False narratives about Covid-19 portray vaccines as ineffective, useless, or developed too fast

In September 2021, false narratives about the vaccines were at the heart of the Covid-19 disinformation distributed by online media in Montenegro and Serbia. Vaccines against the coronavirus were largely presented as ineffective, useless, experimental, or developed too fast. In addition to that, vaccines were portrayed as causing serious side effects and deaths, as well as compared to the Nazi practice.

According to DebunkEU.org research, false narratives about the vaccines were mostly shared by radical right-leaning websites from Serbia, such as srbin.info, nasaborba.com and pravda.rs. Moreover, in September 2021, four leading distributors of all misinformation and disinformation related to Covid-19 were also Serbian media sources, together conveying 48,4% of all detected misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19.

Covid-19 mis/disinformation by narratives

In September, DebunkEU.org detected 190 articles and posts containing misinformation or disinformation related to Covid-19, shared by news portals and Facebook pages/groups in Montenegro and Serbia. Portrayal of the measures to fight Covid-19 as false and unfounded has strongly dominated the negative information flow. 171 pieces with false messages were detected, among which narratives about the vaccines prevailed.

Total reach of all mis/disinformation about Covid-19 detected by DebunkEU.org in online media in Montenegro and Serbia in September was above 27,7 million.

Reach by types of information

While the distribution of detected pieces between misinformation and disinformation was even, reach achieved by misinformation was drastically larger than by disinformation. This is not surprising, since misinformation was largely shared by more popular sources that have mostly engaged in misinformation due to clickbait, which is used to increase the readership and profit. This might have also happened because of the lack of professionalism, skills, or knowledge.

On the other hand, disinformation was mostly disseminated through smaller, but more extreme sources that had a clear intention to disinform and cause damage. However, both misinformation and disinformation cause harm and mislead the audience – the only difference is the intent behind it, which is not evident in the case of misinformation, but has been identified in disinformation cases.

Some articles that contained disinformation relied on different authorities, such as the authority of an outlier, who goes against a well-established and widely researched scientific consensus. Among these, Dr Branimir Nestorović, a former member of the Serbian National Crisis Body for Covid-19, appears as a dominant source in September 2021, present in 16 articles and reaching more than 2,3 million people.

For example, in four articles detected by DebunkEU.org Nestorović was quoted, amongst other things, claiming that the European Medical Agency did not give a usage permit for any of the vaccines, the UK refused to vaccinate children, Pfizer did not conclude clinical trials in children, and that Ivermectin is safe and effective against Covid-19.

Each of these statements are incorrect for a couple of reasons. “Firstly, information can be found on the official website of the European Medical Agency that Covid-19 vaccines authorized for the use in the European Union are: Comirnaty (Pfizer), Spikevax (previously Moderna), Vaxzevria (previously AstraZeneca) and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson)”, says the analyst.

As for the claims that the UK will not vaccinate children, chief medical officers of the country announced that healthy children aged 12 to 15 should be offered one dose of the jab. While indeed a UK panel did not recommend Covid vaccines for healthy 12- to 15-year-olds based on exclusively health grounds, chief medical officer made the decision taking into account other factors with direct benefits to children, primarily reducing disruption to face-to-face education.

Continuing on the topic, on 31 March 2021, Pfizer-BioNTech announced positive topline results in a Phase 3 trial of Covid-19 vaccine study in adolescents (12-15 years old), claiming 100% efficacy and robust antibody responses.

Speaking of Ivermectin, the WHO advises that it only be used to treat Covid-19 within clinical trials. However, until high-quality clinical trials investigating Ivermectin are completed, there is no scientific evidence to claim that Ivermectin is useful and safe for treating Covid-19.

In another example from Srbin.info Valentin Katasonov writes that:

As a result of the analysis of statistical data, we can conclude: there is a direct relationship between the vaccination rate and the current infection. In other words: the more people are vaccinated, the more infections there will be. Statistics indirectly confirm that vaccines weaken immunity, lowering the barrier of protection against Covid-19.

The author misleadingly interprets statistics about vaccination and infection rates in different countries to claim that the vaccines are actually weakening the protection against Covid-19, and that countries with the highest vaccination rates have the highest number of infections. The truth is – while the vaccines provide at least some protection from infection and transmission, they were primarily designed to avoid death and severe illness – for which they proved to be highly effective. The author provides Israel, the UK and the USA as the examples that show that vaccines are counter effective. However, reports from all three countries prove that fully vaccinated people are less likely to be hospitalised or die from Covid-19.

Share by media sources

More than 75% of Covid-19 misinformation or disinformation detected was distributed by Serbian media outlets, many of which are consumed by the audience both in Montenegro and Serbia.

Four leading distributors of false information related to Covid-19, show prevailing mis/disinformation practice of two types of websites, radical right-leaning and sensationalist websites.

Namely, right-leaning websites srbin.info, pravda.rs and nasaborba.com that are also pro-Russian websites, were more likely to spread mis/disinformation about Covid-19.

Moreover, websites such as srbijadanas.com tended to engage in mis/disinformation through using clickbait titles and differed when it comes to the type of false narratives spread. Radical, right-leaning websites tended to share more extreme narratives and conspiracy theories, with an intention to, among other things, discredit or demonize Covid-19 vaccines. Sensationalist websites on the other hand, such as srbijadanas.com, were less extreme, but have shared incomplete information that can, at least, confuse the audience.

This analysis was carried out through a project financed by the German Federal Government.