Coronavirus Crisis Disinformation in Kosovo
Series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.
Digital media has brought unlimited horizons for the publication of information, by anyone with any purpose and it can be done quickly with little fuss. The coronavirus crisis adds to the need to verify the information you read or see. Are those sources serving us credible information?
This is an important question to raise because during this time of crisis many irresponsible people have misused the situation. Dozens of webpages have been opened allegedly as information portals, examples being the site "Shqip Lajme", "Google Press" and "PLUGU NEWS" created on January 13, 2020. There were also Facebook pages created, and these have become sources of misinformation and disinformation, using sensational headlines, WOW information and unverified texts without facts and credible references. From such sources and others, disinformation has been spread about the coronavirus vaccine. Many sources of misinformation can be found with a simple search in Albanian on Google, like with "The coronavirus vaccine has been discovered", "Coronavirus vaccine ready in April", "USA and Australia have ready the coronavirus vaccine", . There are also cases when the audience was misinformed through photos. As an illustration, a photo shared by many of these media outlets has been the photo that allegedly shows the vaccine against SARS Cov 2. Disregarding copyright this information was copied from one page to another, targeting thousands of people. Disinformation as much as it could be identified was distributed at a rate of two to eight times by portals with thousands of followers. An example is the news that "Nano-chips in the body to stop coronavirus," which was first posted by the portal with 361,000 likes on Facebook and then reposted on the portal "Titulli!" which received 17,000 likes on Facebook,. Another example is the misinformation that "The scandal broke out in Italy, in 50 autopsies performed in Bergamo, none of the dead from coronavirus were declared infected," which was published on the websites "Sot News", "", "Iliria News Agency", and "IndeksOnline"!

Then there is disinformation that well-known personalities have been affected by coronavirus. Articles in Kosovan digital media has been published with headlines such as: "Trump comes out positive with coronavirus". All this kind of misinformation and disinformation from non-credible sources has targeted the Kosovar audience which in many cases has fallen victim to these tactics and has helped increase disinformation through the distribution of this type of news on these digital news outlets.

Two days before the first case of coronavirus in Kosovo was officially confirmed, some electronic media, citing anonymous sources, reported that a person had been affected by coronavirus. Similarly, there was disinformation spread in Kosovo at the time of the first case of death by coronavirus. There have also been cases where disinformation has been disseminated from portals that are considered more credible in Kosovo society. But such texts can no longer be found for the public because those texts have either been removed from s website without a denial of information or edited again without a public notice. As an illustrative case has confused the number of coronavirus victims and the news was edited without any public announcement. Or as another case showed, has misinformed the public by referring to anonymous sources ("Indeksonline, learns that suspicious samples were recently sent from Pristina to Tirana to verify whether the COVID-19 virus may have penetrated Kosovo"). Then, different online media in Kosovo distributed fake advice with the headlines "Consumption of brandy fights coronavirus", "Garlic removes coronavirus", "A glass of lemon water cures coronavirus"… Such and other news such as "A Japanese doctor: Here's how to find out if you are affected by coronavirus" has been widely circulated among friends via Messenger or WhatsApp and Viber! But not all of this disinformation is produced in Kosovo. Some texts were published earlier in other language media , which proves that the media in Kosovo has contributed to the spread of disinformation by translating those texts without verifying them in advance. And at this time of the pandemic, the media have directly influenced the increase of fear and panic. In Kosovo, the news about the flour issue caused panic over fears that there was not enough flour, which led people to panic about the supply of flour. Then, the disinformation about the mask issue, with artciles statingthat masks are very dangerous to use and can damage the health! Disinformation has also spread about the lack of tests for coronavirus and that many have been infected, but they have not been identified, and this information has also caused fear and panic among citizens. Such panic-causing misinformation is also found in the news spread on several webpages in Kosovo with the headlines: "Medicine does not work miracles and does not eradicate Coronavirus!, "American Doctor: Covid-19, People Will Die from Vaccines" (published in "Bota Sot"), or the news titled "Fasting Promotes Covid 19 in Europe" or "Strict relations with Russia, 20,000 American soldiers are 'landing' in Europe." On the other hand, there have been media that have spread disinformation intending to reduce panic. For example, digital platforms in Kosovo have distributed headlines such as: "Spring softens coronavirus", "Children immune to coronavirus", "Only these two critical weeks"… Then the case that some media posted the news that Shpend Ahmeti, - The Mayor of Prishtina, announced the opening of schools on May 4. Ahmeti reacted quickly to this news because it was in actual fact another source of disinformation.
In the pandemic crisis, news with conspiracy theories has also resonated in Kosovo. People in Kosovo have been so influenced by such news and have constantly shared it with friends through Messenger, WhatsApp, and other platforms.

In a broadcast in Kosovo, microbiologist Lul Reka was asked live from readers' comments with questions like "Is it true that coronavirus has spread to create the 5G network?", "Is it true that coronavirus is a global policy pharmaceutical? or that China has created the virus? - This proves that the public is affected by this kind of news. Such disinformation articles are also trending, with examples being, "Coronavirus is a scam. Masons want to control the world" or "Japanese Nobel Laureate China's strong accusations: Coronavirus is laboratory and was produced in Wuhan!" and "The goal is to depopulate the globe and control it through vaccines". There have also been examples of such misinformation spread through videos.

In March-April, numerous and varied misinformation was spread on social media. This part of the analysis presents the top 5 disinformation in Albanian regarding the pandemic of COVID-19. In public posts on Facebook, the disinformation that had the greatest interaction with over 13,000 people seeing the article was that of the American doctor, Rashid Buttar.
1 - American doctor shakes the world, shows the truth of coronavirus (interactivity: 13,309)
A video was posted on YouTube on April 16 suggesting that coronavirus is a bait to force the injection of a "mandatory vaccine" and of microchips in humans. The video quickly garnered millions of views, despite YouTube's promise to combat misinformation associated with COVID-19. The video was published by The Next News Network, a YouTube channel that deals with conspiracy theories and is known for publishing suspicious and untrue information. In just four days, the video had surpassed 4 million views. The video with the interview by Dr. Rashid Buttar, who in a HuffingtonPost report is presented as an osteopath, was widely discredited, although it became news in Kosovo as well. Various Albanian-language media outlets reported on the interview, titled "The American Doctor Shows the World, Reveals the Truth of Koronavirus: No One Has Died, They Are Manipulations, The Vaccine Will Kill Us". The video quickly went viral in Kosovo, reaching thousands of shares on Facebook.

2 - Something is going on! 40,000 US special forces land in EU countries around the Balkans! (interactivity: 6,170)
Another viral piece of misinformation was that US special forces had landed in Europe as a result of alleged tension between the United States and Russia, and the coronavirus was only a distraction for citizens around the world. Also in this disinformation, dilemmas arose about the existence of a vaccine and that the virus was not so dangerous. This misinformation has been presented with sensational headlines in some media in Albanian , such as, "Something is being fought! 40,000 US Special Forces land in EU countries, around the Balkans!", "Tough relations with Russia, 20,000 US troops "land" in Europe" and "Let's curb Russia! American fighter jets are 'landing' in Europe".
3 - A Japanese doctor, here's how to tell if you're affected by COVID-19. (interactivity: 6,085)
Another viral disinformation source was advice on how to ascertain if you had COVID-19 in a few seconds As the information was "Hold your breath for more than 10 seconds. If you manage to do this without coughing or showing signs of anxiety or tightness in the chest, then you are not affected" said the information, which was simply misinformation, because no health institution had confirmed this form of testing for infection by the virus.

4 - Coronavirus is a fraud. Masons want to control the world. (interactivity: 4,963)
The disinformation video that showed that the coronavirus was just a hoax and 'revealed' that the Masons wanted to control the world had also gone viral on the internet. This conspiracy theory relates to the placement of microchips in the human body. According to this disinformation, COVID-19 was invented only to be used as a reason to place microchips in humans.
5 - Cure for COVID-19 or ways to eliminate it. (interactivity: 4,330)
Another viral piece of disinformation was the misguidedmedical advice on 'discovering' the cure for COVID-19. "The recipe is simple - Lemon and Bicarbonate, mix and drink as hot tea ...", it was said, among other things, in the distributed message. However, the World Health Organization has clarified that there is still no pharmaceutical drug or product that can cure coronavirus.

The low level of Media Literacy in Kosovo has affected even more people from the issue of infodemic. People who were most affected were those who are middle-aged because the internet in Kosovo entered to the market quickly putting middle-aged people at a disadvantage. Although, Kosovo has 94% Internet access across the countery this does not mean that allo Kosovars access the Internet or view more than a few websites, which makes them susceptible to misinformation . But in the fight against information, media experts and researchers, as well as media monitoring organizations, have used digital platforms to explain how people can protect themselves from misinformation. The Press Council of Kosovo has asked the media to verify any news before publication so as not to misinform citizens during the pandemic. This appeal has been emphasised further by health institutions and health staff, political representatives, and religious leaders in Kosovo to support global initiatives of digital platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Viber, and WhatsApp to fight infodemic.
Infodemic is the 'disease' of unverified information that is placed in the public eye and, this virus can be transmitted from one person to another. We need to judge any information we receive and before we distribute it, to ask ourselves at least three questions, which are the best "vaccines" against information: Is it a reliable source? has this news been reported in other media? and, is it based on official sources? For the coronavirus pandemic, the vaccine has not been found yet, but for the infodemic we already have the "vaccine", it is enough to be careful and "vaccinated" using the questions above to protect ourselves from the infodemic.
Organization: EDUMEDIA Institute/Kosovo
Authors: Dren Gërguri – lecturer and journalist, Gëzim Qerimi – professor of journalism, and Blerta Blakaj – lecturer and journalist