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When two COVID-19 vaccines were announced within a week of each other, everyone cheered that the end to the global pandemic was now in sight.
Everyone, that is, except Russia.
Since the summer, Moscow has conducted a global disinformation campaign aimed at both undermining vaccines produced in the West and promoting its own rival product, particularly to countries across the developing world, according to interviews with four national and European Union disinformation experts and a review of Kremlin-backed media outlets by POLITICO.
The tactics — including articles attacking senior executives at Pfizer, the U.S. pharmaceutical giant behind one of the vaccines — have become more intense since two treatments were announced earlier this month, and represent the latest chapter in a widespread disinformation operation that has portrayed the West’s response to the coronavirus crisis as behind that of Russia.
“The goal has been to denigrate vaccines from the West,” said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, a think tank in Washington. “It’s a strategic attempt to sow doubt for Moscow’s own geopolitical interests.”
In state-backed media articles in multiple languages, the Kremlin has pushed claims that Western vaccines are experimental, unsafe and will likely fail. That message has specifically targeted countries within Central and Eastern Europe, a region that remains ground zero for an ongoing digital disinformation battle between Western powers and Russia, according to two national disinformation officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
“Western vaccine manufacturers rely on experimental, little studied and not proven in the long-term technologies, encountering obstacles in their clinical trials,” said Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is financing the Kremlin’s vaccine, known as Sputnik V, in multiple state-backed outlets from Lithuania to Moldova.
The strategy has fallen into two camps, based on POLITICO’s review of Kremlin-backed media, as well as discussions with national and EU disinformation officials.
In Europe and the United States, Moscow has highlighted the potentially harmful side-effects of vaccines created in the West — sometimes drawing rebukes from senior military and government leaders for this portrayal.
That includes one article, citing a survey in the Mirror, a British newspaper, that said one of these treatments left patients with headaches and fever. Another reported Western pharmaceutical executives selling shares on the back of the vaccine announcements to profit from the pandemic. (Western outlets also covered that story, Pfizer said the shares were sold because they hit a predetermined price as part of a plan approved by the company’s chief executive in August.) Moscow has also pushed conspiracy theories that companies waited until after the U.S. election to make their findings public to undermine Donald Trump in the eyes of American voters.
Many of these articles have been shared widely among anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, based on POLITICO’s review of data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics firm owned by Facebook, while others have garnered significant interactions through resharing and likes on Twitter.
In other parts of the world, particularly in Eastern European countries with historic ties to Russia, Latin America, India and the Middle East, Kremlin-backed media outlets have been more aggressive in promoting conspiracy theories, according to two other national disinformation officials. In Ukraine, articles accusing “American vaccine tests” of harming locals were shared across social media, while in Georgia, Moscow pushed claims that the West was seeking to undermine global trust in COVID-19 vaccines.
“If people think that the U.S. vaccines don’t work, this is what Russia wants to achieve on a strategic basis,” said Jakub Kalenský, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks misinformation. “The goal is to make people doubt and distrust legitimate sources of information.”
The Kremlin’s tactics, in part, are also commercial.
Only days after Pfizer and BioNTech announced the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, Russia followed suit with its own competitor, funded by the country’s sovereign wealth fund. While independent scientists welcomed the news, several called for caution because of the small sample size from which Moscow based its analysis, as well as a lack of data made available to outside scientists to check the results.
“These interim results appear to be encouraging,” Gillies O’Bryan-Tear, chair of policy and communications at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, a British trade group, said in a statement. “Only 20 cases of COVID illness were the subject of this interim analysis, in contrast to the 94 cases which were reported by Pfizer.”
That did not stop state-backed media and the country’s sovereign wealth fund from promoting the Russian vaccine in more than 30 languages. The government also suggested, based on a YouGov poll from across emerging economies, that people were more likely to take Russia’s vaccine compared to other available drugs. On Saturday, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, told G20 leaders that his country was prepared to offer its vaccine to other countries in need.
On RT Arabic, a Kremlin-backed outlet, reports circulated about how many countries had already signed up for the vaccine. On its English-language counterpart, praise from Xi Jinping, China’s premier, for Russia’s vaccine garnered extensive coverage. On Russia’s Spanish outlets — some of the most-read media organizations in Latin America, based on data from CrowdTangle — coverage highlighted how many of the region’s governments were leaning toward the Russian vaccine.
“It makes perfect sense to push the commercial aspect,” said Kalenský from the Atlantic Council. “But that’s not the primary motive. Spreading confusion is more important for the Russian government.”
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