The Infodemic: anti-migrant voices in Serbia capitalize on virus; social media platforms play whack-a-mole with 5G conspiracists

Ilan Greenberg


Hello, I’m Ilan Greenberg, the publisher and editorial director of Coda. Your usual correspondent Natalia Antelava is taking a short staycation (what else?) and so I’m filling in through next Monday, tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation, and what is being done to combat it.

Here are a few narratives — real and fake — that have caught our attention:

A rash of stories are foisting pandemic anxiety into an already hostile environment toward migrants in Serbia. The stories are claiming that migrants are being awarded more government support than citizens during the pandemic. 

  • These anti-immigration stories are “spreading like a contagion,” writes the newsroom Raskrikavanje which is running a live blog on Covid-19 disinformation. In at least one case, the country’s Commissioner for Refugees and Migration requested that a Serbian tabloid publish a retraction.

Key regional context: As with a number of other Balkan states, Serbia has been a key crossing point for hundreds of thousands of migrants since 2015. 

In early March before Covid-19 hit the country, President Aleksandr Vučić ordered the closure of national borders in response to a “threat to national security” from an anticipated wave of new migrants, rhetoric that human rights advocates have labeled repressive and inappropriate.

The pandemic’s impact on migration to Europe is already profound. Mediterranean countries are pushing back on enormous pressure to act on overcrowded detention centers. Greek and Turkish security forces have been accused of using violence to push back migrants and asylum seekers trying to enter its closed ports.

The Summer Olympics are postponed but the international competition for the country best able to exploit the coronavirus for national PR gain continues to be waged globally, and perhaps especially in the Middle East:

  • China recently delivered four tons of medical aid to Cairo including much-needed masks and respirators. 
  • Not surprising that Egyptian newspapers have gone heavy on this story, but with reports making much of the deep relations between the two countries and the spirit of international cooperation such a gesture embodies, this is a clear soft-power win for Xi Jinping and the CCP.

Two incidents from this week underscore an emerging pattern of suppression of free speech in India:

  • On Wednesday, a TV news reporter was arrested in Mumbai for spreading “misinformation” by reporting that trains would resume service to transport stranded workers in Bombay back to their villages, after which a crowd of people apparently turned up at a train station in violation of the lockdown. It turns out he had correctly reported the contents of a letter written by a railway official and his TV network said in a statement condemning his arrest that his reporting could not reasonably be held responsible for the gathering at the train station.
  • Also on Wednesday, the Indian state of Gujarat issued an FIR (similar to an indictment) against Prashant Bhushan, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, for a tweet paraphrasing Marx’s adage on religion to criticize the government’s coronavirus response. The Gujarati police inspector didn’t seem to get the reference, telling the press that Bhushan was accused “of using word opium with Ramayana and Mahabharata in a tweet made on March 28 which has hurt the sentiments of many Hindu people.”

What it means: India’s pandemic trajectory has only begun. Anti-free expression forces are determined to not fall behind.

Coda’s staff reporter Isobel Cockerell is closely following how the pandemic has aroused the suspicions of the anti-5G movement. Find her list of top celebrity 5G/pandemic conspiracy mongers here

And here’s her latest reporting:


Conspiracy-fueled arson attacks on cellular towers spread beyond the UK and into the Netherlands this week, as the Hague’s National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism announced several radio masts had been attacked. The copycat attacks are spreading, spurred on by conspiracy theories and misinformation that tries to tie coronavirus symptoms with the global rollout of 5G networks. 

These theories pose real dangers: according to research by London’s Kings College, those who subscribe to conspiracies that coronavirus is a hoax are less likely to follow social distancing and handwashing practices. 

In a sweeping move, Facebook took decisive action over the past few days by shutting down the UK’s most popular anti-5G campaign group, Stop 5G UK, which had more than 67,000 members before it was shuttered. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, anti-5G conspiracy groups have seen their numbers balloon as people search for easy answers to the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns.

In an online statement by Facebook’s Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen, the company said it had removed thousands of pieces of coronavirus-related misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm. 

But the anti-5G movement is moving fast. Mark Steele, one of the group’s most prominent influencers, said he was transitioning to sharing his content and followers to the encrypted platform Telegram, while other campaigners hurried to set up alternative groups on Facebook. Like so many misinformation stories, it’s becoming a huge game of whack-a-mole: fruitless, and interminable.

The latest across the infodemic:

  • new report by Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute has tracked the range of state and non-state actors exploiting and manipulating Covid-19 news, and has identified an effective Russian influence campaign targeting African countries.
  • The criminalization of bad pandemic information is spreading, from serious penalties in South Africa to fines in Vietnam
  • This video has nothing to do with Covid-19 but I can’t resist sharing this pandemonium of crabs in an airport, which clearly is even better than snakes in a plane.

Stay safe and healthy,

Ilan Greenberg

P.S. Thank you to the many Coda staff who contributed today: Gautama Mehta, Ariam Alula, Isobel Cockerell, Dave Stelfox, Katia Patin, and Alexandra Tyan.

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