Great Britain is the first country in the world that approved a vaccine against COVID-19 on December 2, 2020. Among the companies that have been working for almost half a year now on vaccine development, the vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech is paving the way for mass vaccination.
However, given the amount of disinformation and conspiracy theories spread about coronavirus during 2020, one could have expected that the distribution of vaccines and the vaccination would be accompanied by misleading content. Even though, generally speaking, the anti-vaccines campaign (primarily regarding immunization of children) has been present for several years now and is being persistent both in the world and in the Western Balkan region.
BBC recently wrote about conspiracy theories and misleading information that followed after the first persons received the vaccine against COVID-19. Social media saw the sharing of videos and posts claiming that the very vaccination process has been staged and that fake syringes with disappearing needles are being used in an attempt to promote a vaccine that doesn’t exist. However, according to BBC, they were not fake but safety syringes that protect medical staff and patients from injuries and infection, and that have been in widespread use for over a decade.
Another video claimed that the Australian politician was posing with a syringe next to her arm, the needle covered with a safety cap, which was supposed to indicate that her Covid-19 vaccination had been faked. But in reality, it showed Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk posing for the cameras after receiving a flu vaccine in April 2020. One Facebook post claimed that a nurse in Alabama died after having received the vaccine against COVID-19. The information was soon denied by the department of public health, which contacted all vaccine-administering hospitals in the state.
As the first people in Great Britain received the vaccine, a 30-minute video entitled Ask The Expert went live and was posted on the internet. The BBC states that the video consists of a host of false and unsubstantiated claims about the pandemic, which itself was described as the greatest hoax in history. One of the claims was that the pharmaceutical industry has been given permission to skip the animal trials, which means that humans will be the guinea pigs. BBC states in the article that the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines have all been tested in animals as well as thousands of people before they could be considered for licensing.
The Western Balkans a fertile ground for similar theories
The Western Balkan region, Serbia and Montenegro in particular, where Montenegro has been recently recognized as the country whose citizens are the most susceptible to conspiracy theories and manipulated content online, welcomed with open arms new theories about vaccines. Besides sharing content such as fake vaccination of Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk or Ask The Expert video, the conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers created their own content with the same message about public figures from the region who received the vaccine.
The first who received the vaccine in the Western Balkans was Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Barnabić (simultaneously the first Prime Minister in Europe to receive the vaccine), Minister of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy Darija Kisić-Tepavčević, and Crisis Staff member Dr. Predrag Kon. The same day, the IN studio Facebook page posted two videos claiming that the Prime Minister’s and the Minister’s vaccinations were faked. Besides, they claimed that before vaccination both of them signed the agreement that no one would be held liable in case of death or other side effects of Pfizer’s vaccine. The videos cumulatively generated almost 2,000 interactions and around 2,500 shares.
Two days after this post, a video was posted on a Facebook page LME 2.0, claiming that Prime Minister Ana Brnabic was falsely vaccinated since there is no needle, referring to the theory of a disappearing needle. The video was shared 971 times, has more than 580 interactions and the page amounts to more than 20,000 followers. Fake vaccination posts did not end on Facebook but were also spread on Twitter. Some of them have a couple of hundreds of likes and dozens of retweets.
Altered DNA and microchip claims
At the beginning of December last year, BBC in Serbian wrote about numerous theories and claims about the COVID-19 vaccine that appeared on the Internet. In some articles, it is emphasized that messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology has never been tested or approved before, and it would alter human DNA. Professor Jeffrey Almond from the Oxford University, one of the three independent scientists that BBC contacted, said that injecting RNA into a person doesn’t do anything to the DNA of a human cell.
During 2020, Bill Gates and his Foundation were targeted by numerous conspiracy theorists who found a connection between him, coronavirus, and vaccines. In the same text, BBC states that the rumors appeared in March last year when Gates stated in one interview that eventually we will have some sort of digital certificates, which will confirm who has been recovered, tested, and vaccinated. Even though he did not mention microchips, theorists are referring to a study, financed by Gates Foundation, about technology that may store data on someone’s vaccination into special ink, inserted during the injection. Ana Jaklenec, a scientist who worked on that study, says that this technology is not a microchip; it is more like an invisible tattoo. It has not been rolled out yet, would not allow people to be tracked and personal information would not be entered into a database.
Another theory is that the vaccine contains the lung tissue of a fetus. Even though Michael Head from the University of Southampton, along with the others, denied that the fetus cells are being used in the vaccination process, this did not prevent conspiracy theorists from continuing to spread disinformation on social media.
Social media response
Since the COVID-19 vaccine was recently approved, Facebook stated on December 18, 2020, that it would allow the ads highlighting the efficiency of the vaccine and promoting safe access to it. As they stated, they would continue to remove the content trying to exploit the pandemic for commercial gain. Also, they would ban the ads or organic posts promoting vaccine sale.
On the other hand, Twitter says that the company is still working on its policy and plans as the medically approved vaccine appeared. Since 2018, the company has been warning its users to contact the official institutions.
In October, YouTube updated its policy of removal of videos containing disinformation on the COVID-19 vaccines, including all claims that go against the general consensus of health workers or the WHO. TikTok, a new network, very popular among the young, stated that they would remove disinformation about coronavirus and vaccines, including anti-vaccination content, through the users reporting the inappropriate content.
First vaccines in Montenegro at the end of January
The first vaccines in Montenegro are expected at the end of January, said the Minister of Health Jelena Borovinic-Bojovic during the emergency press conference on December 30, 2020. She did not specify which vaccine would it be and in which quantity but she reminded that Montenegro signed the COVAX mechanism for vaccine supply earlier, which is recommended by the World Health Organization.
We continue to follow whether the media and internet environment in Montenegro will be active in spreading misleading content and disinformation prior to and during vaccination and whether the local conspiracy theorists would create new content or republish the familiar one and adapt it for the local consumers.