COVID-19 disinformation asserts that ‘there will never be returning to the “old normal”’

As new vaccines are being developed, there seems to be that each jab is followed by a corresponding disinformation story. Throughout April, hostile media sources vigorously reported on side effects and fatalities correlated to vaccination to take advantage of anxieties and spread fear. In a continuous trend, stories on side effects and deaths were also exploited by the pro-Kremlin media as a background to claim the inferiority of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and prove Sputnik V was made to save humanity.

Findings on disinformation about COVID-19, @DebunkEU data

The share of disinformation within the false and misleading content on COVID- 19 in April 2021 stood at 96.3%. Measured by DebunkReach®, the share amounted to 97.1%.


Types of information by articles, @DebunkEU data
Types of information by reach, @DebunkEU data

Quite often, there is only a fine line between disinformation and misinformation, as establishing the intent of creating and/or sharing false and misleading content (is it a deliberate creation or not?) may be a challenge. With social media tightening their rules against false and misleading information, some of those holding onto to the false beliefs or disseminating manipulated information for (political) gains turn to alt-tech platforms, as in the case of DecentaSpeak in Latvia. Hybrid-nature alternatives also exist, such as Wykop.pl in Poland.


The news aggregator Wykop.pl is a prototype of Digg.com, launched in 2005. It includes the spaces for sharing articles, microblogging and user-interaction, such as live Q&A sessions with public figures and politicians. At the end of 2020, it ranked 5th among the leading social media platforms and apps in Poland, being the leading Polish social media service by number of users. Wykop.pl has been the object of political and COVID-19-related disinformation analysis/reports – this is one of the misinformation stories spotted on the website:


What was claimed:


Wearing a face mask is not only inefficient in stopping the spread of COVID-19 (the virus particles are about 10 times smaller than the smallest space between the fibres of any mask), but it also increases the chances of contracting the virus because of oxygen deficiency, as well as bacteria, fungi and other dangerous microorganisms amass on the mask during long-term wearing.


Wearing face masks may be a reason of excessive deaths in Poland (over 100,000 registered so far). The data is evidenced by statements of famous scientists, publications in prestigious world medical journals and indirect statements by the WHO.


Our verdict:


Layers of face mask fibres capture large respiratory droplets and smaller airborne particles: larger particles slam straight into the fibres and get stuck, whereas the smallest particles are bounced around by air molecules in a random zig-zag pattern, increasing the time they spend in the fibre forest and their chances of getting captured. The combined filtration efficiency increases as everyone wears a mask. When worn properly, face masks do not cause CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency (as is the case with surgeons, who operate for hours wearing them) and/or amass bacteria (disposable masks should be disposable, after all). Excessive deaths in Poland are related to COVID-19 and not the measures to control it, on contrary to popular claims on social platforms.

Disinformation dynamics, @DebunkEU data

One of the stories which triggered waves of disinformation was a group of world leaders joining the head of the WHO in calling for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.


What was claimed:


The call by world leaders and the head of then WHO for a new international treaty to improve pandemic response is basically an intent by a handful of EU leaders to establish a global government, securing positions there for themselves. EU member states have epically failed to deal with COVID-19 pandemic, as introducing never-ending lockdown ruined businesses and tourism sector, forced people onto the streets protesting and organizing pogroms.


Governments have been responding by tightening the restrictions even more, imposing draconian fines, promoting blatant segregation in the form of COVID-19 passports, and, risking the lives of their populations, continue to stubbornly refuse the Russian vaccine. The plan will also help to keep Ukraine, which seems to be a prospective colony for Europe that has doomed itself to poverty, obedient.


Our verdict:


The proposed international treaty strives for collective solidarity in fighting pandemics. Pro-Kremlin media has been repeatedly accusing the West of selfishness and vaccine nationalism, painting the picture of member states like rats, escaping the sinking (failing to fight COVID-19) EU ship. Nonetheless, the treaty is viewed not from a perspective of international politics, but as a conspiracy theory. The lockdowns were being introduced to save lives and prevent the collapse of medical systems. In some EU countries, such as France, protests have become a part of civil/political culture, often resulting with violent clashes.


Rejecting Sputnik V has also been explained: it depends on the timing of EMA approval and mass production dates to decide on whether to buy it or not (as explained by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in late April, and which was presented by the Kremlin-controlled media as Merkel saying firm 'yes' to the Russian vaccine). In terms of Ukraine, the economy was hit hard by the Crimean annexation in 2014, the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and trade war with Russia.


False measures to fight COVID-19 was the top narrative within the false and misleading coverage on COVID-19 in April 2021, as measured by articles. The sub-narrative Vaccine has been developed without rigorous testing added the most to its leading position and was the most pronounced rhetoric overall. Almost 40% of the hits under the sub-narrative were published in Polish. In an attempt to take advantage of anxieties, caused by prolonged lockdown, as well as shortcomings in the national vaccination programme, and pursue the rhetoric of useless and/or dangerous vaccines, an increasing number of articles claimed that vaccines do not work and there will never be returning to the ‘old normal’.

Top5 narratives and subnarratives by articles, @DebunkEU data
Top5 narratives and subnarratives by reach, @DebunkEU data

Pro-Kremlin media was often using the news on side effects and fatalities corelated to the immunisation with western COVID-19 vaccines as a background to showcase the superiority of the Sputnik V, targeting Western vaccination programmes and jabs. As Hungary and San Marino advanced with giving the Russian shot to their population, these were used to juxtapose the success of using Sputnik V vs. rejecting it.


What was claimed:


Developers of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine has noticed that Western media keeps silent about the fatalities after immunisation with Pfizer vaccine, tweeting about it on Sputnik V account. 'The media reported daily on AstraZeneca’s clot issues. Now it is stunningly silent on the fact from UK vaccination data that the death rate following Pfizer vaccination is more than double that of AstraZeneca’s. Why?' the tweet said, referring to a report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.


Our verdict:


The report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change urges to release full vaccination data to combat anxieties over AstraZeneca jab, stating that a comparison between the shot and Pfizer-BioNTech jab would prove AstraZeneca is as trustable.