With the spread of conspiracy theories and hoaxes, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further undermine democracy in the Western Balkans.
As the world, including the Western Balkans, came under the spell of the COVID-19 pandemic, science seemed to rule.
Medical advice and expertise appeared to be more important than simple populist messages.
If, in previous years, facts could be denied and expertise denigrated, it looked like the pandemic had marked the return of science, or as the political scientist Ivan Krastev noted in March 2020, “Professionalism is back in fashion.”
This hopeful view underestimated the power of doubt and conspiracy. Through more than three months of pandemic so far, the world has seen the rise of conspiracy theories, fake news, and doubters of the official version of the origin and spread of the disease and its seriousness.
These phenomena are not marginal. And the countries of the Western Balkans are not immune.
A substantial proportion of populations in democracies and authoritarian states, in countries badly hit and those lightly affected, have been taken in by a variety of conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
This is unsurprising given disease is not only associated with medical expertise but also triggers the social and psychological dynamics associated with conspiracies.
Such theories thrive when people try to make sense of an event that otherwise appears meaningless.
Trying to make sense of random events
Whether it is the shooting of a US president by a lone gunman or a global pandemic, events that are seemingly random are given meaning through conspiracy theories.
Such a tendency is particularly pronounced where there is a significant cognitive dissonance between the cause and the effect, e.g. a pandemic triggered by the random infection of several humans via animals that has led to millions of cases and close to half-a-million deaths worldwide as of mid-June 2020.
Conspiracies that make sense of random events are paradoxically empowering the disempowered.
Conspiracy theories always emphasise an evil plot often by a small group of people against the world or a nation, thus disempowering individuals while also relieving them of their responsibility.
At the same time, they provide a reason for things happening other than just happenstance.
Conspiracy theories contain two key components. First, they suggest a pattern to events that might otherwise appear random, often linking two or more together in a coherent narrative, thus making sense of a situation.
Second, they attribute agency; that is, they suggest that somebody is responsible.
Conspiracies thrive particularly when events affect people personally, like the pandemic, and when trust in established knowledge and those who provide that knowledge, such as the state, science, and the media, is low.
Blaming Bill Gates
The conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 can be divided into two large groups.
The first group accepts the conventional wisdom about the seriousness of the disease and does not deny the legitimacy of government policies, such as shutdowns. The conspiracy is instead focused on the origin and the spread of the disease. Whereas some believe that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab by scientists and, in some cases, deliberately spread to weaken other countries, others attribute the design to different actors, such as American scientists, or the spread to particular groups, such as Jews or Muslims, or individuals with nefarious goals.
The most common conspiracy theory blames the US billionaire Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates for apparently seeking to implant microchips in people via a vaccine to exercise global control. Closely related is the 5G conspiracy theory that claims that the installation of 5G mobile networks is linked to the spread of the disease.
The second group instead downplays the seriousness of the virus and instead claims that the virus itself is a hoax or just like the common flu, magnified in scale by governments or particular groups to advances their goals.
In addition to these conspiracy theories, which seek to sketch out larger narratives about the disease, its origins, and its spread as well as interpret its meaning, there are several hoaxes.
These – they could also be called fake or junk news – include false cures, such as the use of Hydroxychloroquine or Ozone Therapy to cure, treat, or prevent COVID-19.
Hoaxes can co-exist with scientific facts about the origin, spread, and seriousness of the disease, but they share in the rejection of conventional medicine and science.
Such conspiracy theories can be found on the political left and right but are usually associated with the extremes. Demonstrators and social-media groups against lockdown measures in Europe and North America include far-right identitarian movements, anti-Vaxx groups, and others that reject conventional medicine.
Thus, COVID-19 did not mark a return to science and expertise but instead exacerbated the dynamics of distrust that emerged through the rise of global populism, its questioning of expertise, and the notion that facts are not established but claimed.
Fertile ground for conspiracy theories
At first glance, it might appear that the Western Balkans is better equipped to weather the wave of COVID-19 conspiracies.
The region emerged from the initial wave much less affected than some other parts of Europe, such as Italy, France, and Spain.
Furthermore, conventional media in the region continues to have a much bigger reach than social media: 57 and 68 per cent of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia respectively get their news from television, considerably more than online media content and social media.
A large majority of citizens across the region are aware that misleading and false information is a problem. The reliance on television increased during the pandemic, with TV being the main source of information and by far the most trusted source, dwarfing all other media.
That’s where the good news ends.
High levels of political polarisation, a strong sense of not being able to freely express oneself – more half of the population is somewhat or very afraid to express their opinion in Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – and low trust in institutions is common.
Consistently, the most trusted institutions are religious organisations, the army, and the police, i.e. the most hierarchical, conservative and least democratic institutions enjoy the most trust.
Low trust and high polarisation provide fertile ground for conspiracies to flourish.
In the Western Balkans, narratives that challenged the prevailing medical explanations could be found in several distinct ways.
One might be the religious-traditionalist rejection of medical advice: different religious leaders rejected medical advice and refused to adjust their traditions to conform to the medical advice.
For example, a spokesperson for the Macedonian Orthodox Church explained the use of the same spoon in communion by stating “We aren’t going to change a centuries-old tradition.” While not a conspiracy theory per se, this approach rejected medical evidence and instead placed greater value on tradition.
A second variant could be the outright conspiracy theories that circulated on social media and reflected the aforementioned global conspiracies. They found some prominent supporters, including the Serbian MP Nada Kostic, a medical doctor and briefly minister of health in 2001, who expressed doubt that COVID-19 is a virus at all and accused Bill Gates, 5G, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros of being behind the spread of the disease.
Along similar lines, a leading figure of the Montenegrin opposition, Nebojsa Medojevic of the Democratic Front, claimed in a tweet that “Communism originated in England and Germany and took root in Russia and the Orthodox East. Target the Romanovs! Corona originated in China and took root best in the US!! Target Trump. Behind Communism and Corona are the same centres— A GLOBAL SATANIST PEDOPHILE DEEP STATE.”
While it might be easy to dismiss such statements, they reinforce existing nationalist and far-right conspiracy theories that accuse Soros or other individuals of controlling the world.
The ‘silliest virus’, says Serbian lung specialist
The third variant could be described as governmental conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
A prominent promoter of false cures has been the owner of the most important private television conglomerate in Serbia, Zeljko Mitrovic, who is a close and ardent supporter of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
On TV and his social media account, Mitrovic showed how he used Ozone Therapy for himself as a preventative treatment for COVID-19, even if there is no scientific evidence to support its effectiveness against the coronavirus.
Considering that his TV Pink is the second most highly trusted media outlet in Serbia, such a hoax is likely to reach a wide audience.
The most prominent voice of conspiracy and hoaxes in Serbia, however, has been Branimir Nestorovic, who rose to prominence as a member of the government emergency response team for fighting the pandemic.
While an expert on respiratory illness, he gained notoriety for his outrageous statements on the pandemic. Even before the pandemic hit the region, with Vucic chuckling behind him, Nestorovic claimed at a prominent press conference that COVID-19 was the “silliest virus in the history of humanity” and claimed that women are protected against the virus by hormones.
Even after the outbreak of the pandemic in Serbia, he repeatedly suggested that Serbs had “better” genes that protected them against the disease, a claim widely circulated in tabloids and TV.
Besides the obviously dubious claim that nations are genetically distinct, which does not have a scientific basis, such statements gave those who believed them a false sense of safety.
The strong medical consensus on the origin, spread, and seriousness of the disease has thus been eroded by conspiracy theories and hoaxes from different directions with the unsurprising effect that many citizens believe in such theories.
Fear, paranoia, distrust…
According to a recent poll, 27 per cent of Serbian citizens believe that COVID-19 was designed by American scientists and 19 per cent that it was the work of Chinese scientists.
Considering that both options are mutually exclusive, nearly half of the Serbian population believes a conspiracy theory on the origin of the virus. These numbers are not surprising.
A more detailed study in the UK found that between 10 and 20 per cent of the population believe in a variety of conspiracy theories, ranging from the virus being designed by China as a biological weapon to different groups and individuals (Jews, Muslims, or Bill Gates) spreading or creating the virus to achieve their goals.
Conspiracy theories and hoaxes can be deadly if they undermine government measures to contain the spread of the pandemic. They are also poisonous for democracies, as they both thrive on weak trust and a sense of powerlessness and reinforce it.
Thus, rather than the return of expertise, the pandemic might very well strengthen politics of fear, paranoia, and distrust to the severe disadvantage of democracy, including those in the Western Balkans.