The COVID-19 pandemic. It has been almost two years since the death toll has started to surge millions of people around the world. With the uncertainty around the emergence of a new virus, the demand for information naturally increased. There was not only a rapid exchange of information that allowed citizens to make informed decisions, but also a widespread of disinformation and misinformation – about the virus, its origins, effective prevention and treatment measures, and the legitimacy of the vaccines – both intended and unintended to harm. In this shift from the public to the digital sphere were social media and its paramount role in creating an “infodemic.”
During the pandemic (and the infodemic), there has been government control over surveillance, censorship, and the free flow of information. In addition to this, the value of social media has been highlighted by political leaders, who have strategically used it for attention or advocacy. In times of emergencies and crises like the pandemic, social media has changed the way we receive and share information, outpacing traditional media outlets and becoming the primary source for news. This manipulation and diffusion of information were no exception in Central Europe, especially Croatia.
Ivan Vilibor Sinčić, a Croatian Member of the European Parliament (MEP), has recently seen a vast increase in followers on Facebook. He has taken advantage of this to repeatedly share false information about the pandemic and vaccination to gain attention on social media.
On July 9th, he posted the following on Facebook:
Sinčić claimed that he personally contacted the European Medicines Agency, EMA to confirm that they never tested the COVID-19 vaccines and that Pfizer was fined 2.3 billion dollars for hiding the side effects and fake trials. Soon after, it was revealed that the testing of drugs and preparation do not fall under the scope of work for the EMA at all and that the fine imposed on Pfizer was for fraudulent marketing in 2009, back when the virus did not exist.
Several other bizarre theories regarding the virus and the effects of the vaccines were thrown around in the Croatian media. The pandemic has encouraged the spread of misinformation to both explicitly and implicitly be promoted on these platforms, and while giant tech companies have actively been policing what users have said about public health, they are struggling to keep up.
While in many cases, the ability of social media to spread misinformation far and wide has worked in favor of political leaders, it has worked against the Croatian President, Zoran Milanović. In September 2021, Milanović had announced the end of the country’s COVID-19 vaccination drive – or a video had been shared as so. It was a clip on Twitter, of Milanović answering questions at a press conference. In response to a journalist’s comment that Croatia is “not sufficiently vaccinated unlike the EU average,” Milanović was quoted in English subtitles:
“I don’t care. We’re vaccinated enough and everyone knows it. We will not go more than 50%. Let them fence us with wire. They won’t do that.”
This post continued to circulate on social media.
However, it was largely misinterpreted.
According to Večernji List, a Croatian newspaper, Milanović stated that the citizens cannot and should not be forced to comply with vaccination measures:
“We cannot encourage this obsessive culture of security indefinitely. The moment there are more vaccines than those interested in taking them, the story is over, there is nothing further. Assuming that the vaccination is effective – and it is.”on Večernji List
In January 2021, after receiving the vaccination himself, Milanović encouraged the public to do the same, reporting to the media:
“I call on all those who want, and also on those who don’t want or are hesitant, to get vaccinated, because the vaccine was not made ‘by heart,’ but has gone through a very rigorous approval process and it will certainly help. I think that when we arrive at the moment when there is more vaccine available than people who are willing to get vaccinated, that will be a turning point. People, get vaccinated, it’s better than getting sick. Not less bad, but better.”on President of the Republic of Croatia
Even after two years since the emergence of the virus, the world is still battling the pandemic of false information. With the popularity and ubiquity of various social media platforms, the Croatian public was no longer passively consuming these falsehoods, but actively disseminating and creating them, to the point of foolish advice, sketchy remedies, and misguided theories crowding out accurate public health information online.
The pandemic alone has forced us to cope with panic, fear, and fatigue, but when we are bombarded with hoaxes on social media, how do we deal with this anxiety and distrust? From discrediting the threat of the virus to conspiracy theories that vaccines could alter human DNA, finding solutions to the infodemic is as vital as public health measures. While we may not be able to eliminate misinformation or disinformation completely, perhaps it can be managed to a certain degree. Control and regulation by social media platforms are critical to ensure prompt flagging or blocking of disinformation. Governmental action is necessary for imposing new regulations and penalties. And as social media users, the least we could do at an individual level is to ensure media literacy, learn to assess sources of information, and take part in spreading credible and trusted facts that benefit us and our communities.
Featured image courtesy of Spencer Davis on Unsplash