Фото: Бојан Блажевски

The spread of disinformation about the coronavirus and the vaccines against COVID-19 during the pandemic is undermining the fight against the coronavirus, and the state has to take appropriate measures to deal with the disinformation. This, among other things, was pinpointed by the participants in the discussion “Fight Against COVID-19 Related Disinformation” organized by Metamorphosis Foundation as part of the “Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – CriThink” which was moderated by project’s manager, Filip Stojanovski.

Vladimir Petreski, CriThink‘s editor for the Macedonian language version and Project Coordinator and Editor of Truthmeter.mk, said that the first disinformation about COVID-19 arrived in Macedonia from China at the very start of the coronavirus’ outbreak. He stressed that what had been evident from the very start was the lack of the key information.

“The problem wasn’t in what we were reading or had reached us, but what was lacking,” said Vladimir Petreski, adding that even the World Health Organization in those moments was put into an unpleasant position and was faced with lack of information from the Chinese authorities.

With the arrival of the coronavirus on the European continent, in Italy, a lot of disinformation on COVID-19 began arriving from this country. Yet, somewhat later, the source of the disinformation had moved to our northern neighbor – Serbia.

“The distribution channels of the disinformation had been already created,” explained Vladimir Petreski.

To the anti-vaxxer movement that had already existed in Macedonia, this COVID pandemic came in very handy, explained Petreski. Unfortunately, this anti-vaxxer movement in Macedonia has listed highly educated people and members of the medical profession in its ranks.

“What was bewildering was that doctors began spreading disinformation, which put us in very difficult situation,” said Petreski.

Confronted with this phenomenon, they had to consult numerous studies to be able to debunk the disinformation spread by a certain doctor and to classify it as false.

From what he saw, in the last 6 months a few Facebook profiles have spearheaded the spreading of disinformation about COVID-19 on the social networks.

“They do it constantly every day, they are publishing 5 to 10 articles daily, in order to create flood of disinformation, which people have great difficulties to oppose,” Petreski said.

What is notable is that the conspiracy theories are bundled with the COVID-19 disinformation, but there is also a great influx of new conspiracy theories, while the existing ones are undergoing changes to conform to the new situation (claims of intent to decrease the population, fear-mongering about chemtrails, 5G, etc.)

The journalist Miroslava Burns says that during the COVID-19 pandemic an interesting trend appeared – all types of salesmen offering supplements on the Internet and presenting them as cures for conditions ranging from high blood pressure and diabetes to other chronic diseases.

“Apart from the supplements that were presented as medications, their marketing approach was manipulatory and wasn’t honest,” said Burns. These ads were with false data, were quoting false doctors from North Macedonia who were simply made up, but there were also cases of a false connotation with certain medical associations was made.

“We could have checked whether such medications were registered at the Food and Veterinary Agency and most of these weren’t registered as supplements,” said Burns. Otherwise, this type of marketing is present in other countries, as well.

She also said that during the COVID-pandemic there were a lot of viral edited videos with changed content that was spread in an orchestrated manner from several profiles on the social networks. Some of them published content on the network more than 10 times a day.

“At the moment, I can notice a trend where the Indian variant of the coronavirus is negated,” said Burns.

She also stated that the Government and the Health Ministry of North Macedonia didn’t put enough effort to fight the misinformation and myths about COVID-19. Since misinformation and conspiracy theories are evolving day by day, the vaccination webpage should be updated regularly.

Journalist and Editor Ana Anastasovska said that North Macedonia’s health authorities have mainly failed when it came to fighting the COVID-19 related misinformation especially regarding the misinformation about the vaccines.

“Apart from the Government failing to engage in the demystification of these myths related to vaccines, a major role was played by doctors who didn’t have enough information about the vaccines,” said Anastasovska.

Doctor Miralem Jukik, the representative of the Association of Medical Specialists and employee at the Emergency Services in Skopje, at the webinar provided a whole chronology of the misinformation about the virus and the vaccines against COVID-19.

He stressed that the first disinformation was that the coronavirus doesn’t exist and that all of this was a world conspiracy to tear down the economy and to prevent us from traveling.

“Then the misinformation turned around – it turned out that the virus exists but it is not that dangerous and that the state is forcing us to wear facemasks for nothing,” said Dr. Jukik.

He stressed that in the next phase of spreading misinformation about COVID-19, certain doctors have come out in the public to state that the facemask was causing hypoxia and that it was preventing the bacteria to be exhaled.

“I’m really sorry that a large part of the problem was the doctors themselves, who presented their opinions as facts, and all of this was backed by the low level of education among part of the population and the lack of a habit to check the references,” said Dr. Jukik.

He also said that when it was over with the disinformation that the masks aren’t functioning, then there was a spread of false information about who a linen mask can prevent the virus’ spread.

“Literally all measures for protecting the population were undermined by the use of misinformation,” said Dr. Jukik.

He added that when it became evident that the virus is dangerous, the misinformation moved to the vaccines.

“In one of his videos, infectologist Velo Markoski stated that the vaccines aren’t the solution. But there are two ways of immunization – to get over the virus or immunization,” said Dr. Jukik.

“I’m really sorry that the vaccine even before its arrival was banalized by influential people, in this case, by a doctor,” said Jukik.

Regarding the potential solutions in the fight against the misinformation about COVID-19, Jukik said that the Health Ministry has made a mistake by not forming a statutory authority to annul the spreading of misinformation and. All types of doctors -specialists would have taken part and would have been paid for it in order to achieve a counterbalance to all misinformation.

“If we overflow the public scene with correct information, if most of the media is publishing correct information and the misinformation and disinformation is left on the margins I think this is the best way to act. Even before the Internet, it wasn’t expected of the readers to make the checks by themselves and to conduct investigations as that was the work of the editors that took care for publishing correct information to be published,” said Vladimir Petreski regarding the way the fight against misinformation should be waged.

He said that the mainstream media in the country are now publishing less misinformation about COVID-19, but the problem is the profiles on social networks and portals without mastheads that are seeking a chance to become viral remains.

Crithink’s Manager, Filip Stojanovski presented several conclusions in Metamorphosis Foundation’s latest study titled “Analysis of misinformation related to COVID-19 in North Macedonia) made in cooperation with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

In the analysis, with the use of a specimen of over 483 articles with fact-checking, it was determined that the political background is a key factor in the spread of misinformation.

“Part of this misinformation that is spreading is tightly related to spreading of hate speech, intolerance and discrimination. During the analysis of the dissinformation and the contents, we determined that this aspect is directed toward a political party or ideological background while other aspects such as religious, ethnic, national and other backgrounds were less represented,“ Filip Stojanovski said.

Regarding the content of the misinformation articles about COVID-19 that were delivered in the period from February to December 2020 in North Macedonia, it was determined that there was a growing level of representation of conspiracy theories that the fact-checkers had to deal with. One of the most dominant narratives was the conspiracy theories related to an artificial creation of the coronavirus as a part of a sort of global world order. But also, there are writings with claims that the disease didn’t exist.

Part of the misinformation or media manipulations related to the protection measures against COVID-19 primarily encompassed misinformation related to movement restrictions, the closing of institutions, and borders. People’s discredit was also present.

“The idea was to direct the people’s feelings of anger and frustration toward certain subjects,” said Filip Stojanovski.

The analysis determined that in most of the misinformation, the main offenders i.e. “villains” in the narratives were the system’s domestic and international institutions.