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Applying the insights of “factfulness” to the welter of bizarre coronavirus stories flooding the Serbian information sphere.

Serbia’s tabloid press has spread plenty of fake pieces of news during the coronavirus pandemic. But not only that. These publications have also irresponsibly promoted quasi-scientific attitudes and advice by celebrities from the entertainment world. Singers, bloggers, and even the husband of a murdered singer have chimed in. Political leaders also made unfounded claims, as did a medical doctor who is a member of the disease-control crisis group.

To get a wider perspective on this sea of speculation in the Serbian media, the Novi Sad School of Journalism, a civil society group in Serbia, applied the insights of the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, expressed in his book Factfulness, to the local situation. Their results appear in the report Coronavirus and the Infodemic in Serbia, and are summarized in this article.

Three of Rosling’s “10 reasons we’re wrong about the world” apply to Serbian media coverage of the pandemic with particular force. 

The Single Perspective Instinct

The uncertainty of the coronavirus situation has led people to turn to “simple solutions” for the problem. Rosling writes that, in these cases, “it is easy to take off down a slippery slope, from one attention-grabbing simple idea to a feeling that this idea beautifully explains, or is the beautiful solution for, lots of other things.” This thought process underlies a series of conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus that have no scientific or factual basis.

Hans Rosling giving a TED talk. Image by Pierre Omidyar/Flickr.

Two days after a state of emergency was declared in Serbia and special protective measures were introduced, one of the most famous vloggers (video bloggers) from the region – Zorana Jovanovic, a.k.a Zorannah – posted her opinion on YouTube that the virus was artificially created and that a vaccine already existed. “This is my opinion, maybe I’m right, maybe not. They definitely have a vaccine for it.” In the video, entitled Life Update, Jovanovic maintained: “I think the vaccine will magically appear in a few weeks and everything will go back to normal by May.”  

The singer Mira Skoric made a similar comment in an interview with the daily Kurir, where she described the COVID-19 virus as a “laboratory experiment.

As we know, a vaccine didn’t appear by the end of May, and even if it had, it wouldn’t be magical, considering that scientists in many countries have been working on it for months.

“Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis,” Rosling advises. 

The Urgency Instinct

This impulse, Rosling explains, makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger. It increases stress, which is why it “blocks us from thinking analytically, tempts us to make up our minds too fast, and encourages us to take drastic actions that we haven’t thought through.” According to Coronavirus and the Infodemic, this kind of thinking pushed the media to run ineffective or even dangerous advice on preventing the coronavirus, and helps explain why people shared it on social networks.

The same principle applies to Nada Topcagic, a Serbian singer, who in a nationally broadcast interview advised a daily dose of brandy, garlic, and the over-the-counter flu medicine Tylol Hot to combat the coronavirus. Her advice clashes with the manufacturer’s notice that Tylol Hot is meant to relieve the symptoms of colds and flu. The manufacturer recommends taking the product as prescribed by a doctor or pharmacist and following the product instructions “precisely” – one sachet of the powder every eight hours and not for more than three days.

As the interview went on, the singer shared a personal anecdote with how she came to the idea for her special brew. She explained how she once accidentally poured the powder into brandy instead of water but drank it nevertheless because “it can’t be bad.” The instructions for this medication clearly state that combining the medication with alcohol is to be avoided, because it may lead to temporary attention deficit, and because alcohol may intensify the harmful effects of paracetamol (one of the ingredients of the medication) on the liver.

Another example of questionable treatment methods was published in the daily newspaper Alo, quoting the claim by Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church that incense smoke is effective against the coronavirus. The story ran a day before the state of emergency was declared, with 46 infected people registered at the time. The Patriarch said he would continue to carry on with his duties and that a doctor told him that “incense smoke is the best protection.” However, a day later, after meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, the Patriarch said that the church would implement measures against the spread of the disease and urged believers to exercise discipline and follow the recommendations of the relevant authorities.

“If something is urgent and important, it should be measured. Beware of data that is relevant but inaccurate, or accurate but irrelevant. Only relevant and accurate data is useful,” Rosling warns.

The Blame Instinct

“People from the shadows created the coronavirus,” claimed Zoran Marjanovic in an interview for the daily Informer on 18 March. The newspaper describes him as “Serbia’s most famous defendant.” Marjanovic is currently on trial for the murder of his wife, singer Jelena Marjanovic.

“Destroying Christianity is behind it all. There is a powerful platform for implanting chips in the population and enthroning a black prince whose goal is to deviously destroy the Christian faith. Of course, his biggest eyesore is – Orthodox Christianity!” Marjanovic declared.

According to Rosling, “the blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened.” He adds that we usually find “bad guys who confirm our existing beliefs. Let’s look at some of the people we most love to point the finger at: evil businessmen, lying journalists, and foreigners.” 

Serbia’s Fake News Tracker also appealed to the media to avoid trivializing the pandemic by giving celebrities and other non-experts free rein to say whatever they liked.

Questionable Statements by Experts and Officials

To be fair, it is important to emphasize that such statements and advice don’t always come from the entertainment world, as demonstrated by the viral statements of child pulmonary specialist Branimir Nestorovic, a member of the disease-control crisis group. He leaped into fame with his pronouncement to the press in late February, before the first registered coronavirus infection in Serbia, calling it “the most ridiculous virus in the history of mankind.” Later he raised eyebrows with the claim, according to a tabloid newspaper, that Serbs are “genetically protected from the virus.” Although both media and health experts warned of Nestorovic’s unprofessional and unethical behavior, he remains a frequent guest on national TV.

During the same press conference in February, President Vucic cited U.S. experts to the effect that “where there’s alcohol, there’s no coronavirus,” adding that, although he knew the experts were referring to disinfectant alcohol, this gave him “another reason to have one glass a day.” Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic voiced his own suspicions about the origin of the virus a few days later: “it cannot be excluded that this is all part of a special war on China,” and that the virus was possibly created in a laboratory – “the only question is whose laboratory.”

These claims, which are scientifically unfounded and only confuse the public, additionally damage the already bruised public trust in science, the media, and politicians. It is also important to keep in mind that this should be a story of science, not politics, as Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute writes. This is why we should be careful about spin coming from politically biased sources. Journalism, as Jones noted, is not mere repetition of statements, but a search for facts.

Ivan Subotic and Darija Stjepic are journalists with FakeNews Tragac (FakeNews Tracker), a project of the Novi Sad School of Journalism in Serbia, which has been a partner of Transitions in several projects.