‘Infodemic’ hit Slovakia as well. Fear and uncertainty are fertile ground for spreading of false content and conspiracies.
Gargle warm salty water twice a day and drink a few sips of the water every 15 minutes. When the coronavirus gets into your mouth, drinking water and other liquids will flush it down to your stomach. Once there, your gastric acid will kill all the viruses.
This is the advice that inhabitants of the western-Slovak village of Brunovce received on a leaflet in their mailboxes, the Denník N daily reported. Mayor Stanislava Zervanová wanted to give the approximately 500 inhabitants of her village some guide to follow as prevention from getting infected.
On her leaflet, verified information like washing hands, maintaining social distance and avoiding ill people was coupled with disinformation.
Zervanová, the only mayor in Slovakia elected as a candidate of the far-right People's Party - Our Slovakia (LSNS), would not be the first, neither the last person tricked by a hoax about the new type of coronavirus.
As scientists, doctors and other experts are still researching the new type of coronavirus, many remain confused and unable to distinguish between verified news and hoaxes; especially at a time when disinformation is disseminating on social media in so-called alternative media outlets.
“Hoaxes about Covid-19 virus are easy to spread and resonate among citizens because people live with this topic and it has a real impact on their lives. There is a risk they can get infected or succumb to the infection,” Katarína Klingová, a researcher with the non-governmental organisation Globsec, told The Slovak Spectator.
“Fear and uncertainty are fertile ground for spreading false content and conspiracies,” she added.
A recent European Commission report stated that the Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust, the Reuters newswire cited.
Peter Stano, the spokesperson of the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell, mentions the term ‘infodemic’ in this context. The term was coined by the World Health Organisation to describe the information pandemic.
“After the outbreak of the crisis around Covid-19, there was an unequivocal increase of misinformation and myth,” Stano said, as quoted by the TASR newswire.
An EU database has recorded almost 80 cases of disinformation about coronavirus since January 22, noting Russian efforts to amplify Iranian accusations online, stating without any proof that the coronavirus was a U.S. biological weapon, Reuters wrote.
A virus as a biological weapon created in a laboratory is a common hoax connected with diseases in general, Klingova noted. She explained that similar conspiracies have been spreading about HIV since the 1980s.
Weak EU, strong Russia
Experts that The Slovak Spectator spoke to said these hoaxes may pursue a change of people's attitudes towards the EU, US, Russia and China.
One of the hoaxes currently circulating in Slovakia, Klingová said, is that the EU is doing nothing to help its member states in coping with the pandemic. On the other hand, there are various stories and Facebook posts about China and Russia helping. Klingová said that these could be made up or exaggerated.
“Such narratives are trying to build and improve the image of those countries,” Klingová said.
Tomáš Kriššák of the Open Society Foundation mentioned the viral spread of disinformation on Facebook in Slovak, which said that Poland did not allow Russian planes to fly through its air space when carrying aid to Italy.
“It is nonsense created with the aim of undermining the mutual trust between the EU states and to strengthen false narratives about the messianic role of Russia,” Kriššák told The Slovak Spectator.
Such hoaxes do not threaten anyone’s life but they have an impact on the behaviour of citizens, Kriššák noted. By spreading them, Russia wants to weaken ties between EU countries, which is its long-term strategic aim.
“Disinformation of this kind can lower citizens' willingness to be disciplined and to adhere to the principles and measures aimed at slowing the spread of the infection,” Kriššák noted. “Each such attempt can contribute to thousands of new coronavirus infections, which could lead to an overload of the healthcare system.”
As a result, it can eventually threaten thousands of human lives, he noted.
Mainly on Facebook
Facebook is the main medium used for spreading propaganda and disinformation, Kriššák noted. There are about 2.4 million active users of Facebook in Slovakia.
Aside from Facebook, there are chain e-mails aimed mainly at seniors and the older generation.
“[The disease] is a new phenomenon causing great fear and panic among citizens,” Kriššák said.
He also said that there should be more initiative from the state to maintain easily accessible strategic communication that would inform inhabitants seeking information.
The state actively communicates and debunks hoaxes mainly on two Facebook pages, both managed by the Slovak police corps.
“In the long run, this is the best the state is systematically doing to fight this problem in Slovakia,” Kriššák opined.
Selected hoaxes circulating in Slovakia:
Hoax: Drink water every 15 minutes, flushing the virus from your mouth to the stomach, where it will be destroyed by gastric acids.
Truth: Drinking water will not save anyone from getting infected. It is important to wash hands, maintain social isolation, avoiding ill people, not touching your face and wearing masks. Neither a hot bath nor gargling of salty water will help.
Hoax: Shopping centres will be closed; soldiers will arrive to Bratislava.
Truth: No soldiers will besiege Bratislava; groceries, drugstores and pharmacies remain open with the only exception being Sundays when all shops will be closed.
Hoax: Do not take ibuprofen you have coronavirus. Only paracetamol pills will help.
Truth: Based on currently available information, WHO does not recommend against the use of ibuprofen.
The police are doing an enormously important job in debunking hoaxes, Klingová said.
Globsec monitored the activities of the central state bodies on social media in the first half of 2019 and found that there are only three Facebook pages actively fighting disinformation: Hoaxes and Deceptions – Police SR, the Institute of Health Policy and the Foreign Policy Concerns Us.
“That’s very few,” Klingová said.
In the time of the coronavirus, several other institutions started communicating more intensively on Facebook, like the Health Ministry and the Public Health Office.
Police uncover hoaxes
More than 65,000 Facebook users follow the police page debunking disinformation online.
Recently, the page debunked hoaxes that the virus was a biological weapon, that the EU is doing nothing to help member countries fight the coronavirus, that military helicopters will spray pesticides to fight the coronavirus, that nasal drops will protect users from the coronavirus or destroy it and a hot bath will help as well.
The hoaxes started circulating even before the first case was officially confirmed in Slovakia on March 6, 2020. This was mainly false information about evacuation from Slovakia because of the coronavirus, and new cases that had been confirmed, but the state was silent about it.
The Facebook page also reported that over the last week, more than 20,000 users started following it.
“If we compare the first days after the outbreak of the coronavirus in our region when we had two or three massively shared pieces of disinformation every day, currently the situation is relatively calm,” the page reported on March 20.
Klingová said that hoaxes that undermine the authority of public institutions and spread panic and fear are also problematic. An example of that is a voice recording shared on Facebook messenger, with a female voice saying that Bratislava will be shut down.
When faced with such information, people do not know what to do, many try calling info-centres, which might, in turn, paralyse the work of public institutions, the analyst said.
Fake news about health and myths connected with Covid-19 can be very dangerous, the researcher said.
“In the case of a pandemic, misleading information can have deadly consequences,” she summed up.
This article was originally published by the Slovak Spectator on 25 March 2020.