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BiEPAG Report: People in the Western Balkans believe in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 more than other Europeans

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WASHINGTON – People in the Western Balkans believe in conspiracies more than people in other parts of Europe, which reinforces their lack of trust in the institutions and ultimately poses a threat to democracy, are some of the main conclusions of the new Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’s report entitled “The suspicious Virus: Conspiracies and COVID-19 in the Balkans”, presented at the event organized by the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. The report is based on the data that comes from a public opinion poll conducted in the six Western Balkans countries in October 2020.

Florian Bieber, Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) said that more than three quarters of those surveyed in the Western Balkans believe in any of five conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.

“Whether it is engineered in a Chinese lab, whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry spreading it, or if it Bill Gates trying to chip the population, or 5G technology being responsible, 77.1% believe to some degree in that, which is a much higher share than we see elsewhere in Europe. In most of Europe the majority is in favour of getting vaccinated, and in the Balkans the majority is against getting vaccinated. That is strongly linked to the belief in conspiracy theories, so conspiracy theories have a direct impact on public health policies”, said Bieber.

Tena Prelec, research fellow at the University of Oxford and member of BiEPAG emphasised that education, age, gender and urban-rural divide does not have an impact in terms of how much people believe in conspiracy theories.

“Geopolitical cleavages, geopolitics and geopolitical narratives may play some role. We have seen that Serb respondents from Serbia and ethnic Serbs from other Western Balkan countries are more favourably inclined towards China than other respondents”, said Prelec.

She also said that the findings of the report imply that minority respondents are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories than respondents belonging to majority groups.

“If what you get from the institutions is something that you do not believe in, and the media are closely linked to the institutions, that tells you a lot about the relationship between the minority respondents and the governments. In the case of Kosovo Serbs, they believe less in China-related conspiracies than their Albanian compatriots, and at the same time over 90% of them believe in conspiracy theories related to the pharmaceutical industry, and Bill Gates’ involvement in the coronavirus crisis”, said Prelec.

Dejan Jović, professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb and member of BiEPAG said that conspiracy theories that people believe in today have to do with the history and legacy of various conspiracies that have existed in the region.

“The collapse of Yugoslavia meant the collapse of more or less all post-Yugoslav states. Within them, various ethnic groups started blaming each other, external influences, links of internal traitors and external enemies, and this was all a fertile ground for conspiracy theories”, Jović explained.

Dimitar Bechev, nonresident at the Atlantic Council, director of the European Policy Institute in Sofia and member of BiEPAG, said that the findings of the report show that disinformation originates from the outside, from geopolitical dimension and foreign policy, but that we have to look at the domestic gate-keepers.

“In the Western Balkans, mainstream media are prone to conspiracy theories. For example, think about all the front pages Serbian tabloids have been publishing with regards to Albanians trying to create Greater Albania, or Croats arming to invade Serbia. This culture of disinformation are amenable to the receptivity of conspiracy theorising”, said Bechev.

Prelec added that, although people in the Western Balkans are much more prone to conspiracy theories than people in other parts of Europe, the Balkans are still not unique in that sense.

“In many cases, the government and the mainstream media are associated as being the same thing. That is why it is not necessary for the government to spread these conspiracy theories proactively, because whatever narratives they push through their speeches will be picked up by the media that are so well-read among the population”, said Prelec.

According to Jović, the concept of victimhood, which has been particularly important in the Western Balkans since the wars of the 1990s, was very helpful for developing particular conspiracy interpretations today.

“Everyone is presenting themselves in school textbooks and in official narratives as being victims of the long chain of historical events. If you are taught that you have always been a victim of others, then this is very helpful in constructing another type of conspiracy theories closely linked to the pandemic”, said Jović.

Bieber said that confronting the disinformation in the region is difficult, because many of the governments are complicit in it, and they are often eager to have their media send this kind of messages.

“Uncertainty breeds conspiracy theories, so you have to restore trust in institutions and restore trust in the processes which provide some kind of certainty, and one of them is European integration”, Bieber emphasized.

When it comes to the link between conspiracy theories and democracy, or the threat to democracy, Bieber stated that if people believe in conspiracies, then they do not believe in their own agency, which demobilises them from being politically active.

“If you believe this, then you are less likely to participate in elections and to trust institutions, and all of that makes you more likely to be a victim of authoritarian regimes which want people to be passive, and not active citizens, and that is the key danger”, Bieber added.

Jović added one of the biggest dangers is that people disregard the expertise, and see experts as those taking part in the conspiracies against them.

“If you undermine trust in rational debate, then how can you have a reasonable decision-making process? We are in a situation where it does not matter if some opinion is based on evidence or not, what matters is that it sounds good and it might be attractive and popularised by various media”, Jović concluded.

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