COVID-19 Disinformation: Implications for Polarisation in Kumanovo

Above: SCN has piloted an initial localised assessment on COVID-19 disinformation in the Municipality of Kumanovo, North Macedonia

Simeon Dukic,
Manager, Balkans and Central Asia

2 November 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world with profound social and economic consequences, disinformation has increasingly been weaponised in an effort to divide communities and mobilise hate. The unprecedented proliferation of this context poses an urgent challenge to many governments, not least cities and city leaders, who are on the frontlines of responding to the pandemic.

To support cities in understanding and responding to this threat as they seek to protect community cohesion, ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit has been assessing the unfolding ‘infodemic’ that has accompanied the public health crisis. Analysing solely the messaging and dissemination of this content only provides one side of the story, however. To understand whether and how disinformation has a tangible, deleterious effect on polarisation at the community level, we also need to know how susceptible our cities are to it.

Working with member cities, the SCN has successfully piloted an initial localised assessment in the Municipality of Kumanovo, North Macedonia. Initial findings shed light on how disinformation exploits a distrust of media and a restricted news intake to exacerbate existing community tensions, promote conspiracy theories and increase polarisation.

Through an online survey of nearly 600 Kumanovo residents, conducted in May 2020 in partnership with the Kumanovo Community Action Team, the SCN was able to identify the following key findings:

  1. Nearly half (47.5%) of respondents either believed a conspiracy theory or could not otherwise identify legitimate causes for the emergence and spread of COVID-19. Just 52.5% of respondents were able to correctly identify broad, legitimate causes such as the natural evolution of viruses or problematic human behaviour.
  2. Around 41% of respondents believed that an “international plot, led by a foreign power” was the cause for the spread of COVID-19.
  3. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (73.4%) believed that COVID-19 disinformation had inflamed polarisation between communities in Kumanovo. Those who could not identify a legitimate cause for the spread of COVID-19 or who subscribed to a conspiracy theory were more likely to believe that there is increased polarisation.
  4. Respondents with a greater trust in media and those who consumed information from a larger set of sources tended to be better at correctly identifying the causes for the emergence and spread of the pandemic. The findings show that for each additional media source respondents used, the chance that they correctly identified the cause of COVID-19 increased by 40%.
  5. Respondents felt that responsibility for stopping the spread of ‘fake news’ should lie with tech platforms, individual citizens, the media and government. 1% stated that social media platforms should be responsible; 33.7% felt citizens themselves had a key role; and 31.9% felt primary responsibility should be with journalists. At a government level, 26.2% of respondents believed national authorities should shoulder primary responsibility, as against 18.6% for municipal authorities. Only 10.6% felt the burden of responsibility lay with NGOs.
  6. Despite high rates of daily social media consumption, TV news is still the leading source of information for respondents at 74.3%, followed closely by social media at 72.9%.

These findings show that it is difficult for individuals in Kumanovo to differentiate between truth and conspiracy in relation to the pandemic. Moreover, disinformation linked to COVID-19 is driving polarisation in a community where ethnic, religious, political and linguistic divides have a violent history.

This pilot study provides insights for counter-disinformation programming and campaigning because it provides data on the targeted audience, key stakeholders and issues surrounding media consumption. Without a proper, data-driven understanding of community-level susceptibility to – and the implications of – disinformation, we cannot equip cities and local institutions to prevent polarisation and hate that threatens cohesion and drives extremism.

As a result of this pilot study, SCN is conducting a representative national COVID-19 disinformation and polarisation survey in North Macedonia, with similar research in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These datasets will provide unique insights for those looking to support local resilience and cohesion in the face of dangerous disinformation which seeks to pit communities against each other, exploit the fears that accompany a public health crisis, and generate hate and extremism.

“Disinformation exploits a distrust of media and a restricted news intake to exacerbate existing community tensions, promote conspiracy theories and increase polarisation”

To build on the localised findings in Kumanovo, the SCN has also carried out a Community Perceptions Study to measure community resilience to extremism and violence. This data will help understand levels of polarisation between various groups, as well as how disinformation, resilience, polarisation and vulnerability to radicalisation are interlinked. Collectively, these datasets will inform local policy and practice on prevention. Kumanovo’s Community Action Team, in particular, will use these findings to inform and update the city’s risk profile and better tailor and target prevention activities by identifying the neighbourhoods and demographics most at-risk as well as the issues that polarise different groups.

With access to a full analysis of disinformation content, dissemination and susceptibility, and equipped with the evidence on what strengthens resilience to disrupt polarisation and hate, our cities and their leaders can lead the way in safeguarding the public in the face of this threat.

This work is part of a broader initiative by SCN and ISD to study the effects of COVID-19 mis- and disinformation and how it feeds into and impacts hate, polarisation and extremism. ISD has been producing regular analysis briefings, webinars and commentary on emerging trends and issues related to COVID-19, including working with high-profile media outlets around the world on focused investigations. We aim to provide regular updates to these projects and more in upcoming newsletters.

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