Coronavirus crisis disinformation on digital platforms
FAMOUS DOCTORS AND THEIR DANGEROUS DISINFORMATION
The entire world faces a crisis in the present, perhaps the biggest one in modern times, one which threatens to jeopardize social and economic flows, but also to change the life we are used to and introduce some new habits into our everyday routine. There are two outbreaks that develop at the same rate — one threatening to endanger the health of mankind, and the other affecting the right of people to be informed accurately about health-related issues, as without this people are poisoned with disinformation.
Traditional media outlets in Montenegro have acted responsibly when it comes to publishing information about coronavirus. However, as was to be expected, tabloid and anti-Western media outlets have not refrained from publishing rumours, conspiracy theories, and unverified and inaccurate information. Even though these organisations did not create most of these myths, but only acted as distributors, the spread of disinformation has already done a lot of damage. Disinformation has been spreading through social networks and communication platforms such as Viber and WhatsApp at an incredible rate.
The Coronavirus infodemic in Montenegro is manifested by the publication of inaccurate information on many topics, many of which were already debunked by local myth-buster platform Raskrinkavanje.me. The existing fake information is related to the origin and the methods of transmission of the virus, the treatment of diseases by various available medicines (for example, the treatment of HIV infected people, patients with lupus and malaria), data on the number of infected people or the end of the epidemic. The media also published information containing racist stereotypes, claims that certain religious rituals might protect people from the virus, as well as the lack of solidarity shown on the European continent when it comes to combating this invisible enemy.
In mid-February, World Health Organization officials warned that they were not only fighting an epidemic but also an infodemic, pointing out that fake news spreads even faster than the virus. This misinformation certainly hinders the difficult work of doctors during the crisis. Among the measures, aimed at combating the coronavirus epidemic that was introduced in Montenegro, is the restriction on people going out during weekdays after 7 PM, or after 1 PM on weekends. Every night, Montenegrin citizens praise the efforts our doctors make, by applauding from their windows and balconies.
However, there are some doctors in the Western Balkans and around the world as well, who do not deserve any applause because they have helped to spread inaccurate advice, some of which are clearly not based in medical science and even may be threatening to health. Through tabloids, right-wing media, various portals managed by obscure owners and editors, as well as numerous social media pages that share and promote unverified information and conspiracy theories, this content reaches a large number of people within the countries of the former Yugoslavia. When we summarise the total number social media accounts that published such unverified content, we found that six statements made by doctors from Germany, Spain, Montenegro and Croatia could be viewed by over 8 million users of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
The case of the German doctor: Wolfgang Wodarg
One of the doctors who has probably got the most public attention in ex-Yugoslav region is German doctor, Wolfgang Wodarg, who claims that there is unnecessary panic about the coronavirus and that the German government`s reaction is exaggerated. His statement was translated into language understandable to the people in the ex-Yugoslav region, taken from YouTube and published on the Facebook page named “Blood Tax in Serbia”, which usually publishes content with unverified information and conspiracy theories. Much of the content published on “Blood Tax in Serbia” is not from mainstream media; however, the content does not reach all citizens in the region.
The German newspaper Tagesspiegel’s Fact-Checking service published an analysis entitled “Wolfgang Wodarg spreads theses that ignores important facts”, saying that this doctor spreads arguments about the corona pandemic that are scientifically unsustainable.
The case of the German doctor: Sucharit Bhakdi
Other scandalous advice comes from the German professor of microbiology Sucharit Bhakdi, who claims that the new coronavirus is not a threat. The two most viewed videos on his YouTube channel have recorded a total of 3.1 million views, while his advice reached 927,300 Facebook users in the former Yugoslavia on Facebook pages of regional portals quoting this professor (for instance, Croativ.net, Novi horizonti.ba, Logično.com, Index.ba, Teleskop.hr).
One of Bhakdi`s claims is that the coronavirus does not pose a huge danger, and that the measures introduced in Germany are meaningless and self-destructive. However, data from the World Health Organization shows that we cannot treat COVID-19 exactly the same way we treat flu. Also, the professor attributes the high number of virus victims in Italy to external environmental factors, such as the high air pollution in northern Italy and China, whileOECD statistics on the impact of air pollution on health question this assertion.
The case of the German doctor: Klaus Kohnlein
Another German doctor, Klaus Kohnlein, an internal medicine specialist, says that he does not see a new disease in SARS-Cov2 and that any testing is pointless. His statement was translated and published on a YouTube channel by Joshua Bobi which had over 122,000 views (04/08/2020). Furthermore, the video was posted on FES TV, which gave the video a further 1.43 million views. The video was shared from that channel in the region as well, on 103 Facebook pages and 110 Twitter accounts.
The case of the Croatian doctor: Lidija Gajski
In Croatia, the media also published statements and articles by doctors such as Lidija Gajski and former Public Health Institute employee Srećko Sladojev, with the latter being neither a doctor or a member of the Croatian Medical Chamber. Fact check platform Faktograf.hr wrote that Gajski has been known as an anti-vaxer, who has talked about the harmfulness of vaccination without basing her views on scientific evidence during the coronavirus pandemic. Sladojev, on the other hand, has publicly stated that coronavirus is a common, non-dangerous epidemic and influenza-like virus. The Croatian Medical Chamber reacted to these statements because these statements were made without any scientific evidence and are completely contrary to the interpretations of national and international health organizations.
The case of the Montenegrin doctor: Ivo Đurišić
A statement by the former director of the Primary Health Care Centre in Podgorica, Ivo Đurišić, who claims that frankincense kills the coronavirus, was recently published via online media and tabloids in Serbia. Fact check platforms and medical experts have previously denied that frankincense protects people from coronavirus. Cenzolovka.rs portal, which promotes professional journalism, has reported that numerous scientific papers in the field of medicine state that frankincense (Boswellia serrata) suppresses germs — bacteria and fungus, but not viruses.
The case of the Spanish doctor: Jose Manuel Fernandes Garcia
Spanish medical doctor Jose Manuel Fernandes Garcia`s advice on the Mediterranean diet, which apparently helps deal with coronavirus has been published in media outlets in the former-Yugoslav region. Asked by UNICEF, the Montenegrin Institute for Public Health, responded that food has no specific impact on reducing the risk of coronavirus. The best proof of this lies in the fact that Mediterranean countries like Italy and Spain, have been some of the most affected countries by coronavirus.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
According to professional media organisations and bodies, journalists and media members are facing a huge amount of pressure and strain, often being potentially exposed to infection through interviews and the locations they find themselves working in. At the time of the pandemic, they are not able to make a story from self-quarantine and they are facing the additional problem — the lack of medical personal protective equipment. The committee to Protect Journalist issued detailed advice for journalists covering COVID-19 which includes pre-assignment preparations, tips for avoiding infection in affected areas, travel planning and post-assignment cautions, and this is followed in Montenegro and across the Balkans.
Although the media face serious challenges and unprecedented circumstances, they must be aware of their role and responsibility in preserving public health. Famous international and domestic organisations and professional bodies have urged the media to report responsibly and avoid creating any unjustified panic or share discriminatory and racist comments. Professional bodies reminded [S1] media and journalists of their role to provide citizens with verified, accurate and factual reporting, inviting media outlets to avoid sensationalism that could lead to panic and fear.
The examples presented in this paper have shown that not all media outlets in the Balkans have not refused to publish misinformation, and have not accordingly played a fair game. In order to contribute to fighting against the further spread of disinformation, we urge journalists to report responsibly on COVID-19, and follow the recommendations of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).
● Journalists should invite only those individuals who are experts in the medical field to comment on the health situation in order to contribute to quality and accurate information.
● Their reports must be based on official data and information published by officials and credible sources — the World Health Organization, the Ministry of Health and the Institute for Public Health of Montenegro.
● Journalists and editors must rely on credible sources only, and not let themselves be misled by right-wing media trying to spread anti-Western, anti-democratic and pro-Russian narratives hidden among coronavirus topics.
● Media outlets should support journalists in enforcing their skills for fact-checking and recognizing propaganda articles and pamphlets appearing as news reports, through additional educational programs and training.
● Journalists should cooperate with medical workers and help them in combating coronavirus by protecting citizens from sensationalist news with no real information value.
● Journalists should also protect patients’ and other citizens’ privacy, in line with the Code of Ethics.
Having in mind that our media community is polarized, this pandemic could be an additional impulse for our media outlets to contribute to the improvement of professional standards by means of developing self-regulation. Journalists, editors, media ombudsman and professional media associations play an essential role in promoting professional standards and fact-checking as a future crucial segment of each newsroom.
Even though we are aware of the limited capacities in which they operate, we hope that media and journalists will find resources to verify all information and help combat coronaviruses.
On the other hand, we also believe that citizens play a crucial role in this fight. Therefore, we urge them to be cautious, read the news carefully and choose which media they trust, as well as choosing only credible sources.
Additionally, special attention should be paid to the “good-intentioned” advice and instructions for overcoming the crisis that spread in the form of viral messages via social networks and communication platforms.
In case they require support in verifying information, citizens should address their questions to the World Health Organization, the Ministry of Health and the Institute for Public Health of Montenegro, which have so far shown responsibility and accuracy in informing citizens, as well as to fact-checking platforms available in their country. For citizens from Montenegro — Raskrinkavanje.me, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Raskrinkavanje.ba, Serbia — Raskrikavanje.rs and Fake News Tragač, North Macedonia — Fighting Fake News Narrative, Croatia — Faktograf.hr and Slovenia — Razkrinkavanje.si
This regional network of fact-checking organisations from ex-Yugoslav countries created the COVID-19 Viber Community, as an additional credible point for coronavirus related information.
Be careful. Spread the facts.
Digital Communication Network begins the series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.
Authors: Bojana Mučalica and Milica Bogdanović, researchers and journalists from Montenegro