Perspectives | Disinformation

The war in Ukraine, scams and covid conspiracies

By - 31.01.2023

Fact-checking in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At Raskrinkavanje — a fact-checking website devoted to debunking disinformation and misinformation circulating in the news and on social media — 2022 was a busy year. The disinformation trends in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) mostly revolved around the invasion of Ukraine, the General elections held in October, conspiratorial echoes of the covid-19 “infodemic” and a steady stream of social media scams.  

The year started with an explosion of false narratives about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, ranging from claims that nothing was even happening to accusations that the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was fleeing the country after “instigating” the war.

Some of the early falsehoods related to the war were difficult to check, as independent and reliable sources were hard to reach in the combat zone. But many were just recycled versions of old propaganda tales, like Ukraine being a “nazi state,” or hosting U.S. biolabs set up to “destroy Russian DNA.” The story about laboratories (spread locally by the Russian Embassy in BiH) fit in with QAnon conspiracy theories, so it was quickly picked up by their followers who praised Putin’s attack on Ukraine as a fight to “save humanity” from the “satanist cabal.”

Less phantasmagoric, but equally false, were the narratives of Serbian tabloids and nationalist websites that consistently mirrored Putin’s war propaganda. They famously portrayed Ukraine as the aggressor, took the opportunity to revamp old falsehoods about the “Western media staging wars” and amplified disinformation from trolls on social networks. One of the frequent false claims was that NATO has troops on the ground in Ukraine, but the same sources simultaneously also claimed that Ukraine had lost the support of the EU and/or NATO, whose high officials supposedly advocated for making concessions to Russia in order to end the war.

When the attack started, an international cooperative of fact-checkers and a database of fact-checks was established almost immediately to exchange information more quickly and efficiently. Six months into the invasion, the regional fact-checking network SEE Check also made a detailed overview of the claims, sources and targets of disinformation about the war that were spreading in the Balkans. 

The elections

In BiH, 2022 was an election year, and the campaign made the usual ripples in the disinformation ecosystem: “phantom websites” popped up again to pose as news media while attempting to advance a party or a candidate; photoshopped pictures of real or made up candidates were circulating on social media; and political parties usedbrigading” on social media to promote their messages during the campaign.

Once again we saw the complete alignment of the media in the Republika Srpska and the SNSD (the entity’s ruling party led by Milorad Dodik) in spreading disinformation about opposition parties and candidates. The go-to move of Dodik’s political propaganda is to make up coup plots and conspiracies against him and to portray the opposition as “traitorous.”

In 2022, the narratives got more outlandish and elaborate.

In 2022, however, the narratives got more outlandish and elaborate. For example, RTRS, the entity’s public broadcaster, promoted a ridiculous claim that NATO is planning to kidnap Dodik and used a forged document as “proof” that the U.S. Embassy in BiH paid for the campaign of Jelena Trivić, the candidate challenging Dodik for the position of president of Republika Srpska.

An infodemic

After two years of battling conspiracy theories that sprung from the pandemic, in 2022 we published research about the Bosnian public’s belief in various disinformation narratives. We learned that about 25% of the population exhibits strong belief in conspiracy theories, another 25% dismiss them, but a little over 50% are somewhere in the middle, either undecided about the veracity of such stories, or prone to believing some but not others. 

One of the questions we asked was about the claim that covid-19 is not an infectious disease, but a result of “poisoning from the air.” This was a pandemic rendition of the old conspiracy theory about “chemtrails,” which claims that the white condensation trails behind airplanes are toxic substances that are part of a secret plan to depopulate the Earth.

The claim that covid is induced by chemtrails received the support of 24% of the participants, while 51% disagreed and 25% were undecided. However, looking into social networks, one would think that almost everyone believes we’re being poisoned from the sky: the story has remained staunchly persistent and viral ever since the pandemic broke out.  

In the past year, various things were randomly connected to chemtrails in the conspiratorial imaginaries including Saharan dust clouds, “biolabs” and pre-election campaigns of fringe politicians. The story is often told as a triumphant tale of governments, reputable institutions or whistleblowers admitting that chemtrails are real, sometimes paired with dubious and potentially risky advice on how to protect yourself against this nonexistent threat.

Another undying trend is that of anti-vaccination propaganda, forever using false claims or deliberately misinterpreting statistics to portray immunization as “deadly.” Without a shred of evidence, covid-19 vaccines are accused of “killing millions” in the past year, linked to various unrelated deaths, excess mortality, child mortality, miscarriages, drops in fertility, HIV/AIDS, or cancer.

Many of these claims are new iterations of old stories that have been debunked time and time again.

Many of these claims are just new iterations of old stories that have been debunked time and time again, but they are believed by 55 to 60% of unvaccinated people in BiH. The unfortunate trend of people with medical backgrounds spreading anti-vaccination falsehoods has also continued.

But we also had some new, particularly bizarre anti-vaccination “hits” this year. The story of a judge that ruled that “vaccine deaths” should be treated as suicide was first linked to a non-existent court trial in France, then in Germany. According to similar types of sources a civil war even broke out in the neighboring Austria over “forced immunization;” Australia’s government tried to administer vaccines by spraying them from the sky, “chemtrails” style; and a combination of 5G signals, chemtrails and vaccines have produced a mysterious phenomenon where people and animals spin themselves into “ballerina deaths.” 

For a while, monkeypox had been one of the hot topics in conspiratorial websites, where it was presented as a “gay disease,” replaying some of the covid-19 narratives, but with a homophobic twist.

What awaits in 2023?

Another type of disinformation that is likely to remain ubiquitous is pseudomedicine, used relentlessly by various bad actors from clickbait websites to conspiracy theorists and quack doctors who sell untested supplements or “treatments.” All of them earn money by promoting dangerous claims about “natural cancer cures” and miracle cure-alls, ascribing these powers to everything from petroleum to lemon, baking soda, or coconut oil.

Fake interviews with local celebrities or testimonies of made-up doctors who recommend bogus health products are another type of pseudomedical claim we see frequently. This has become particularly widespread in the past few years, with most of such cases leading back to a single company that has sued us for writing about fraudulent advertising practices used to sell their products. Fake Facebook giveaways of everything from cash prizes and smartphones to cars and houses are another type of scam that keeps returning year after year.

But we are seeing some new and emerging trends as well, most coming from English-speaking right-wing influencers and conspiracy theorists. Climate change denial has started seeping into the local online space, which is a particularly ironic development given the BiH’s enormous problems with air pollution. In these narratives, global warming is presented as a hoax perpetrated by the “New World Order” in order to establish control over the population. This large narrative has birthed many side plots, like claims that people will be forced to eat insects, or that car ownership may become illegal.

We noticed that anti-abortion narratives, seemingly imported from similar outside sources, are also rising in visibility, with groups based in the U.S. aiming to reach vulnerable women in BiH using, among other things, false claims about abortion risks. Disinformation targeting LGBTQ+ people has also been more present this year, mostly spilling over from Serbia, where Europride was targeted and scapegoated. But BiH had its own, home-grown political instrumentalization of homophobia, with attempts to build and use resentment against the Pride parade in the pre-election campaign. 

Raskrinkavanje had its fifth birthday this year and, based on what we’ve been seeing so far, we can be fairly certain that some timeless classics, like conspiracy theories about the moon landing and 9/11 attack, will continue to circulate as they did in the past year. 

Sadly, there’s plenty to keep fact-checkers busy.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

This image was created in part with GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model.

This article is the fifth in a series of articles from fact-checking platforms in the Balkans. Through this series, fact-checkers from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia elaborate on common trends in disinformation and malinformation.

The regional program ‘RESILIENCE: Civil society action to reaffirm media freedom and counter disinformation and hateful propaganda in Western Balkans and Turkey’ is implemented with the financial support of the European Union by partner organizations SEENPMAlbanian Media InstituteMediacentar SarajevoKosovo 2.0Montenegrin Media InstituteMacedonian Institute for MediaNovi Sad School of JournalismPeace Institute and Bianet.

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0 and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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