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This article looks at the evolving information environment around the COVID-19 and vaccines roll-out in the Eastern Partnership countries and Russia during the month of February and into the first week of March 2021.

Every major public health crisis brings out rumours, conspiracies and intentionally spread disinformation on the origins of virus, the losers and the ultimate winners of the ensuing communications crisis. As the new normal sets-in and governments, media and health professionals catch-up with the public conversation, new narratives emerge. Something similar happened around COVID-19 crisis. Nearly one year ago, EUvsDisinfo reported how pro-Kremlin sources widely spread conspiracy narratives and disinformation directed at the audiences in the EU and the wider neighbourhood. Today, with COVID-19 virus surrendering its top attention spot to COVID-19 vaccines, we are here to inspect narratives and flag manipulations. The fight against the virus has equally become a fight to promote in particular the Sputnik V vaccine.

The prevailing narratives on vaccines roll-out identified in pro-Kremlin media messaging refer to Sputnik V vaccine as a great public good, efficient and safe to use and much in demand around the world. Russia is portrayed as helping other countries much more than other states and actors, claiming to be a frontrunner in ‘vaccine diplomacy’ [1].

 

Sputnik V home and abroad (home – how much?)

In Russia, the government is presented as being ahead of other countries in implementing its nationwide vaccination programme – despite no systematic statistics being made public by the authorities. However, statistics from Johns Hopkins University from early March found that less than 1 % of Russia’s population had received vaccination while the EU average then was 2.48 %. This lack of Russian official information is itself remarkable; – why withhold information if Sputnik V is such a success?

As Sputnik V is hailed, the pro-Kremlin media amplify the negative stories linked to roll-out of vaccines in the EU, creating the distorted and twisted image of the EU being incapable of managing COVID-19, with vaccination programmes ‘disrupted or at standstill’. The EU member states’ disagreements, threats to restrict vaccine exports to countries outside the EU and criticism of the European Commission President are all highlighted. Disputes between the EU and AstraZeneca, as well as between the EU and the UK and anti-lockdown protests in cities across the continent feature prominently.

Targeting the West: Pro-Kremlin media is amplifying disinformation narratives about COVID-19 and vaccines

“Blame the EU!” (a classic)

The EU institutions are blamed for their alleged opposition to the Russian vaccine, or even fear of its success, and hesitancy in providing Sputnik V marketing authorisation across the EU. Pro-Kremlin media, across different languages and platforms, allege the change in attitude of the EU towards Sputnik V, from scepticism to one of praise. Narratives emphasise a feeling of Sputnik V victory over ‘the sceptical West’ while at the same trying to manipulate audiences into believing that the EU only acted with delay and when public pressure mounted and was weak. Or EU is presented as in a dilemma; how to buy from Russia while sanctions are in place?’ The news of European Medicines Agency (EMA) starting a rolling review on Sputnik V in early March was echoed across all Russian and pro-Kremlin affiliated media outlets with a victorious tone.

Amplification of negative content or outright disinformation about Western-produced COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, remain prominent, with pro-Kremlin media outlets magnifying alleged side effects and alleging that people are dying in substantial numbers after being vaccinated. Months-old horror stories of casualties ostensibly caused by vaccination are presented in reports to illustrate allegedly flawed and dangerous vaccines. Pfizer is condemned for skipping key stages in their trials (even if it was widely reported Sputnik V in fact did precisely that), conduct deadly testing and launch vaccines not proof and ready, Pfizer and Moderna for lacking in transparency while in contrast, the benefits of the Russian vaccine stem from the state’s ownership of the company/vaccine. According to recent opinion polls, vaccines hesitancy in Russia has increased from a stable 50% to over 62% of Russians, who are not ready to take vaccines by the beginning of March.

Vaccine hesitancy measured in Russia. Source: Levada-Center, 01 March 2021

Less conspiracy now – but a lot of hesitancy

Conspiracy theories promoting vaccines hesitancy have largely faded in the Russian state-financed and controlled outlets since the emergence of Sputnik V as a viable vaccine candidate. Nevertheless, some of the public pages of the social media platform VKontakte are still spreading COVID-19 conspiracies disinformation on Western vaccines producers. Examples include stories formulated like: ‘Bill Gates inventing the coronavirus‘ and ‘The vaccine being used to control the population it is an excuse for Big Pharma to make money, and they cause sickness and infertility’; ‘Influential global players are behind the ban on fakes about coronavirus‘.

In the Eastern Partnership countries (EaP), Russian state financed and/or controlled media outlets operating in local languages offer very similar narratives to those seen in Russian domestic media. The RT (formerly ‘Russia Today’ TV) with the fellow news agency ‘Sputnik’ and its different language versions are active as this overview of our database on EUvsDisinfo illustrates [2].

There is a substantial vaccine-scepticism / hesitancy across most EaP countries, ranging from 30% to over 50% of total population according to different national studies carried out over the last couple of months. People fear vaccines’ side effects and often lack publicly available advice from trusted health professionals. EaP governments’ communication on the vaccines roll-out remains diverse: some countries are better than others in communicating and engaging with public by providing health advice and countering conspiracies. A challenge common to all is a relative public lack of trust in state institutions, which may translate into doubts about vaccines efficiency. Small-scale or pending public information campaigns leave space for vaccines scepticism and rumours. Pre-bunking and debunking false and harmful narratives remain important.

Vaccine hesitancy measured in Russia. Source: Levada-Center, 01 March 2021

Across the Eastern Partnership countries

In Armenia, it was decided to purchase AstraZeneca via the COVAX Facility and also buy Sputnik V. Russia donated Sputnik vaccines for the first 1020 persons. The Armenian information environment and public discourse continue to be dominated by the consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and internal political situation, COVID-19 vaccination plays a less prominent role. Misinformation about vaccines has a small presence in the general media. Over the past months, the disinformation cases regarding vaccines were observed, mirroring the Russian narratives via several outlets such as livenews.am and the Russian State news agency Sputnik’s Armenian version. Disinformation narratives varies from spreading fear for vaccines, for example: ’People can risk their lives by getting vaccinated, but not get guaranteed protection and they can be contagious’; ‘The first stage of the artificially created new coronavirus (SARS-COV 2) is a murder of the population‘.

In Azerbaijan, the authorities exercise tight control on media. Disinformation on vaccines is less prominent, but vaccine hesitancy continues to be an issue with almost 50% of respondents in recent surveys not supporting the vaccination or being hesitant (apa.tv; in the Red Microphone channel and Radio Liberty). People hesitate to be vaccinated mainly because of a lack of information or fear of side effects. The Sputnik Azerbaijani (Sputnik.az), mirror the official Russian narratives as described above incl. disinformation and alleged risks linked to Western-produced vaccines. This compounds the challenges for the government’s information effort – once it gets underway. Harmful narratives about Western vaccines gained further momentum after COVAX informed Azerbaijani authorities about delays in vaccine deliveries, with President Ilham Aliyev himself accusing developed nations of unequal and unfair distribution of vaccines – accusations that were widely covered in Azerbaijani media.

In Belarus, the authorities have downplayed the risks of COVID-19, most likely underdiagnosing and under-reporting the incidence and death tolls. The authorities have not published general mortality data since June 2020 (which raises questions why). The real COVID-19 death toll, as assessed by independent experts and observers, may be 10 to 15 times the official numbers. On 9 March 2021, Kastryčnicki Economic Forum was able to calculate based on official average per capita income statistics and consumption that in 2020 the average annual population in Belarus decreased by 47,800 persons, comparing to the decreases of 14,700 in 2018 and 17,800 in 2019. Depending on the small contribution from emigration and other factors, this suggest about 30,000 “excessive” deaths in 2020.

Vaccination on any considerable scale is yet to be launched in the country of 9.4 million. No surveys or polling data are publicly available on the overall readiness to undergo vaccination. So far, only two dozen thousand doses of Russia’s Sputnik and an unknown number of China’s Vero Cell are reported to have been administered. Anecdotal evidence suggests that trust in the available vaccines is low even among medics and that Belarusians are sceptical about the authorities’ announcements regarding their plans for mass vaccination.

In Georgia, vaccine mis-/disinformation has a significant impact and is spread most prominently via social media networks, especially on Facebook where anti-vax groups generate large volume of disinformation posts. Several ultra-right and Kremlin-affiliated media outlets also spread vaccine disinformation and conspiracies regularly. The Russian State news agency Sputnik continues to use its channels in Georgia to mirror pro-Kremlin messages [2]. Other pro-Kremlin media, especially NewsFront Georgia, Geworld.ge, Saqinform.ge and Tvalsazrisi.ge, Alt-Info.com contribute to false claims regarding Western-developed vaccines, particularly targeting Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (and more recently AstraZeneca). Government communication focussed on press conferences by the Health Minister and not so much attention has addressed false claims or disinformation to COVID-19, though a public information campaign on vaccines roll-out began recently. The information video on the new vaccination strategy warns the people about vaccine disinformation and urges them to seek factual information from trusted sources.

In Moldova, disinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines are promoted by marginal websites, often with strong anti-vaxxer stances or religious content. The pro-Kremlin media, including Sputnik.md in Romanian, Mejdurecie.md praise the Russian vaccine and Western vaccines and their producers are criticised. The focus of pro-Kremlin media rests on the EU’s mismanagement of its vaccination programme, contrasting this to Russia’s success. The EU is presented as failing to manage vaccination and gradually accepting Russia’s achievements and vaccine. Headlines include phrased like: ‘COVID-19 being created in laboratories’ ; ‘Old people fell like flies: hundreds of deaths from vaccines in EU and US’. Sputnik: ‘AstraZeneca vaccine, also used in Romania, has an effectiveness of only 10 %’. Further stories include: ‘Israel establishes Nazi-medical regime’; ‘28-year-old nurse from Wisconsin died of a brain aneurysm five days after a second dose of Pfizer (Flux.md).

Ukraine continues to be the prime target of heavy criticism from both the Russian state-controlled media and the local pro-Kremlin media for choosing not to authorise use of Sputnik V. According to the pro-Kremlin narrative promoted by NTV: ‘by orders from the US embassy, which forbid Ukraine to use the Russian vaccine’ thus jeopardising Ukrainians’ lives or by RT: ‘Ukraine rejects Russian vaccine for political reasons. Disinformation campaigns to ridicule and denigrate the Ukrainian leadership continue, also using vaccines rollout to criticise President Zelenskyy. Russian and pro-Kremlin media use Facebook and Telegram channels to amplify its messaging.

Source: The Presidential Office of Ukraine

A strong public information and communications campaign on vaccines is in progress also to address disinformation. Government encourages nationwide vaccination with public support from top leadership of the country. However, a cautious public attitude towards vaccination stems from general dissatisfaction in the handling of the COVID-19 crisis and overall disappointment with the authorities, according to UNIAN.

 

Post Scriptum: After this article was prepared for publishing, reports and questions regarding side effects for the AstraZeneca vaccine developed and spread quickly. The discussions among health professional and political leaders in the EU Member States, as well as the EMA’s information of 18 March, was also picked up by Russian State controlled and/or financed outlets which used the opportunity to amplify existing deceptive narratives: to highlight insecurity around AstraZeneca, the alleged failure of EU’s COVID-19 handling, the success of Sputnik V. All of this in turn is affecting the public debate on vaccination (examples from recent Russian main state TV here or here).

Finally, as the ‘vaccine diplomacy race’ continues, it is remarkable that President Putin’s personal vaccination, reported this week, was not made into a public display. Usually Putin is not shy on promoting himself horseback riding, diving, flying, fishing etc. When Ukrainian President Zelenskyy was vaccinated three weeks ago in front of cameras at a military hospital near Luhansk, pro-Kremlin outlets were quick casting doubt: – wasn’t it just a shot of vitamins? And now, while the Russian authorities have launched a determined public information campaign using all platforms with famous faces to encourage vaccination amid the serious domestic vaccine hesitancy. Who would have been a better role model than the Head of State?

 

[1] For comparison: on 7 March, 46 countries had approved Sputnik V under one or another form. AstraZeneca’s was approved in 49, and Pfizer/BioNTech’s in 43 countries.

[2] Examples from different EaP countries:

Armenia: Russia is successful while Europe has failed to cope with the pandemic (Sputnik Armenia).

Moldova: ‘AstraZeneca vaccine has an effectiveness of only 10 %’ (Sputnik Moldova).

Georgia: ‘Pfizer tested an antibiotic on minors in Nigeria leaving about 200 people dead’ and ‘Pfizer has practically no experience in developing vaccines, but is associated with some large scandals’ (both from Sputnik Abkhazia);

Azerbaijan: ‘Because of shortage of the vaccines in Europe, the countries are on the edge of the vaccine war’ (Sputnik Azerbaijan).

 

This text was updated on April 1, 2021.