Besides changing social, political and economic situation, the global health crisis, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, gave power to social media to reshape and create the perception of reality. In the time when the knowledge is reduced to a level of critically unprocessed information, together with communication and social interaction being moved to social media due to the global isolation measures, the reach and the consequences of disinformation are accentuated and the issues of social immunity to the infodemic wave that splashed the world soil is (again) on the agenda.
Fighting on two battlefields – medicine and disinformation, has been additionally complicated by the development of the vaccine that left room for further populistic narratives and manipulations in order to favor a particular pharmaceutical company, or country of origin.
On the other hand, the regional media, dominantly Serbia-based, launched a lot of pseudo-science content in the last months, which they used in order to compromise the credibility and trust of the public in the work of health authorities.
Fake news about the death of Dr. Topcic
On January 27, Facebook account Marina Knezevic posted that Dr. Blazenka Topic, Director of the Medical Center in Drnis, died soon after having received the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Blazenka Topic personally confirmed for the Croatian fact-check news portal Faktograf that this was a piece of fake news. The colleagues from Raskrinkavanje analyzed the same issue. Faktograf published that they had received the response from the Sibenik hospital that it was not possible to provide a detailed answer on why Dr. Topcic had come to the hospital in the first place, because of data protection and Act on the Protection of Patients’ Rights. This way, we can deny the untrue claims stated in the post, which refer to the vaccine and side effects that we have no knowledge of, they responded.
Démenti from the University of Oxford on the death of a volunteer
The development of the AstraZeneca Company’s vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford was accompanied by some speculations. The suspicious were related to its effectiveness and that it is not sufficiently safe for usage. Allegedly, it was concluded that it caused serious side effects (hospitalization or death). In the previous period, the Serbia-based news portals wrote about death of a volunteer from Brazil who was vaccinated in the third phase of the clinical trial, using sensationalistic headlines in their texts. Here are a couple of examples: THIS IS WHAT AWAITS US: A volunteer who was vaccinated against COVID-19 died (Srbin.info); WORLD IS SHOCKED! Volunteer died after receiving the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine! (Pravda); BRITISH VACCINE IS DEADLY! A volunteer who took part in a testing of the COVID-19 vaccine died! Here’s what the authorities say (Kurir). Soon after the news had become viral, the reaction from the University of Oxford followed, which denied that the volunteer died due to the vaccine consequences.
Claims that the Western vaccines affect sterility and sexual orientation
One of last misleading claims on the vaccine, that even the political elite of the Western Balkans did not remain immune to, refers to the claim that the Western vaccines cause infertility. Therefore, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency Chairman Milorad Dodik said that he does not believe in the commercial stories from the West, as he is afraid that they would affect the population sterility, and that the Republic of Srpska will supply the vaccines only from Russia. Dr. Ana Gligic, a famous virologist from Serbia, said that there was no risk for reproductive and overall health of those vaccinated with the Western vaccines.
The news portal Srbin.info republished a theory of a rabbi Daniel Asor that the COVID-19 vaccines turn people into homosexuals. Asor adds that the whole global vaccination is a creation of the global malicious government trying to establish the new world order, which is a well-known conspiracy theory. Even though there is no proof for his claim, it also completely opposes the statements of the leading rabbis who invited believers to get vaccinated.
Despite infodemic, vaccination supporters are growing in Montenegro
The flood of disinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus and vaccines, which resulted in the spreading of fear, emphasized the importance of trust in the work of institutions and necessity to provide constantly reliable information about vaccines. That way, the negative effects of numerous conspiracy theories and disinformation about vaccines would be reduced, and the responsibility of a society to identify and analyze harmful narratives would develop. In this context, a piece of research of the international NGO Globsec is indicative. According to the research, Montenegro is the first among the Western Balkans countries, and Central and Eastern Europe in the number of citizens believing in conspiracy theories (four out of ten citizens).
What do the experts say?
At the meeting of the Minister Jelena Borovinic Bojovic and Emanuel Salinas, the World Bank Country Manager for Montenegro, which took place on January 21, the Minister assessed that the current situation is at the same time the warning and the guideline for the further development of the health policy, especially for the cases demanding systematic approach and organization. She added that the response in the form of vaccination to the current health crisis caused by the coronavirus is the absolute priority. In that sense, the results of the Ipsos research from December 2020 pointing out to the fact that one in two citizens in Montenegro (42%) would get vaccinated with one of the available vaccines are encouraging. Also, the number of those doubting the vaccine has significantly lowered (from 22% to 17%).