Conspiracy theories, big and small, seem to have grown in strength globally in 2020. This is shown in the policy brief of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group – BiEPAG. Conspiracy theories are not new, but the high visibility of such theories and the willingness of thousands to take to the street is novel and has given them greater attention. Because of these facts, they are studied more closely. As elsewhere, the Western Balkans have been affected by conspiracy theories, with doubts about government policies and trust in institutions emerging in light of the pandemic. The scale and implications of these theories are particularly strong, it is stated in the study.
In the Western Balkans, conspiracy theories fall on fertile ground. Institutions are weak and oftendistrusted and there is a pre-history of conspiracy theories that flourished in particular during the 1990s. Conspiracy theories that emerged in the Balkans, just as in other parts of the world, are related to the concept of the Enemy, the Other who incessantly works against Us, with the ultimate objective of destroying our nation and its identity. In doing this, the Enemy is accused of working together with “domestic traitors”.
With the breaking up of Yugoslavia and the war that followed, conspiracy explanations received a new dimension. Everyone blamed others for what happened to them, and they all found some external force supportive of their enemies. The list of the ‘internal enemies’ of the new post-Yugoslav states involved those who purportedly conspired with Soros (Open Society), with the forces of globalization and the Hague Tribunal. A complex past and present, difficult to digest, thus becomes easier to interpret and accept for many. Conspiracy theories continue to be spread widely by media and leading politicians in the Western Balkans.
How Conspiracy theories stand in the Balkans?
Numerous conspiracy theories emerged with the spread of COVID-19 and spread as globally as the virus itself. Not all conspiracy theories are equal. Some contain elements of truth or could be true but remain, till present day, unproven. Thus, belief in them displays a lower level in conspiratorial thinking than the more outlandish ones.
The conspiracy theories explored in the regional survey, the least implausible is the theory that the virus escaped a lab in Wuhan, i.e. that it had existed for longer than publicly known and its origins had been obscured by China. Already less plausible is the theory that claims the Chinese government engineered the coronavirus in a lab. Thus, the virus is not of natural origin, but design. There is no evidence for this claim and plenty to suggest how it evolved naturally.
The other four common conspiracy theories are already considerably more outlandish, including the claims that it is spread by the pharmaceutical industry; the US government engineered the virus as a bioweapon; that it is linked to 5G technology and, probably most improbable, that it spread to allow Bill Gates to chip the population through a vaccine.
The visibility of conspiracy theories is high globally, however, numbers are strikingly high in the Western Balkans. Of the six most common conspiracy theories detected on a global scale, three have more believers than non-believers, namely that the Chinese government engineered the virus in a lab, that the pharmaceutical industry is involved in its spread and that the virus escaped a lab in Wuhan (see graph 1).
Overall, in the region nearly 80% believe a lot, or to some degree, any of the COVID19 conspiracies. Neither education nor youth are clear protections from the belief in conspiracies. Whereas studies of conspiracy theories generally suggest a strong link to lower levels of education, there is no such pattern in the Western Balkans.
Geopolitics and Conspiracy Theories
Non-majority ethnic groups in Montenegro (Serbs, Albanians and Muslims/Bosniaks) and in North Macedonia (Albanians) are distinctly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than the
majority ethnic groups in these countries. These results seem to suggest that some minority groups, who might feel disenfranchised by their government, are more distrustful of authority, and therefore more drawn towards seeking plots perpetrated against them. Therefore, while geopolitics may play a role, internal dynamics of trust-building between authorities and citizens may be a better prism to explain the attitudes of social and ethnic groups towards conspiracy theories in the region.
Finally, the belief in conspiracy theories is distinctly more present among Eurosceptics than among those who favour EU integration: 60.6% of opponents of EU membership have strong views in favour of any one conspiracy theory, as opposed to 48.9% of Europhiles – a difference of almost 12%.
The Impact of Conspiracy Theories
Belief in conspiracy theories is not a quirky conviction of a few outsiders: in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health consequences loom large. Multiple studies show that believers in conspiracy theories are also less likely to vaccinate themselves, once a vaccine is available. As vaccinations are becoming available, it is clear that besides the distribution of the vaccine, the willingness of citizens to vaccinate is crucial for overcoming the pandemic. Not just to protect more vulnerable citizens, but also to enable a full return to normal social and economic life.
The willingness of citizens in the Western Balkans, when this survey was conducted (October 2020), to take the vaccine is lower than in other European countries. Across the region, 53.4% would not take a vaccine (certainly not or probably not), while only 39.2% will probably or certainly take a vaccine. Comparable data from the same period reveal that the willingness in Germany is at 53%11, in Austria 45%,12 and in France 54%.13 Divided by country, in the Western Balkans, the highest numbers are in Montenegro, where still only 44.8% would certainly or probably take the vaccine. As elsewhere, there is strong correlation between the belief in conspiracy theories and the rejection of a vaccine.
As it can be seen from Graph 3, almost 55% of the respondents in North Macedonia stated that they will not take the vaccine (certainly or probably).
Beyond public health, conspiracy theories undermine trust in the state and rational and science-based policy making.