The Infodemic: How Facebook helped the Plandemic spread, Cameroon’s missing president and the first fruit of China’s facemask diplomacy in Serbia

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back and, as always, a very special welcome to our new subscribers. Hit reply anytime, if you have questions, ideas or suggestions. 

We are tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation and how it’s shaping the pandemic response. Here are a few narratives, both real and fake, that have caught our attention today. 

Facebook and YouTube continue to enable the spread of Covid-19 disinformation. Here’s an incredible example:

  • Using two comparative datasets from a social media monitoring tool called CrowdTange, the author of this piece dissects and visualizes the role Facebook groups played in spreading the “Plandemic”, a slickly produced documentary featuring discredited virologist Judy Mikovits
  • The visualizations show how incredibly fast the medical misinformation and conspiracy theories featured in the film spread across Facebook groups, leading users back to the documentary on YouTube 
  • The big conclusion: debunking does not work 

Privacy may be on its way out everywhere, but not in New Zealand, which has launched its own coronavirus app named NZ COVID Tracer. Here’s how it is different from others:

  • It doesn’t use GPS or Bluetooth, so it can’t tell if you’ve been in close proximity to someone who tests positive 
  • Instead, it runs on QR codes. You are supposed to check in whenever you go somewhere, like the store or a cafe. So, it basically just creates a record of where you’ve been
  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as a “digital diary.” Here is the government’s description of the app and responses to questions
  • Almost all of it is voluntary. You don’t have to use it and scan the QR codes. You also don’t have to share your name, phone number or address when registering for the app. The only information required is an email address and password
  • Right now, the data isn’t sent directly to the contact tracers. Rather, if you test positive, contact tracers will contact you and the app will help you inform them about where you’ve been and who you may have had contact with
  • In New Zealand, privacy is a clear winner but the app is already being criticized because … well, it just doesn’t do much 

The people of Cameroon are wondering what has happened to their president. With nearly 5,000 cases and 150 deaths, Cameroon is one of the worst-affected countries in Africa. The government’s Covid-19 strategy has been unclear and the president is nowhere to be seen.

  • #WhereisBiya and #LetsFindBiya are now trending on Twitter in Cameroon after rumors spread that the country’s head of state may be dead 
  • According to this article, President Paul Biya last addressed the public back in March, around the time Cameroon recorded its first confirmed case. He has appeared in two photographs with foreign dignitaries since, but rumors on social media say that they may have been Photoshopped
  • Biya, who has been in power since 1982, has disappeared in the past. In fact, he has a bit of a reputation for not getting his hands too dirty with the day-to-day business of governing. According to this investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Biya has spent as much as one-third of his 37 years in power abroad — much of that time in the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva

In Turkmenistan, people have been left guessing whether or not the country has any Covid-19 cases. Officially it doesn’t. Turkmen media covers the pandemic abroad, while presenting the country as an oasis of health and safety. All thanks to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, of course. But now public-sector employees in the capital Ashgabat have been told to go through compulsory medical checkups that include chest x-rays. Does that mean Covid-19 is spreading? Only Turkmen officials have the answer to that.

Four out of 10 Romanians would refuse a Covid-19 vaccine if it were available, according to a new survey. Covid-19 hit Romania just as the country’s parliament, concerned by a growing anti-vax movement, was discussing making vaccinations mandatory.  

“Scores” of Indian medics arrive in the UAE to join pandemic efforts in the country. Here’s quite an amazing photograph that encapsulates the new phenomenon of the pandemic soft power initiative: doctors in scrubs, tightly packed together on a plane, waving Indian and UAE flags.

Meantime, China’s Covid-19-related soft power efforts are paying off in Serbia. Katia Patin has more below.  


Standing in front of a lavender-filtered rendering of Belgrade’s skyline, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has a message of welcome for Chinese tourists. “The National Tourism Organization takes you on a tour to Serbia.”

Although its borders are still closed, Serbia has launched a forward-looking initiative in China, starring President Vucic as its literal posterboy. 

The roots of the campaign go back to March, when the EU banned sending medical equipment to non-EU countries. This soured relations between Brussels and nations like Serbia, which are on the waiting list to join the EU. It also gave China a window to step in. 

When the first medical experts and shipments of protective gear arrived in Serbia from China, President Vucic was there on the asphalt to greet them. He even kissed the Chinese flag in gratitude.

“The only country that can help us is China,” the Serbian president announced. “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper.”

Serbia’s accession to the EU has been stalled for years, leaving the country with few options besides leveraging Chinese and Russian influence against the West to its benefit.

“The closest thing Serbia has to a foreign policy strategy is to balance and pit Western and non-Western powers against each other,” explained Vuk Vuksanovic, an associate at the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank. 

Chinese-Serbian relations have flourished since Belgrade and Beijing introduced a visa-free travel arrangement in 2017, but Moscow has traditionally retained the upper geopolitical hand. The pandemic may have changed that. 

“Russia has been the primary go-to address when it comes to non-Western players,” said Vuksanovic. “But now, I think this place is being definitely taken over by China. In the coming period, we will be hearing the name Xi Jingping in Belgrade more frequently than the name Vladimir Putin.”

As well as the purple posters of Vucic, the campaign includes videos and other promotional material, pushed out online with the help of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. 

Serbia’s board of tourism signed a deal with Alibaba last fall to promote the country across its network, along with the social media platforms WeChat and Weibo.


The University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute says the initial surge in news use around coronavirus in the UK “has been followed by a significant increase in news avoidance.”

This isn’t exactly the cheerful stuff people are craving right now, but for a quick break from coronavirus, here’s a great read on how lies and disinformation are covering up an environmental assault on the Baltic Sea.

See you on Friday,


P.S. It takes a village, well in our case a team to bring you this newsletter. Today’s contributors include: Caitlin Thompson, Ariam Alula, Dave Stelfox and Mariam Kiparoidze.