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Res Publica announces: Tales from the Region #5

"Epidemic of Disinformation"

Acting on wrong information can be lethal. According to some research, in the first 3 months of 2020, nearly 6,000 people worldwide were hospitalized for coronavirus-related misinformation. During this period, it is believed that at least 800 people may have died due to COVID-19-related misinformation.

Overwhelming amounts of information - some accurate, some not - that are spread at an extremely fast pace, might easily lead to a tragic outcome. The World Health Organization has called this phenomenon "Infodemic". False information is diverse. Ever since the early days of the pandemic, a good chunk of information put into question the severity of COVID-19 as an illness. Doubt was also cast on the effectiveness of wearing masks, and drugs and treatments were recommended without scientific and medical evidence as support. The effectiveness of vaccines is also discredited, by claiming that vaccines can alter human DNA.

Disinformation creates fertile ground for uncertainty. Uncertainty, on the other hand, fuels scepticism and distrust in institutions and the media. This creates an environment dominated by fear, anxiety, aggression, finger-pointing and rejecting proven public health protection measures.

Bottom line, all of this leads to loss of human lives.

In "Tales from the Region #5" we will find out how the Balkan countries have coped with the so-called "infodemic". Fake news knows no borders. Through the experiences so far, we can learn how to protect ourselves from the epidemic of disinformation.

We start on Friday (June 25th) with the first piece.

The fifth edition of "Tales from the Region" is brought to you by Res Publica and ICS, in cooperation with our partners from Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), Montenegro (PCNEN), and Greece (Macropolis).

"Tales from the Region" is an initiative implemented by Res Publica and the Institute of Communication Studies within the project "Connecting the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Engagement", led by ICS with the support of the British Embassy Skopje.

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Who lied and how about Covid-19 in Serbia?

Ivan Subotić

Ivan Subotic 400x500At one point one could read in the media that Tylol hot (powder with paracetamol used to treat colds) in combination with rakia, is effective treatment against Covid 19, although the combination of alcohol and paracetamol can be quite dangerous.

Which of the media articles is true and which one is fake? For many people in Serbia, this issue became significantly more important only in March 2020, when the new corona virus officially entered their country. In those moments, the truthfulness of the media reporting became health-relevant, and a great responsibility fell on the journalists because their irresponsible work in that new situation could have costed someone their life. However, many journalists in Serbia and the region continued to pursue a policy of profit, using a tsunami of different information about the new virus in order to easily win views, clicks, reactions and money-making comments.

It goes without saying that not all the information that were published by media in that tsunami was true or scientifically based or relevant. Editorial offices of the Serbian fact-checking portals FakeNews Tragač and Raskrinkivanje opened special sections of their sites shortly after the official beginning of the pandemic dedicated exclusively to fake information concerning the corona virus. In just two months, between March and May 2020, the FN Tragač recorded about 50 fake information about the corona virus in the mass media, social media and chat applications. In the initial days of the pandemic in Serbia, the editorial office of FN Tragač was identifying four misinformation from the media or from the Internet on daily basis.

Lies on the social media and non-corroborated scientific research

It was the first time ever that the fight against disinformation was waged on a larger scale against posts that were mostly shared by ordinary citizens via the Internet and not by the media. A research published in 2014 showed that people trust more friends and family as a source of information during disasters than the mass media. In that regard, the big task of the fact-checking portals at the beginning of the pandemic was to verify the information that originated from people close to the citizens and which, as it often turned out, were completely incorrect. Throat rinsing using various potions; leaving shoes in front of the front door in order to prevent infection; breath holding as a kind of test for Covid 19; lemon and sodа bicarbonate as medicine for the new virus – are just some of the information spreading on the social media and chat applications in Serbia. Such posts were mostly created in foreign countries, where they had already been declared fake by the time they appeared in Serbia. What is additionally worrying is the fact that fake information from social media was spreading in the media required to verify the truthfulness of the information they publish. As many as 13 media reported some of the five fake information from the social media and chat applications, as it was noted in March 2020 by FN Tragač, which is not the only example of this reckless practice.

Even more irresponsible practices in the media can be seen through the dissemination of questionable results of un-reviewed and uncorroborated scientific papers related to the new coronavirus and the disease it causes. This phenomenon is especially dangerous because the media consumers, with an argument in a form of research that seems legitimate and scientifically based, were presented with facts that are unverified. A site that publishes un-reviewed scientific papers in the area of medicine, MedRxiv, published a large number of studies during the pandemic that were still unfounded at the time, noting that they should not be presented in the media as scientific facts. Regardless of that, the media in Serbia referred to such studies as fact-based research and, as a consequence, our media have published information that people who have height greater than the average are twice likely of being infected with the corona virus; also that people with blood group A are those who are mostly endangered by the new virus; that in April 2020 there were 30 corona virus variations and that the new virus causes sterility in the younger male population.

How the medical and political authorities lied to us

The real issue with the fake news about the corona virus was when the medical authorities, who are members of the crisis staff for fight against the new virus, were spreading fake information about the transmission of this disease and its potential disappearance from Serbia. In April and March 2020, as many as three members of the then composition of the Government crisis staff announced that the warm weather and UV radiation of the sun would wipe out the corona, and the interview of Dr. Branislav Tiodorović for Blic was especially controversial. In that interview, we heard from this member of the crisis staff that Covid 19 "was avoided only by African countries that have only imported cases", but also that "the virus prefers temperature ranging from 3 to 6.7 degrees", while "the virus does not like temperatures below 0 but also temperatures above 23 degrees."

However, at the time when the interview with Tiodorović was published, in most African countries there was an ongoing local transmission of the corona virus and the information that heat and UV radiation are killing the virus was denied by the World Health Organization (WHO) – as noted by FN Tragač. In the end, the biggest tragedy caused by the corona virus in Serbia happened during the summer months, in Novi Pazar and its surroundings, during June and July 2020 when, according to the media, the number of people who died in 2020 was three times greater compared to the year before.

Koj i kako lazese za KOVID 19 vo SrbijaSource: istinomer.rs/Zoran Drekalović

In addition to people with medical authority, disinformation about the new virus was also spread by people in the highest official positions – ministers, the prime minister, and even the president himself, and that was the case from the very beginning of the pandemic. The fact-checking portal Istinomer who assesses how true is the information in the public media and social media and also deals with the validity of politicians' statements during the pandemic, and has noted many misinformation disseminated by politicians in the most important positions. For example, the prime minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabić, in July 2020, when it became clear that the good weather would not drive the corona away, tried to attribute this false claim, raised by many authorities, to the World Health Organization (WHO), although that institution had claimed the opposite since the beginning of the pandemic. In the same month, the Minister of Health, Zlatibor Lončar, wanted to put an end to the question of who really died from corona, and did not say that the autopsy of those who died from this virus was banned by the WHO.

However, even this statement about the WHO does not correspond to the truth since this institution published guidelines on security measures when making autopsy of people who died from corona in March 2020, which do not mention anywhere that this procedure is prohibited. Earlier, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucić, in his appearance on Happy Television, boasted that Serbia is the eighth country in Europe in terms of the number of people tested for the new corona virus per million of inhabitants. The truth was that a total of thirty one European countries were ahead of Serbia in terms of number of people tested for the new virus. In addition to these, Serbian officials had many more statements (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) with disinformation concerning the new virus, thus undermining the trust of the citizens in the state system which, in those moments, was of crucial importance for maintaining the calmliness of the people in the new situation.

The nature of the corona virus misinformation and the spreading of panic

Almost all misinformation related to the corona virus pandemic can be divided into those that served to spread the positive message and those that served to spread the negative narrative about the then situation with the outbreak of the new virus in Serbia. The torrent of information and disinformation worked according to the "hot and cold" system, so that positive and negative projections about the further development of the pandemic and its end were appearing in the media one after the other. This expected approach of profit-oriented unscrupulous media can be interpreted as "coverage of the entire audience" by these media because the readers, listeners or viewers are more inclined to consume content that matches their already established attitudes about a phenomenon.

The problem is happening at a time when there is no objective reason for optimism, and that optimism is being promoted in the media. We have seen such a practice in the above-mentioned example of ’stronger sun rays as a savior from the corona’. Furthermore, at the beginning of March 2020, one could read in some media that "the corona virus is disappearing”. An even bigger problem was created by negative narratives which, along with the abundance of misinformation, were spreading fear and panic among the population, which is punishable by the Criminal Code of Serbia with imprisonment from 3 months to 3 years.

A good example of such an illegal spread of panic is the text published in one Serbian tabloid that dealt with the return of the Serbian diaspora to their homeland at the beginning of the pandemic. This magazine initially announced that 100,000 people is returning to Serbia, and later has even doubled that figure on the corrected front page, with a bold headline "DANGEROUS". In the same text, this medium also reported that the epidemiologist Zoran Radovanović said that at least six thousand returnees to Serbia carries the infection with them, which was then denied by Dr. Radovanović himself for Raskrinkavanje. Another example of instigating irrational fear is the media reporting about the emergence of a "new danger" in the form of the hanta virus that appeared in China while "the fight against the corona is not even close to being finished." However, Raskrinkavanje explained that this is not about a new virus and there seemed that there is no reason for alarm, given that no pandemic of the hanta virus broke out in parallel with the corona virus.

Slowing down of misinformation about the virus and a flurry of lies about vaccines

As the time was passing from the beginning of the pandemic, the frequency of misinformation about the new corn virus decreased. However, they did not disappear completely, and their successor appeared – misinformation about vaccines against Covid 19. The irrational spread of fear among citizens, both regarding vaccines and other things related to Covid 19, was still here. In April 20201 a Serbian portal wrote that the „PCR tests contain cancer-causing ethylene oxide." Although carcinogenic ethylene oxide is indeed used to sterilize some of the equipment used during PCR testing, as FN Seeker Tragač, the use of this gas in medicine is largely regulated so that it meets all international standards, hence there is no reason to fear from testing. There is also no reason to fear mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers either, although we still see cases where some person with medical authority comes out with unsubstantiated views that mosquitoes, flies and ticks transmit the corona virus.

A special place among the misinformation concerning Covid 19 belongs to the manipulations related to vaccines. Since the very beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that probably the only way deal with it was to vaccinate the people. It was also clear that the intensity of the already existing propaganda by people who believe that vaccines are harmful will increase with the beginning of mass immunization in most countries. As expected, misinformation about vaccines has been there from the very beginning.

Back in mid-March of 2020, it was published that the vaccine has already been produced, and in April a Serbian portal published that the Brits will test a new vaccine on a hundred thousand people a day. With the start of the vaccination, a more aggressive deceptive campaign against the process began as well. There were „official studies“ published that were lacking methodology but do have something to say against the Pfizer vaccine. It was said that a Serbian hospital discriminates against an unvaccinated patient, refusing to operate on his heart. It was warned that the Moderna vaccine is deforming people who have undergone cosmetic procedures. All this information turned out to be incorrect.

Consequences of the influx of misinformation

According to a research carried out by Novi Sad School of Journalism in April 2020 analyzing the fake information about the coronavirus published in the media and on the Internet, most of that misinformation was advice on prevention or treatment of Covid 19 infection. A worrying thing is the fact that fake advices such as the one that thyme can protect you from corona virus, or that Covid 19 can be treated with solution made rom pepper and lemon, pose a danger to the citizens simply because it was proven that they do not protect against new this infectious diseases.

At one point one could read in the media that Tylol hot (powder with paracetamol used to treat colds) in combination with rakia, is effective treatment against Covid 19, although the combination of alcohol and paracetamol is dangerous due to the possible increase of the side effects of the drug.

The consequences of many misinformation related to Covid 19 resulted in general confusion of the citizens during the entire pandemic and, as a result, there was a poor response by the citizens for immunization, even though vaccines are now available. However, probably the most devastating is that most of the misinformation that spread during the pandemic was, in essence, easily verifiable, or already denied by the relevant institutions, or, simply put, meaningless, but that did not stop the domestic media and the insufficiently media literate people from spreading it.

Therefore, there is an evident need for the citizens and the journalists to be educated more in the area of media and digital literacy and for the competent institutions to equally sanction all persons responsible for spreading fears, lies and manipulations related to Covid 19.

 

The text was created as part of the publication “Tales from the Region” conducted by the Macedonian Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Don’t Le Belgrade D(r)own), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), and Greece (Macropolis), within the project "Connect the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Participation" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.

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