During the summer, Facebook arrived in Serbia. To help prevent the spreading of false information on their platform, they employed third-party fact-checkers. Journalists from Istinomer and Agence France Presse (Serbia) factcheck likely false content on Facebook on a daily basis to help fight increasing disinformation.
Today, fake news is all over the internet – this is a fact. Every day one can come across a dozen pieces of false information whilst scrolling through social media. Considering the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of today’s false information circulating the Serbian Internet concerns COVID-19. From posts claiming the virus is fake, to those claiming it is a hoax designed to manipulate the world.
Istinomer and AFP factcheckers have also found posts on Facebook claiming that tennis player Novak Đoković had given away money to fans who wrote the first letter of their name in the comment section. Another prominent fake news story in Serbia claims chips inserted into masks can track citizens. It was later discovered that the creators of this video were trolls. Even more shocking are the claims by some Serbian Facebook users that there exists a miraculous cocktail that, as they’ve falsely claimed, can cure coronavirus.
When third-party fact-checkers rate a certain post as false, the creators get notified. Their post does not disappear, but it will appear alongside a disclaimer explaining it has been rated as false. After this rating, that particular post is placed lower on any given social media platform and therefore can no longer be promoted by individual users or organisations.
Apart from citizens, Serbian government officials have also contributed to the spreading of misinformation.
We see it in the USA, we see it in Serbia as well. While Donald Trump claimed bleach could be the coronavirus cure, the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, claimed rakija could solve the problem. “Wherever you put alcohol, the coronavirus does not grow there”, were his words at the beginning of the pandemic.
Just as his American counterpart often denies his own words, Vučić went on to claim he had not meant to suggest rakija was a preventive measure against COVID-19. Strict measures were introduced across the country soon after.
Many politicians in Serbia have been known to break their promises and spread false information about their achievements. Similarly, controversies are not anything new in Serbia. The most recent controversy about coronavirus in Serbia concerned infection and mortality rates. At one point, epidemiologist Predrag Kon and the Minister of Health Zlatibor Lončar were giving completely different updates on the health crisis. This disparity made people question whether the number of deaths were in fact higher than that being reported by the government.
One of the main problems, and not only in Serbia, is the low level of media literacy among social media users, which makes them even more vulnerable to fake news. False information is not always easy to see, especially when it comes to this new strain of coronavirus. To this end, UNICEF has set out guidelines on how to spot and check whether the information one has read is fake or reliable.