Resonant Voices Radar exposes false, biased or manipulated online content that feeds division and mobilises support for groups and causes that threaten public safety, human rights, and democracy.
The Resonant Voices Radar’s team monitors the digital ecosystem of open online channels that produce and disseminate misinformation, partisan and extremist propaganda, hate speech, unsubstantiated claims, and other dangerous online messages that spread across borders, languages, and platforms, affecting transnational diaspora communities.
In April 2020, the Resonant Voices Radar analysed the resonance and reach of the following stories:
Doctors Helped Spread of Misinformation
Misinformation and conspiracy theories on coronavirus have been frustrating many doctors worldwide, but a few verified doctors heavily fuelled the spread of dangerous narratives in online environments. Resonant Voices Radar identified four doctors whose statements were particularly influential in online communities within the EU and Western Balkans countries in April. Their claims are considered as misinformation or unsubstantiated claims.
From French virologist and Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier and Serbian oncologist Danica Grujicic, who claimed that coronavirus was man-made in a laboratory, to German internist Claus Kohnlein and Serbian pulmonologist Branimir Nestorovic, who downplayed the severity of the disease; all of them attracted a considerable interest in an online world. Videos and articles on these four doctors were widely shared amongst social media users in the Western Balkans as well as within diaspora groups in Germany, Austria, and France.
Google trends for these four doctors in Serbia show how popularity of these statements and opinions were not declining as the pandemic progressed. Similar trends could be detected in all communities in the Western Balkans.
Warnings from other health professionals did little to stop videos and articles from spreading on nearly every social media platform in April. Even language barriers couldn’t stop them. The Resonant Voices Radar analyzed the spread of a video interview with Claus Kohnlein as a part of German TV show Der Fehlende Part (The Missing Part), a flagship political programme of RT Deutsch, a part of Russian international multilingual television news network funded by the Russian government.
The original video had been viewed on YouTube more than 892,000 times since its posting in late March. Just on Facebook it was shared more than 13,000 times, mainly by pages and within groups that promote conspiracies, anti-vaccination, pro-Putin and nationalistic views, as well as pages of far-right Alternative for Germany and RT Deutsch.
Just a day or two later, the original German video got shorter versions subtitled with translation in regional languages (referred to as BCS, or Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, for brevity), and was published on at least five YouTube channels popular within the Western Balkans and among their diaspora communities. The most popular video across platforms was the one posted on FES TV, a YouTube channel which is a popular trove of pseudo-scientific and wild conspiracy theory content.
With more than 1.59 million views on YouTube, FES TV’s video audience size has largely surpassed the original one although the size of German-speaking communities is several times larger than the size of BCS ones. According to CrowdTangle data, the video was spread widely in Facebook groups and by pages of Western Balkans diaspora communities in Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, UK and Australia, as well as a number of groups in Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The video attracted more than three times more Facebook reactions, comments, and shares than the German original, gaining the same potential reach of nearly 1.2 million people.
In total, five videos with BCS subtitles had 1.76 million views on YouTube, twice as many as the original one published by RT Deutsch’s programme.
Comparison of web search data shows how Germany’s and Austria’s interests for Dr. Claus Kohnlein were much shorter in duration and lower in intensity than in Serbia, Croatia, and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Sexist Online Criticism Finds a New Target: a Serbian Female Epidemiologist
One of the leading doctors in front of Serbia’s Corona Crisis Management Team, Dr. Darija Kisic Tepavcevic was mocked for her clothes, make-up, appearance and accent from the very beginning of the pandemic. A misogynist comment from a TV journalist during an interview at TV channel B92, during the TV show Fokus inflamed tensions between her supporters and critics online.
The Twitter hashtag #DarijaKisicTepavcevic was used not just to spread information about the pandemic but for sexist, insulting, and inappropriate comments on the Associate Professor and author of over 150 scientific papers.
On the other side, Twitter users started using two hashtags in support of Dr. Darija Kisic Tepavcevic. The first, #NeRazumemPitanje (I don’t understand the question) amplified her response to being asked, during the interview, “how a woman could be on the frontlines of the battle against the coronavirus.” The second, #FokusDaSeIzvini (Fokus to give apology) hashtag was used by social media users to demand an apology from the producer of the TV show.
Google Trends suggests that sexist comments and insults in social media had a negative influence on popularity of Darija Kisic Tepavcevic. The popularity of her male colleague, pulmonologist Branimir Nestorovic increased over the same period despite his controversial statements of downplaying the severity of the coronavirus.
No-vaxx Djokovic Caused Stir
Novak Djokovic, men’s tennis top ranked athlete worldwide, has revealed his opposition to vaccination, causing stir and polarizing debate in social media, alternative outlets, as well as the mainstream ones. His Facebook Watch live video on April 19 was broadcasted to a large audience.
After fierce reaction from international mainstream media, Novak Djokovic had to defend himself, claiming he was confused by the whole situation and in doubt of what would be the best thing to do.
On top of this, Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, shared a video on Instagram of American holistic medical practitioner Dr. Thomas Cowan and his discredited theory linking 5G technology to the coronavirus outbreak. The video on his wife’s Instagram has a “false information” badge now. Nevertheless, it was viewed 113,903 times and counting, while Jelena Djokovic publicly defended the right to share a controversial video to more than 506,000 people who follow her on Instagram.
At least six YouTube users and YouTube talk-show hosts have published videos further amplifying Djokovic’s statements on vaccination or reinterpreting them and explaining his words.
These videos were predominantly shared by Facebook pages and users or within Facebook groups that promote conspiracies, anti-vaccination, pro-Putin, and nationalistic views not only in Serbia but in Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Germany, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among Facebook users they had more than 76,000 reactions, comments, and shares, with a potential reach of more than 760,000 people.
This is just a tiny portion of the real resonance of Novak Djokovic’s opposition to vaccination, keeping in mind that mainstream media coverage of the topic was massively shared and commented on social media in addition to millions of users’ posts and comments.
New Wave of False Claims on Bill Gates’ Children
During the coronavirus pandemic, Bill Gates became the favourite subject of disinformation campaigns due to his philanthropic global health work. An older claim, falsely asserting that American billionaire Bill Gates refused to vaccinate his own children has been finding new audiences online in the favourable context of the coronavirus infodemic in mid-April, despite the fact that Melinda Gates confirmed in an April 2019 Facebook post that all three of her children have been fully vaccinated.
In the Western Balkans, where this claim also surfaced for the first time in 2018, users also started reposting the two-year-old article again in April. At least nine alternative media outlets had republished the same article in the period from 18-24 April. YouTube user Balkan Live has published a video with the same content, which to date had more than 124,000 views.
The misinformation campaign against vaccines often using Bill Gates as a prop has spilled out of the online environment into street protests in Serbia, Austria and Germany in April and May.
Croatian Diaspora Counters Anti-EU Propaganda
Contrary to the impression that Balkan diaspora communities within the EU are quite susceptible to ethno-nationalist and anti-EU propaganda in online environment, there were a few examples of how the diaspora could represent a tool to effectively counter the spread of propaganda and negative narratives.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s portal Jabuka.tv published an article on three unnamed Croatian guest-workers who were allegedly dismissed from work and banned from returning to Germany after Easter holidays spent in their homeland. This no-source story, describing the European Union as “a failed project” that “perhaps looks after migrants of dubious and insincere intentions but closes its doors to their valuable workers and citizens.”
The author’s intent to fuel anti-EU and anti-migrant sentiment did not fare well with the readers on the portal and its Facebook page.
The majority of more than 200 comments on the portal and 160 comments on Facebook page were made by the Croatian diaspora in Germany who contradicted the main author’s argument about lack of workers’ rights and social security in Germany.
As some sort of professional fact-checkers, readers in their comments pointed out what was “false,” “nonsense” and “fake news” in the article. Moreover, some of them highlighted what kind of social benefits people who lost their jobs in Germany received as well as how they could defend their rights if they were fired.
 The video attracted more than 34,000 comments and reactions, with potential reach of nearly 1.2 million people.
 The video was viewed 647,000 times and had more than 34,500 reactions, comments and shares on Facebook.
 The article claims that former Gates’ personal doctor told a medical symposium in Seattle that the Microsoft founder refused to vaccinate his children. It quotes the doctor as saying: “I don’t know if he had them vaccinated as adults, but I can tell you he point blank refused to vaccinate them as children. They were gorgeous kids, really smart and vivacious, and he said they would be OK as it was, they didn’t need any shots.”
 According to CrowdTangle counter, the article had the total sum of almost 24,000 reactions, comments and shares, with potential reach of more than 510,000 followers of pages that shared the article.
 In total they triggered around 25,000 interactions on Facebook, while the most shared article had sole potential reach of up to 319,000 Facebook users. In total, the selected nine articles had potential reach of up to 768.600 Facebook users.
 These three articles attracted the total sum of 2800 reactions, comments and shares on Facebook.
The Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU is funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police.
The content of this report represents the views of the Resonant Voices Initiative’s media monitoring team and is the sole responsibility of the Resonant Voices Initiative. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.