COVID-19, known as coronavirus, marked the beginning of 2020. It first appeared in the Chinese town of Wuhan and meanwhile it has been spread in 125 countries. According to the date of Worldometer, 4700 people died, currently, there are more than 54 000 active cases and more than 68 000 cases have been cured.
Corona virus shook the whole world. Health crisis led to mutual accusations of American and Russian officials concerning the spread of fake news. According to the statements from State Department, Russia lies behind the spread of conspiracy theories that the USA should be blamed for the occurrence of the virus, even from the beginning of January through the coordinated activities on social media. The officials from Russia denied this and categorized it as fake news.
The abovementioned theories on appearance and purpose of spreading coronavirus are followed by other theories on predicting coronavirus in the novel The Eyes of Darkness, of the American author Dean Koontz from 1981. One of the theories was that the famous TV series the Simpsons predicted the virus outbreak in an episode from 1993. but in fact, it is a photomontage.
Along with the theories, the messages on the prevention from the virus were also circulating, together with the pieces of advice on how to strengthen the immune system – from alcohol and garlic to the usage of chemical substances for cleaning our environment, which is denied by the WHO.
Infodemic present in the region as well
All these pieces of news arrived in front of the Western Balkans’ doors as well, particularly Serbia and Montenegro, and were spread by both the state officials and social media users.
Therefore, the theory on creation of coronavirus in order to fight biological war against China was supported by Danica Grujicic, Acting Director of the Institute of Oncology and Radiology of Serbia in her video message on Facebook. At the same time, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, Ivica Dacic, indicated the possibility that this theory might be true after coming back from China. He stated that it is not excluded that coronavirus is a part of a special war against China.
After meeting with the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Branimir Nestorovic said that there is no reason to panic, since more people in Serbia die from many other illnesses nowadays and that he cannot believe that the people who survived sanctions, bombing, different types of mistreatment, got scared of the funniest virus in the history of mankind. These statements received sharp criticism of the public, therefore, the President of Serbia himself tried to defend the doctor, but with no success.
Many local conspiracy theorists and quasi-doctors expressed their opinion on coronavirus, such as Dejan Lucic with his statement that there is a permanent pressure on destruction of yellow race, which is destined to rule the world, according to the Old Testament, or the statement of Miroljub Petrovic who said that two sorts of vaccines against this virus should arrive to Serbia.
What do the numbers say?
The data that we came to are the following: during last month, around 66000 articles and social media posts referring to coronavirus directly were posted (excluding Facebook). This graph demonstrates that the level of mentions has significantly increased since March 6, when the first case was confirmed in Serbia.
March 11 in Montenegro – the day of panicking
The messages that the citizens received from different addresses appeared on Wednesday on social media. They claim, referring to the Government and Ministry sources, that there are the cases of coronavirus in Montenegro and that the Government will announce the information officially on the following day and declare the state of emergency.
These messages caused huge lines in supermarkets in the whole country since the scared citizens headed there in order to buy the necessary groceries and avoid shortages and crowd after declaring the state of emergency but also the possible restriction on movement. The additional panicking was provoked by the message which claimed that the big chains of supermarkets Voli and Lakovic ordered huge quantities of basic groceries
The Government of Montenegro reacted soon: Regarding speculations and spread of fake news that the Government of Montenegro is intending to declare the state of emergency due to #COVID2019 in tomorrow session, we are informing the public that these claims are completely unfounded. The Government of Montenegro is not considering this or planning these steps, nor there is a need to do this, as they conveyed on Twitter.
Minister of Economy, Dragica Sekulic, said on the TV show Boje jutra (Morning colors) on the TV Vijesti that all the retail chains are sufficiently supplied and that there is no reason to panic.
Litanies also in danger due to corona?
Coronavirus was also a part of a longlasting media campaign related to the Law on Freedom of Religion and Belief. During the last weeks, the headlines on Serbian and pro-Serbian portals concerning the alleged intention of the authorities of Montenegro to declare the state of emergency and prohibit the litanies due to coronavirus are very frequent.
As the Serbian portal Nacionalist claims on February 26, after reunion of Montenegrin doctors and epidemiologists when the conclusion was made that there is a danger of coronavirus spreading, the activities of the Army of Montenegro were initiated. Their goal is to form the quarantine within the preparation for the mentioned epidemic, but in fact, they represent the preparation for declaring the state of emergency and prohibition of litanies.
The following day, Velimir Erakovic wrote for the Serbian portal Pravda that the President Djukanovic followed the advice of the West and did not trust the loyalty of the Army and Police, therefore, he decided to declare the state of emergency in Montenegro due to coronavirus. With that intention, there is a pressure on the Head of Clinical and Hospital Center of Montenegro to order declaring of state of emergency.
As Kurir writes on March 10, Milo Djukanovic does not choose the means to stop the litanies and is hiding behind the Corona virus even though there are no confirmed cases in Montenegro. In relation to this, the Government decided to use the virus in order to fight the people protesting due to Law on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Nebojsa Medojevic, one of the leaders of Montenegrin opposition coalition DF, also supported the narrative on the prohibition of litanies due to coronavirus on Facebook by asking how will Djukanovic use coronavirus to prohibit larger gatherings in Montenegro.
- Case of Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral
In the beginning of February, the Montenegrin portal Aktuelno posted the fake news that two priests of Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral and Serbian Orthodox Church are put in the quarantine since they are suspected to be infected by coronavirus, referring to the reliable sources. As they stated, the case is kept in secrecy due to the fear of panic outburst during the period of litanies and molebens. The text was conveyed by Portal Analitika (the media apologized later and said it was fake news), Avaz, Alo, bosanske Vijesti, Hayat, Espreso and Happy TV.
Quick reaction and denials of these claims followed from Metropolitanate and Ministry of Health.
- Case of IN4S
In the text Extraordinary incense power, published Tuesday, March 10 on the portal IN4S, it is stated: Precisely due to litanies and incense, Montenegro is the only country in Europe not infected by coronavirus. Many will find this funny, unclear, and incredible but only those who understand the Holy Spirit will understand this as well. So, go and cense you house and pray as much as you can. The incense is killing the bacteria, protecting from evil spirits, giving you sharper reasoning…
Besides the obviously false correlation between incense and litanies on one hand and the absence of corona in Montenegro on the other hand, it is also problematic that these are the words of Joanis Moraitis (starac Jefrem). Joanis Moraitis died on December 7, 2019, therefore it is not possible that he dealt with the issue of litanies or coronavirus which followed after his death.
We should add that the IN4S is the 7th most read medium in Montenegro (31 000 Facebook likes) which gained popularity since the beginning of litanies (end of December 2019.)
This post was shared on Facebook by two large groups: Srbi u Crnoj Gori (Serbs in Montenegro) and Nikšić Ponosni Srpski grad (Niksic, a proud Serbian town), therefore, this disinformation reached more than 80 000 people in Montenegro.
- Case of Koha
The same day, media from Prishtina, Koha and Gazeta Blic, published that the Montenegrin authorities banned the passage from Albania to Montenegro through the border crossings Murican and Hani and Hotit. As the media convey, all the buses, minibuses and passenger vehicles, and particularly those in relation to Italy, are coming back to Tirana.
As it turned out, this is another disinformation. The démenti is posted on the official Twitter profile of the Police Administration of Montenegro, in which they state that Montenegro did not close the border crossing with Albania, as the particular media claim. Montenegro border police, together with the Ministry of Health is implementing stricter border control of the passengers in international traffic
- Case of Facebook
Facebook user, Milivoje Brdža Brkovic, also contributed to the spread of panic. He posted on Facebook that he has the information that there are 13 coronavirus cases in Montenegro. There are many conspiracy theories in the comments, first-hand information but also those which state that the incense and Saint Basil of Ostrog are protecting the people from coronavirus.
Brkovic was arrested on March 12 due to the spread of fake news and public disturbance, as they state from the Police.
Besides Brkovic, MP and one of the Democratic Front leaders, Nebojsa Medojevic, also claims that the virus cases exist in Montenegro.
This way, we are appealing to all the citizens that the posts of individuals on social media are not the credible source of information on coronavirus. It is necessary to follow the posts and information coming from the official and credible sources such as the Institute for Public Health, Ministry of Health and World Health Organization.
On the other hand, media should take into consideration the professional standards while reporting on coronavirus and avoid sensationalistic statements that may contribute to the spread of disinformation and panic.