On March 7, The Wall Street Journal reported Russian intelligence is directing efforts to undermine public faith in the Pfizer and BioNTech coronavirus vaccine and stir up fears about potential side effects.
An official with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), which monitors foreign disinformation efforts, told the newspaper that Russian intelligence was behind four internet platforms involved in the campaign.
They are New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review, run by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); Crimea-based News Front, run by the Federal Security Service (FSB); and Rebel Inside, controlled by Russian military intelligence (GRU).
The official added that the outlets’ disinformation was amplified via Russian state media and Russian government Twitter accounts.
On March 8, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. government was aware of the disinformation campaign: “We are monitoring it, and we are taking steps to address [it].”
Meantime, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Journal the disinformation allegations are “nonsense” and complained about criticism of Russia’s vaccine, Sputnik V.
“Russian special services have nothing to do with any criticism against vaccines,” Peskov told the paper. “If we treat every negative publication against the Sputnik V vaccine as a result of efforts by American special services, then we will go crazy because we see it every day, every hour and in every Anglo-Saxon media.”
Peskov extended the denials beyond Russian special services.
"Russia has never participated in such information campaigns against other vaccines and has no intention to do so,” Russia’s TASS news agency quoted him as saying. "All these allegations [about disinformation] are absurd and devoid of any substance.”
The claim that Russia has never participated in information campaigns against other vaccines is false.
Russian state efforts to cast doubt on other vaccines is well-documented, including the activities of the alleged Russian intelligence proxy websites.
Prior to The Wall Street Journal report, the outlets mentioned by the GEC had been linked to suspicious activity.
For example, in April 2020, Facebook removed News Front, and related Crimea-based South Front, for violating its “policy against foreign interference, which is coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry harshly condemned similar actions by YouTube and Twitter against News Front.
The GEC noted in August 2020 that Russia’s Defense Ministry reportedly awarded News Front head Konstantin Knyrik for taking part in the 2014 seizure of Crimea, which News Front notes on Knyrik’s profile.
Time Magazine reported in 2017 that News Front reporters had “somehow been granted extraordinary access to the Russian armed forces,” often embedding “with Russian troops and paramilitaries fighting in Syria and eastern Ukraine.”
Knyrik has denied government influence and funding, but Russia is an established spreader of COVID-19 disinformation.
East Stratcom Task Force, an EU body, has documented Moscow’s extensive coronavirus propaganda efforts.
As of March 10, the task force’s EUvsDisinfo website had tallied 784 instances of the Russian state directly or indirectly propagating COVID-19-related disinformation.
The outlet called it “a mere snapshot of disinformation narratives.”
Some narratives spread by the Russian state and its proxies, and repeated dozens of times across languages and platforms, are pure conspiracy tales.
They include false claims that a new Chinese coronavirus was likely created in NATO biolabs; that coronavirus is man-made and tailored to Chinese DNA; that Bill Gates and/or George Soros are behind the coronavirus; and that the coronavirus is part of a U.S. war against Russia and China.
Other times, Russian media amplify or distort real events to undermine faith in Western vaccines.
For example, on February 12, the state-owned Russian Gazette published an article claiming 64 people had died from side effects of the Pfizer vaccine.
That was based on an article published in Sweden’s Aftonbladet daily. However, Aftonbladet‘s report, which cited Sweden’s medical watchdog, found that none of the deaths was connected to being vaccinated.
According to a January blog post by Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), multiple reports both on Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency and Yandex News aggregator “focused disproportionately” on negative coverage of Western vaccines while boosting Sputnik V.
DFRLab said that extensive negative coverage of vaccines does not necessarily qualify as disinformation, but “risks distorting public perceptions of their safety and undermining public health outcomes.”
The Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is affiliated with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a public policy think tank, conducted an extensive study of tweets from Russian, Chinese, and Iranian officials and state media outlets.
The study noted: “Of the 50 most-retweeted tweets mentioning Pfizer posted by Russian state media outlets, 43 (86%) mentioned either an adverse reaction to the vaccine (including deaths) or negative information about the company itself.”
At other times, the messaging has been far more crude.
The British newspaper The Times reported last October that Russia-generated pictures, memes, and video clips were being circulated internationally to spread the message that the vaccine produced by the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca could turn people into monkeys.
“The campaign is being targeted at countries where Russia wants to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine, as well as western nations,” the Times wrote.
Such disinformation narratives were promoted in Russia on prime-time television.
In September 2020, Dmitry Kiselyov, head the Russian state-owned media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya, which oversees RIA Novosti, called the AstraZeneca vaccine a “monkey vaccine” on the current affairs show he hosts on Russian state television.
Russia may be a victim of its own disinformation efforts. A poll recently conducted by Russia’s independent Levada Center found that 62% of respondents did not want to get the Sputnik vaccine. A similar percentage, 64%, said they believed the prominent Russian disinformation narrative that the coronavirus was created as a biological weapon.
Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has ordered the country’s media regulator to take down videos claiming COVID-19 “is a genetically modified bioweapon artificially created to implant microchips into the population and establish a global world order.”
Ironically, Russian state broadcaster Sputnik has spread that very narrative.