False claims about COVID-19 contribute to growing popularity of disinformation actors

Misleading claims presenting measures for fighting Covid-19 as false or unfounded, were dominant and even more pronounced in October 2021. Compared to the previous months, news portals and Facebook pages/groups were flooded with articles and posts containing messages that compared or equalized the measures for fighting Covid-19 to dictatorship, tyranny, Nazism, or fascism. Moreover, vaccines were presented as experimental, suspicious or developed too fast, followed by claims that doctors are guilty for introducing unpopular rules to cope with the pandemic.

The issue of problematic information about Covid-19 in the Western Balkans online media remains highly relevant, showing an increasing trend. Most of misleading content about the pandemic (113 pieces) was spotted in the far-right Serbian outlet srbin.info. In most cases, the portal was open about spreading disinformation to justify its extremist views by demonizing the vaccines and other measures, denying their usefulness, and associating Covid-19 restrictions and measures with the worst crimes in human history.

Most mentioned sub-narratives within TOP 3 narratives

Moreover, two other right-leaning Serbian outlets, nasaborba.com and pravda.rs, were also regularly spreading problematic information. These three aforementioned sources showed signs of orchestrated efforts to spread disinformation about Covid-19, as part of their broader radicalization tendencies.

Additionally, content from a popular mainstream Serbian source srbijadanas.com, was often identified as problematic, but was mostly labelled as misinformation rather than disinformation, as its clickbait-driven reporting resulted from publishing incomplete or unverified information without an intention to disinform.

Overall, 146 pieces were marked as misinformation (unintentional spreading of false information) and 124 as disinformation (false information placed with an underlaying intention to disinform). However, most of the problematic information detected on Facebook was marked as misinformation, because of a likely probability that most posts reflected problematic attitudes, but there was no clear indication of an organized disinformation campaigns. Yet, 14% of problematic content detected on Facebook was disinformation, because it falls within broader disinformation narratives, such as associated with anti-Western propaganda.

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Leading distributors of problematic information about Covid on Facebook, according to the number of problematic posts detected, were three pages managed from Serbia: “Pravo na izbor” (The right of choice) , “Српско-руско братство - духовно и историјско” (Serbian-Russian brotherhood - spiritual and historical), and “Оживимо српско село, вратимо се коренима” (Let's revive the Serbian village, let's go back to our roots). Two pages managed from Montenegro stood out as well - “Protiv_Ko\/id_Diktature” (Against_Co\/id_ Dictatorship) and “Kontra Tim Cetinje” (Counter Team Cetinje).

As we detected almost 100 claims associating Covid-19 measures with dictatorship, tyranny, fascism, or Nazism, it is important to stress that these unfounded allegations can create a sense of false danger, manipulating reader’s emotions and aggravating pre-existing fears. These heavily hyperbolized associations are utilizing the current situation, when certain Covid-19 measures can be restrictive, especially for those who are unvaccinated, in order to justify broader radicalization campaigns carried out by key disinformation actors.

Case #1

Moreover, 58 claims that vaccines are experimental, suspicious, or developed too fast, fail to give credit to the fact that the approved Covid-19 vaccines went through rigorous scientific testing and trials, and cannot, therefore, be reasonably described as such.

Claims targeting vaccines included a wide range of messages, such as the example below, asking a rhetorical question if people should really accept something that contains fetus, because of the virus which for many unvaccinated has lasted only a few days or without any symptoms. The author of the article published by srbin.info and pravda.rs, does not only falsely claim that the vaccines contain particles of a human fetus, but also intentionally fails to mention that many unvaccinated people have had severe symptoms, been hospitalized or died, denying the severity of the disease.

Case #2

In fact, sources spotted as leading actors in spreading problematic information about Covid-19 in October, were also dominant within the analysis from September, which shows the continuity of their malign practice. In addition to that, some of these sources seem to be gaining more popularity, despite their misleading content. In many cases, the problematic information about Covid-19 was a part of broader radicalization tendencies, where Covid-19 is only used as a tool to re-energize other problematic narratives, that aim to discredit political opponents and political ideas associated to the West.