Perception is reality

It has long been recognized that perception of events shapes popular beliefs, and influences attitudes and behaviors. Some cultures are more malleable to misrepresentation of reality than others; partly due to sudden exposure to outside influences not previously encountered as a result of a regime change, as well as cultural factors such as traditional concepts of truth and its objective existence. This disregard for objective truth is not limited to Russia but spreads to the Balkans and Eastern Europe also.

The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth–indeed, their disbelief in its existence–leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another. 

(The Long Telegram)

Lack of critical thinking in the area east of the Elbe-Trieste line is easily traceable to educational methods that are rooted in the efforts of Austrian-Hungarian Empire to educate its serfs and civil servants. Challenging stated facts was not encouraged under the Empire. It was not encouraged later under the Bolshevik regime, either. In the absence of other more reliable sources of information, popular wisdom and rumors picked through the grapevine became as important as official news outlets, if not more.

Source: 38 maps that explain Europe. Mathew Yglesias, VOX, 2014.

Source: 38 maps that explain Europe. Mathew Yglesias, VOX, 2014.

Source: Elbe-Trieste line, divides Europe by historical land ownership and servitude patterns. West of the Elbe-Trieste line, peasants could own farm land. East of the Elbe River, peasants lived in a form of legal servitude called serfdom. (Library07). The same line was later used to divide Europe by putting up the Iron Curtain (Reference).

Source: Iron Curtain (Wikipedia). The black line represents Iron Curtain. Soviet Bloc countries are shaded red, Western states are blue, Yugoslavia is green, Chinese-aligned Albania is stripe-hatched with gray, neutral Austria and Switzerland are gray.

Extreme skepticism toward officially presented truth and scientifically approved version of facts can be observed in all segments of society throughout Eastern Europe. Medicine is not exempt. A few examples from standard searches for commercially relevant information as picked up in local media are presented below.

Tuberculosis in Czech and Slovak media

Search for information on tuberculosis in local media (keywords: active ingredients, locally registered brands, tuberculosis, tuberculin) yields 555 hits, of which 52 were assessed as relevant according to defined Priority Information Requirements. Online media were the most prominent source of relevant information (65%), compared to press (17%), sound broadcasting (14%) and TV (4%). The good news is that the material presented on TV related to ongoing genuine clinical research and was of very good information quality. Some of the concerns include the popularity of traditional herbal remedies for the treatment of serious diseases such as tuberculosis or cancer in online media, reinforcing popular beliefs in their effectiveness, and prominence of alternative facts.

Online visits and Facebook shares indicate what kind of content is appreciated by the readers. Top 5 articles by Facebook shares include Czech humanitarian mission in South Sudan (564), imprisonment of Czech humanitarian worker in South Sudan (265), the murder of Slobodan Milosevic meme (555), and traditional remedies (248, 135).

Prominence of “Alternative truth” media

Some of the most prominent articles come from sources that are recognized as disinformation and Russian propaganda outlets (list created by Think tank European values and Echo24). These sources include highly popular portal Parlamentni Listy (owned by OUR MEDIA a.s.), website Cesko Aktualne and far-left outlet Halo noviny.

Popular online shops

Pictures below show examples of popular online shops and links leading to them discovered through standard screening of online media, without the use of specialized tools or knowledge. The products range from lifestyle drugs to anabolic steroids and psychotropic medications. Czech search engine offers relevant results on search page 1, with links leading directly into online shops. Illicit trade with anabolic steroids and other pharmaceuticals grow steadily (PrazskyDenik, 2017). Conviction of organized groups is a long and complicated affair (epravo, 2017). Taking down e-shops or delisting them from search engines and directories is apparently too much to ask.

Cancer remedies

Portal explains that dandelion root is effective for the treatment of cancer, and is even better than chemotherapy. The following outlets are examples of phony cancer remedies offered by media listed as creators of disinformation content. Here, political propaganda and medical hoaxes co-exist.

Another disinformation outlet, AC24, recommends sour-sop (Annona muricata). The plant is a miraculous killer of cancer cells, 10,000 times stronger than chemotherapy.

Osud, another one on the list, collects alternative cancer remedies and dedicates whole section to proper education of their users.

New World Order, another disinformation outlet, advertises film and methods of Dr. Burzynski, right next to its fundraising flyer and button.

Murder of Slobodan Milosevic meme

According to the UN report on death of Slobodan Milosevic, toxicology examination revealed no traces of rifampicin or droperidol. Findings of other substances corresponded with his regular medications. In March 2017, the meme about the death of Slobodan Milosevic reappeared in Serbian and other Eastern European media. Whilst the UN report is easy to locate for an English speaker in Google with localization anywhere in Western Europe or the US, this is not necessarily the case when the localization is changed. Language limitations, selective access to information, cognitive biases and group pressures make revocation of popular beliefs very challenging.

Google search for “Milosevic”: localization – Serbia; language limitation – none; period – last month. The search shows articles that repeat the long-debunked meme on Slobodan Milosevic being poisoned.

This collection of real-life, real-time examples is the result of screening of commercially relevant information for active pharmaceutical ingredients and brands using a commercial media monitoring tool. The results show significant overlap between political propaganda and disinformation and medical hoaxes – as well as the illicit online sale of prescription pharmaceuticals directly to consumers.

Information environment in Eastern Europe is very fragmented due to linguistic and cultural diversity. Physical organization and compartmentalization of local internet allow rapid spread of memes that cannot be easily revoked due language barrier and limited reach of local search engines and directories outside their immediate area.

Information – true or false, valid or not – that is made available to specific populations based on their location and language shapes people’s perceptions, creates their reality, alters their reasoning, reinforces their beliefs and attitudes, and influences their actions.