AcasăENGLISHRomania in recent years, between COVID disinformation and war propaganda. How to...

Romania in recent years, between COVID disinformation and war propaganda. How to tell the difference between false and checked information

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  • The sad conclusion in Romania is that, following the two years of pandemic, the population is still vulnerable to disinformation, to various types of propaganda and conspiracy theories. And what has happened since the beginning of the armed conflict in Ukraine is a mirror image of the first months after the SARS-CoV2 virus appeared in Romania.
  • We see now the same people and certain “media organizations” that had denied the existence of the virus saying that the events in Ukraine are not so dramatic, that the Russian Federation’s aggression is justified, going so far as to deny the existence of the war and claiming that we are dealing with a “staging”.
  • We have also encountered hysterical behavior across the country, within days of the outbreak of war, similar to what happened at the outbreak of the pandemic. We’re talking about the shopping spree for basic food and queues at petrol stations.
  • We see a behavior pattern that is repeating throughout Romania in times of crisis: Romanians fall in the trap of disinformation, fake news and propaganda.
  • Why is it that the first impulse is to believe the false information, instead of the real one? Reporter 24 spoke to experts, people who have analyzed the phenomenon, and presents some of their conclusions.

Marius Geantă is president and co-founder of the Centre for Innovation in Medicine, a non-governmental organization that aims to shorten the waiting time between the emerging of new technologies in the medical sector and their practical application, so that patients can benefit from them as quickly as possible.

The association leaded by him was among the few entities that, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, pointed to the importance of communicating the information to the general public.

“Let’s give things a little historical perspective (…). We started writing about what was happening in China in January 2020. I remember an interview I did on Radio Romania Cultural, in January 2020, and at that moment I was talking about how two viruses had already started to circulate – NCoV19, which hadn’t been called SARS-CoV2 yet, and the second was the media virus. That’s how I called it back then. Why? Because this topic, by happening in China, had become highly politicized. That’s on one hand. On the other hand, all kinds of information had begun to circulate, including disinformation, information about the virus as well, information about the illness, which was not necessarily accurate. And I realized, that very moment, that we were actually facing a double challenge. The first was the medical challenge, and the second one was on communication. This is the reason why I’ve been an active presence ever since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Mircea Geantă.

The bad start in terms of communication two years ago led to a low vaccination rate of the Romanian population, resulting in the country’s ranking in the Top 10 fatalities caused by COVID-19.

“What I didn’t know back then, in January 2020, was how much the communication would impact the vaccination campaign against COVID-19, the compliance with measures under critical situations – the distancing measures, wearing the mask and so on, and ultimately, how it would correlate, with a very high mortality in Romania caused by COVID-19. Romania and the Eastern European countries, excepting one Latin American country, are in the top 10 COVID-related fatalities”, says Marius Geantă.

He further says that another way in which the pandemic was ridiculed, was by bringing conspiracy theories into mainstream media, which otherwise would not reach this audience.

“One of the big mistakes we made in our area during the pandemic was to draw attention to all these conspiracies.I’ve been asked in interviews what kind of conspiracies are circulating and I said that the ones creating them should be the ones questioned. The second thing was the association of a figure with a solid scientific background, a solid scientific discourse, with another completely irrelevant figure. Unfortunately, we have seen this mistake in the pandemic; from a scientific point of view, there has never been such an idea of being pro and against the vaccine. However, we have seen too often pros and cons regarding the vaccine on social media, and on TV, in various debates, in which the “pro” was a doctor, and the “against” party was someone with a completely different background, with no qualifications or training in the field,” says Marius Geantă.

Eastern European societies, ever divided

Marius Geantă also points out that it was only a matter of time before Romanian society became polarized on the issue of the pandemic, as it has done with every issue of national impact over the past 30 years.

“I said it, I think it was before the war started and at a moment during the pandemic, it is a fact – the societies are divided. Not only in Romania. And the division awaits only for the next reason in order to manifest itself. During pandemic, at the beginning, you remember, this division did not exist, it did not manifest itself. It was a waiting period. People were scared, afraid of death, of the unknown. We had this, and then all it needed was one voice saying we have the vaccine, another voice saying something entirely different, and things started to heat up.

This was visible in the polls and was also seen by many people from the decision-making area, politics, media, audiences and so on. And then we had a thread of scientific communication that worked very well at certain times, but unfortunately it was overshadowed and intersected a lot by other interests. Some were commercial, some positional, some electoral. Let’s not forget that we also had election rounds. It’s a dynamic we’ve seen in many countries, not only in Romania,” he notes.

The war in Ukraine was another topic that divided Romanians.

“Now, the war in Ukraine is the next issue on which we see, lately, division. Without knowing as much about war as I do about pandemics, there is something that is quite obvious, this very moment as we speak – polarization. What I have noticed indeed is this idea of reductionism, and there may have been people who did not deny COVID, but they downplay it – never mind, it’s just flu. The effect, in fact, is the same. This is what we see now as well. Another interesting phenomenon is that from a media and social point of view, the pandemic ended when the war started. These are facts,” the expert concludes.

The case of fuel in plastic bags. How many of us knew it was a fake?

The existence of an armed conflict so close to the Romanian border has put even more pressure on the media, and some information has been released to the public without being properly fact-checked.

A photo of several plastic bags, filled with fuel and crammed into a trunk, is indicative of such behavior, says Marius Geantă. He believes that this is an example of taking advantage of a behavior that exists in the collective consciousness of Romanians.

“The fuel bags episode seemed “by the book” to me. It happened to be at home that afternoon and evening and I watched all the news channels and it seemed that kind of inevitable topic. Only one TV station did not broadcast the trunk with those bags. However, the pressure was so strong that the moderator of that particular channel mentioned there was a photo of some citizens carrying bags of gas in their trunks. I realized then that in fact, the subject was probably planted somewhere, but it was so spectacular through the media lens, that it spread, it didn’t take much effort. The photo of a man carrying garbage bags to fill them up with gas falls into the area of fun facts. If we had seen this ten years ago, when there was no war, we wouldn’t have had the same reaction. We see people, on a daily basis, with the five-liter can, it’s something that lives in our collective consciousness, and this collective consciousness is exploited and it was exploited at that moment”, Marius Geantă adds.

Why do we believe first the false information? Expert’s explanation

Piotr Toczyski, a psychologist and sociologist with a background in educational sciences and pedagogy, and a mental health expert from Poland, explains that it all starts at the cognitive level of each person. Basically, our brains cannot process the incoming information in detail, particularly if it is complex and it was received under pressure. Thus, effortless information is much easier to “digest”.

Particularly in Eastern Europe, the expert points out, people are prone to propaganda and disinformation, considering that for almost half a century, during the communist dictatorships, they received only this kind of information.

“Disinformation and misinformation fall under the broad category of mythical and magical thinking. Every one of us, every person, every human being, is somehow prone and vulnerable to this kind of thinking. We need it. For example, we cannot process in detail every piece of information we receive. If we wanted to do that, we would need 10 brains instead of one. But we only have one, so we have to look for shortcuts. We need this kind of thinking, these stereotypes, to make it work.

This becomes a problem when we base crucial life decisions or very important decisions on this kind of thinking, which is very much emotional. Because that’s exactly the time to be rational. This type of function is therefore starting to turn dysfunctional, and this was what happened during the COVID pandemic, and also impacts the wartime behavior. In this kind of situations, such as geopolitical issues in our immediate proximity and global health issues, we should be completely rational. That’s why we need rationality or even hyper-rationality in order to make good decisions. And it wasn’t the case.

We, that is – Eastern European societies, are very much affected by propaganda, by disinformation. And as a consequence of our educational system, we are susceptible to misinformation, and that means that there is no need for anyone to propagate any theories or conspiracies, we are just misinformed because we lack informational skills, we are not very well educated in terms of how to deal with the information we receive, the so-called digital informational skills,” Piotr Toczyski says.

photo: Around 3,000 people take part in an antivax protest in Bucharest, March 2021 (photo source: APnews.com)

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Ionut Jifcu
Ionut Jifcu
Are peste 16 ani de experienţă în presă, perioadă în care a acoperit cele mai diverse domenii, de la eveniment la politică, şi în care a văzut tot ce se putea vedea. A bifat colaborări cu Mediafax sau Realitatea PLUS, iar de curând experimentează ce înseamnă realizarea de emisiuni TV. Ne promite, însă, că prima sa dragoste - presa scrisă - n-o va lăsa niciodată
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