COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories: Main Findings of the Presentation of Pro-Fact Research Results

Who is more inclined to believe the COVID-19 conspiracy theories in Croatia, and who most often spreads disinformation on Facebook, were the questions answered at tonight's presentation of the results from the Pro-fact project, attended by representatives of Gong, the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, the University of Dubrovnik and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing in Zagreb.

Professor Mato Brautović, from the University of Dubrovnik, presented the results of the network analysis, which had shown two clearly separated groups of disinformation actors on Facebook: influential actors who create content, and super-spreaders who share the content of influential disinformation.

"Our research has shown that the disinformation ecosystem about COVID-19 is transnational and has superorganism characteristics, that help it maintain a stable structure," he said.

The content analysis, conducted by professors Marijana Grbeša and Milica Vučković, from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, showed that most of the Facebook published COVID-19 related disinformation focused on several topics - from general conspiracy theories related to the introduction of a 'new world order' and 'total control', to spreading fear of vaccines.

"Common propaganda techniques used in the disinformation universe are fear and the trivialization of the danger of disease. The strong presence of populist discourse and the influence of charismatic 'renegades', doctors or scientists who do not represent mainstream solutions, and who have transformed themselves into symbols of resistance to the corona measures, should also be noted. In the Croatian disinformation universe, at least when it comes to Facebook, pages from Serbia have great influence," explains Grbeša.

The coordinator of research activities at Pro-fact, Professor Nebojša Blanuša, from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, presented the results of the research "Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and protest behavior", which was conducted on a nationally representative sample of 1,401 adults, aged 18 to 64 years, in the territory of the whole of Croatia.

Almost 50% of citizens believe that "statistics are being manipulated to exaggerate mortality from COVID-19 by including people who died from other diseases".

"The research results shed light on the main problems of Croatian society. We need a fairer society with smaller socio-economic differences, much better scientific literacy, i.e. more responsible communication by the scientists themselves. We need better media literacy, but also media responsibility. Our society needs politically literate citizens, who will participate responsibly in political life to a much greater extent, and who look critically at reality," Blanuša pointed out.

Belief in different types of conspiracies about the origin of the coronavirus and the course of the development of the disease COVID-19 is significantly related to a number of behavioral patterns.

"People who are not prone to conspiracies were vaccinated more often, they believed in the justification of the preventive measures introduced in Croatia to a greater, and it was somewhat easier for them to live with these measures. Those inclined to belief in conspiracies are more likely to declare that they would undertake different types of actions in the situation of re-introduction of protection measures, such as signing petitions or sharing content via social networks", explains Professor Andrea Vranić from the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, who has, together with Professor Mirjana Tonković and Professor Blanuša, conducted the aforementioned research on COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Scientists from the Department of Psychology of the FFZG, Vranić and Tonković, explained how the research results showed that vaccinated people are more often older than 30 years, somewhat more educated and with higher monthly incomes, somewhat less religious, and that they politically align themselves around the center.

"At the same time, these are people more prone to critical thinking, with a higher degree of scientific and political literacy, and higher trust in science. The everyday Croatian life, in which citizens show extremely low trust in all state institutions (Parliament, Government, Judiciary, police, public administration, political parties), is a suitable ground for perpetuating conspiracy ideas," Tonković added.

Ana Barić and Sara Borzić from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing in Zagreb presented the role of technology in social sciences.

"In addition to enabling the efficient use of large data sets, it also offers support to scientists in the analysis of the obtained results, which opens the door to new directions of research. Our case study is an example of the use of technology to support content analysis, in which artificial intelligence methods and models were used to discover the narrative of articles with a COVID-19 theme," they said.

The head of Gong's educational programs, Dražen Hoffmann, warned that the importance of media literacy is constantly discussed and that exposure to the media can affect citizens, their activation or passivation in public space.

"Scientific insights within Pro-fact reveal that the distance of citizens from political and social participation is precisely the fertile ground for the creation of disinformation, and the direction to further distance them from democratic processes. The public that will resist these harmful effects is one with civic competence – a public that shares the key characteristics of an informed and critical media audience," Hoffmann concluded.

The panel discussion was organized as part of the International Conference on Information Technology and Journalism in Dubrovnik, with the entire broadcast available HERE.

Pro-fact: Research, education, fact-check and debunk COVID-19 related disinformation narratives in Croatia“ is a multidisciplinary project led by Gong, with partners including the Faculty of Political Science in ZagrebUniversity of DubrovnikFaktograf.hrFaculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing. Also affiliated with the project are the Croatian Journalists Society (HND) and the Croatian Journalists’ Union (SNH).

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