Charlatans and Mainstream Media Try to Profit From Earthquake Panic in Skopje

Skopje residents in front of their homes after the afternoon earthquake. Photo by F. Stojanovski, CC-BY.

Skopje residents in front of their homes after the Sunday afternoon earthquake. Photo by F. Stojanovski, CC-BY.

Citizens of Macedonia's capital Skopje were literally and figuratively shaken on Sunday and Monday, September 11 and 12, by a series of earthquakes that did not cause much physical damage.

Two major tremors, first in the morning around 7 am on September 11, and in particular the second in the afternoon around 3 pm, caused panic reactions, leading to the injury of about 100 people as they tried to run from their homes. Many residents stayed outdoors during the afternoon and evening, afraid that the quakes were precursors to a major hit.

A larger earthquake never came, but a lack of clear information from authorities and mainstream media until late in the day Sunday turned social media into a rumor mill that amplified disinformation and reinforced fear.

А blatant attempt to profit from the panic came in the form of a Facebook post by “Ivan the Healer,” who presents himself as a devout Orthodox Christian man close to God and an alternative medicine practitioner with his own call-in show on local TV. Some time after midnight on September 12, hours after the tremors passed and the panic subsided, he posted a Facebook post in which he purported to predict the quakes before they happened. The post with the text “Tomorrow, there will be earthquake in Skopje 15 times” was backdated to appear it was made on September 10.

Social media users quickly pointed out the scam, which if successful would have strengthened Ivan's brand as soothsayer:

Image: Tomorrow, there will be earthquake in Skopje 15 times
Tweet: Ivan you swindler!

Ivan removed the debunked post by Monday noontime.

Other citizens called out media outlets that were capitalizing on the panic to get more clicks. For instance, Sitel, the most popular TV station with a national broadcasting license (and the recipient of millions of euros of taxpayers money through government advertising or other subsidies), published an article about quake-related fatalities on September 11 about two hours after the first big tremor with the title “5.7 magnitude earthquake: 13 dead and 203 injured.”

The information was true, but the title — the most visible part on social media and news aggregates — omitted the vital fact that the particular quake in question took place in Bukoba, Tanzania, not Skopje, Macedonia. The stressed and shocked reader would find that out only after clicking the link and reading the body of the text.

Regarding spreading paranoia, Shit-el are undisputed masters! F**k their rotten blood!

Skopje citizens are particularly nervous about earthquakes already due to a major earthquake in 1963 that leveled the city, killing 1,070 people.

When it was part of the now defunct Yugoslavia, Macedonia had a system in place for training citizens how to deal with emergencies, and the international solidarity effort to rebuild the city after the 1963 quake included introducing and enforcing the highest standards of construction. But much of that system has been dismantled during Macedonia's 25 years of independence as a sort of remnant of communism, and endemic corruption has enabled an “urbanistic mafia” (an illegal collusion between local government and crony developers) to build in areas deemed unsafe by seismologists or without adherence to safety standards.

This has left many residents with only a foggy idea of what to do in case of an emergency.

Before the recent tremors, Skopje citizens were already anxious too because of the inadequate response by authorities and mainstream media to the recent flooding of several suburbs in August, which claimed over 22 lives. It took more almost half a day for some TV stations, including the public broadcasting service, to even report on the flooding that was taking place a few kilometers from their offices.

During Sunday evening, in an attempt to soothe the people who still felt claustrophobic indoors, an impromptu activist group organized an open air cinema projection in the city park.

Several similar quakes also took place on Monday, with similar effect. A bigger tremor with a magnitude of 4.0 hit just before 8 pm, contributing to the psychological weariness resulting from uncertainty.

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