Experience from a targeted professional disinformation campaign in the field of radiation protection in 2017
In the area of radiation protection, many subjects influence laypeople´s attitudes. In the last years, media became a powerful player in this field. In this perspective the problem arises that it is possible to misuse the media for political or ideological purposes. The Czech Republic faced a professional disinformation campaign in the field of radiation protection for the first time in 2017. On this occasion the sociological quantitative research and media analysis have been executed with the aim to describe quantitatively the impact of the published fake texts. The results are described below.
The matter of radiation protection is extremely suitable for evoking panic for several reasons: the nature of ionizing radiation (undetectable by senses, special devices are required), potentially threatening force, historical reminiscences (the use of nuclear weapons, Chernobyl, Fukushima). Therefore, special attention should be paid to effects of propaganda and disinformation news (fake news) in this area.
The Czech Republic encountered a relatively massive professional disinformation campaign in the field of radiation protection for the first time in 2017. The fake news misused the official information on trace amounts of 131I (levels of µBq/m3) identified in the air of some European countries by a group of laboratories associated in RO5 network of experts (Ring of Five). A disinformation article “A radioactive cloud is rolling over Europe, coming probably from a suspect explosion in a French nuclear power plant" published in a disinformation internet server aeronet.cz informed in the following sense (abbreviated):
„A radioactive cloud is rolling over Europe, coming probably from a suspect explosion in a French nuclear power plant. Governments remain silent, France is trying to downplay the whole incident by speaking about the harmlessness of radionuclides, and we recommend you buying iodine tablets and dosimeters immediately! If there is a radiation leak, EU governments will deny everything! Governments and nuclear oversight organizations cannot be trusted. … ... We recommend you not to go out with children, not to ventilate, not to collect mushrooms, blueberries and any fruits that bind radioisotopes, not to eat root vegetables, …. etc. To ensure the safety of food, it is necessary to buy a dosimeter. … .. Moreover, a small child responds to low radioactivity differently than an adult. Do not leave anything to chance, if someone is telling you that it is normal and harmless, just don't wait for anything and don't believe in soothing. EU regimes do not need you to be healthy, the regimes only need to keep you calm. It's not about human health, it's about keeping calm. "
The disinformation campaign attracted quite a large public concern and raised concerns even among some physicians, even though there were only trace radioiodine concentrations detected in the air not having any effect on the human health. SURO subsequently carried out a representative sociological survey of public opinion and people´s behaviour, as well as media analysis with the aim to describe quantitatively the impact of the published text.
Selected results from the sociological research are shortly presented below:
- 44% of the population declared that they had recorded information about the occurrence of 131I;
- half of those who recorded the information thought that the level of 131I found could be dangerous to health, and a third of them (i.e. 15% of the total population) raised concerns about their own health and the health of their close people;
- for three quarters of people with health concerns (i.e. 11% of the total population), concerns persisted and could not be calmed down despite intensive campaigns by experts and state institutions;
- 17% of the population considered or took measures to protect against 131I in the air, 11.5% of them would choose irrational measures (strengthening immunity by taking vitamins, more frequent outdoor stays and intensive outdoor sports), which would certainly not lead to a reduction in the dose received in the event that truly higher concentrations of radioiodine occur in the air. Another 9% bought tablets with a stable iodine; fortunately none of the respondents used the drug;
- an official reaction was very well received, the official statement was understandable for 90 % of respondents and almost two thirds of informed population trusted it.
Media analysis showed that falsehood appeared altogether in more than a fifth of published materials. The relatively high incidence of published false material was found in texts on disinformation websites (22% of published materials) which mostly (in 84%) contained lies. Materials published in radio and TV broadcasting contained no fakes. In these media types mostly experts from State office for Nuclear Safety and SURO were cited.
Although the reason for this "successful" targeted disinformation attack on the Czech Republic is unknown, it showed the importance of a proactive preparation for the case of repeating similar situation. It seems clear that the key is the early detection of the spread disinformation and a rapid competent response to it. Despite the positive reaction of the public, which is positive in terms of communication between the state and the public, it is probable that any (even insignificant) nuclear or radiological event may become a target of disinformation attack and confuse the public.
Therefore, it is vital to improve citizens' awareness in the field of radiation protection, e.g. by proactive use of civic measurements (projects of citizen science) which has been developing rapidly since the accident in Fukushima. In addition, the participation of citizens in the measurements can help to obtain the information needed for a quick and effective assessment of the radiation situation in the event of a real accident, or to combat any targeted misinformation.