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US News Outlets Republish Russian Vaccine Disinformation, Hurting US Pandemic Response

Pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets deftly balance the right proportions of truth and lie. When the lie is buried in the truth, it lends credibility to the story. In the post-WWII era, the Kremlin planted real documents from the US with skilled forgeries. The fakes left other countries, uncertain if they were real. It had a real effect on our relationships internationally.

We lucked out back then. Today, luck is with the Kremlin. What once took years, can spread in a matter of weeks. The ease with which fraudulent documents can race across the internet has changed everything.

Where before disinformers had to trick an unwitting journalist for draft elaborate forgeries, now they need only locate people with a tendency toward conspiracy thinking using publicly available information, and the job is done for them. Lest anyone doubts the power of disinformation, consider that a mob of anti-vaccine and far-right extremists just blocked other people from getting the vaccine.

We should have seen that coming. Anti-vaccine activists began revolting in early January in Poland after being targeted by Russian disinformation. Social media served as the conduit. Page names reveal that the Kremlin is targeting religious communities, strategically advantageous since it has also encouraged those communities to fear the government and “mainstream media.”

Polish social media fan pages identified as publishing disinformation:

  • PCH24,
  • The gates of hell will not prevail against him,
  • Roman Catholic,
  • Christ in everything
  • or the Mother of God — Totus Tuus.

What hope do we have? That’s where I come in — your friendly, internet researcher, bringing you the latest creative writing from our frenemies.

Pfizer Fanfic Frenzy

The disinformation ecosystem is feverishly reporting on nearly every adverse reaction to the Pfizer vaccine. The reporting skews perception and makes the vaccine appear unsafe. When we see headlines over and over, we don’t think “Oh, that’s only 2.5 people per million doses.”

Instead, we think, “That sounds dangerous!” We feel fear and in a crisis, the uncertainty can seriously affect our ability to think critically.

We could easily fail to consider how many cases of any given condition we’d expect normally. Without the Covid vaccine, the US sees 3,000 to 6,000 cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, annually. Now, if one of those cases follows a Covid vaccine, people may assume they’re related. They might not be and that matters.

Source: EU Disinfo

At the same time as this anti-Western, anti-vaccine campaign, many Kremlin-owned media outlets have avoided any mention of adverse reactions to the Sputnik V vaccine. A major theme emerging from their stories is a mean-girls style battle between the West and Russia, where the West disparages the Sputnik V vaccine because it’s not part of the in-crowd or for shallow financial reasons. Outlets argue the West is against the Russian vaccine to make money or because of “Russophobia.”

No evidence supports this claim. While Russia declared Sputnik V as the first vaccine in the world, it was announced even before the start of phase 3 of the clinical trials, normally required for any new drug. Reservations about the Russian Sputnik V vaccine arose immediately. Scientists, globally, published letters of concern.

Every vaccine has to go the same rigorous standards of efficacy and safety. The criticism exists within Russia itself: the Russian association for trials urged Russia to postpone Sputnik V’s registration because so few people had tested it. No known Western outlets have compared the Russian vaccine to “a biological weapon” nor has anyone called the Russian scientists “almost terrorists.”

State-owned outlet RIA Novosti now has a “Pfizer, Inc.” tag so readers can easily find negative press concerning the vaccine.

SOURCE: EU Disinfo

These stories have already harmed both our public health and national security. It doesn’t take much for the stories to reach Americans.

On Jan 15th, Zero Hedge, a hyper-partisan media outlet, tweeted a story. A total of 9 original tweets led to 119 quotes, 148 replies, and 1,080 retweets.

Within the day, at least 6500 Twitter users retweeted the story to their followers. The story, republished by Zero Hedge, first appeared Jan 14th on the Russian website RIA Novosti, warning about deaths linked to the Pfizer vaccine.

The RIA Novosti story republished and tweeted Jan 15th, 2021. Big yellow dot = Zero Hedge

Ironic though it may be, disinformation spreads much like coronavirus. A minority of cases, or sources if its information, drive a majority of cases in the next generation.

American news outlets did more than recycle disinformation and become super-spreaders. These US-based outlets concealed the story’s origin, thereby laundering the information into our country to unsuspecting readers. For disinformation to succeed, distancing it from the author is essential.

Russian outlet RIA Novosti publishes the claim that 23 people died related to the Pfizer vaccine on 1/14/2021.

This example highlights how poor journalistic practices pose a much greater danger than getting the facts wrong. Shoddy work makes it easier for adversaries to get stories to the American public, where the stories sow doubt. Think of poor journalism like going to choir practice in a room with no windows and no masks.

You won’t just be spreading the Gospel. That’s for sure.

Outlets: Sputnik and RT bear a striking similarity in bias and reliability to right-leaning American Media. AP/Reuters for comparison. Publishing mostly reliable reporting is part of the disinformation model where RT and Sputnik do excellent reporting. This lends credibility to the 10–20% of propaganda generated.

The other side of this disinformation coin is building up Russia. One columnist suggested that the Pfizer vaccine is a fiasco: “Russia Saves Everybody Again.” The article continues:

[Western pundits] would rather die than admit that Russia has made another scientific break-through and now, without expecting anything in return, are helping everybody. The West prefers to declare a war of vaccines, despite the fact that their own citizens are dying in masses.

The Kremlin disinformation machine has been casting doubt on the safety of Western vaccines using the decades-worn “big pharma“ trope. This narrative goes all the way back to the 80s, and was a part of the famous influence operation “Operation Infektion,” which pushed stories about the US engineering HIV in Fort Detrick, MD.

a documentary that details information operations from the Soviet era

Any medication or therapeutic will have side effects, but we should not dismiss fears of vaccines. We must be realistic and know that any large-scale vaccination project with hundreds of thousands of people getting vaccinated at once, is bound to see reports of reactions. If you are feeling unwell, talk to your care provider — not people you don’t know on the internet. Mistrust of your healthcare provider is yet another consequence of disinformation.

The American medical community voiced concern that such focus on the negative consequences of vaccines paired with disinformation casting doubt on safety, would skew Americans’ perception. It appears those fears were justified. Anti-vaccine hucksters met in October 2020, before they could know whether the vaccines were safe, to strategize their messaging.

When we hear the same message over and over, we’re more likely to believe it, regardless of whether it’s true. This is called the illusory effect and it is a frequently used tactic of — you guessed it Russia.

A summary of the known vaccine disinformation campaigns can be found in the graphic below with information from the First Draft Report, “Under the surface: Covid-19 vaccine narratives, misinformation and data deficits on social media.

First Draft Report on Vaccine Disinformation
The pop-up on RT — nothing to see here. No meddling in American politics!

Public health biologist studying at Johns Hopkins | Science writer & artist | Views reflect me alone | Subscribe @ Novel-Science.com

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