that were trying to improve the system.”
Content on AC24 started changing in 2014, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Articles on the site portrayed the conflict as a result of growing fascism in Ukraine, echoing a common talking-point of Kremlin officials.
Cemper said the tone of articles on the site shifted to outright hostility towards Western government institutions and values. “They began to attack the fundamental principles of Western democracy,” he said.
AC24 became a go-to site for articles critical of foreign-funded NGOs, and the Czech Republic’s membership in the EU and NATO. AC24 also adopted publishing trends common in America and other markets. He shortened stories, focusing on easily-packaged breaking-news stories often accompanied by a video.
Geršl said his online business became much more profitable than his magazine. He published the last issue of “Consciousness” in May 2016.
“We used to have longer reads, but no one is interested in this kind of stuff anymore. I decided to invest my money into something else,” Geršl said, adding: “Something that would have more added value in business terms.”
These days, typical AC24 news stories seldom exceed five paragraphs, and have a notable focus on topics that right wing politicians around Europe view as critical threats, from immigration to the alleged dangers of Islam.
Sensational, red-inked headlines, such as “USA is falling apart, but no one is paying attention”, or “Bill Gates and the global elite do not vaccinate their kids – for good reason,” appear on the website alongside countless ad banners.
Meanwhile, Geršl says his profits are growing. In 2015, AC24 saw 100,000 Czech Crowns ($4,000 USD) in profits. In 2017, that increased to 1,100,000 Czech Crowns ($44,000 USD).
Geršl dismisses his critics, such as Cemper, who decry his role in spreading fake news. He says he intends to continue running AC24 as long as its profitable to do so. “It’s just about adjusting to the changes in the media industry,” he said. “There are people that want this kind of information, so we give it to them.”