In possibly the least surprising news of 2021 so far, the Kremlin has been actively spreading disinformation about two of the vaccines being distributed in the U.S. in a bid to sow division and undermine confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
That’s according to the State Department, which said Sunday that it’s been tracking Kremlin-backed websites pushing false narratives around the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, in particular, baselessly claiming they are unsafe and cause serious side effects.
Russia’s efforts to spread anti-vaxxer disinformation in the U.S. are being aided by the actions of former President Donald Trump, who has refused to endorse the vaccine to his tens of millions of supporters who are among those least likely to get the shot.
The current disinformation campaign is no surprise. It echoes a similar Kremlin-orchestrated anti-vaxx disinformation campaign that coincided with Trump’s first presidential campaign and his entry to the White House. That campaign, too, was designed to sow distrust and division in American society.
A quick look at one of the currently active sites, News Front, which is run by the Russian secret service from Crimea, shows that once again Moscow is seeking to stoke fears by regurgitating old claims about the efficacy of vaccines’ and baseless suggestions that vaccines cause dangerous side effects.
The site is filled with stories like the widely debunked claims that the Pfizer vaccine caused Bell’s palsy in recipients, the false claim that it isn’t effective in older people, and that people continue to contract COVID-19 after getting the vaccine shot.
“We can say these outlets are directly linked to Russian intelligence services,” an official from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center told the Wall Street Journal. “They’re all foreign-owned, based outside of the United States. They vary a lot in their reach, their tone, their audience, but they’re all part of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem.”
For decades, Russia has been boosting baseless health-related misinformation, like the completely unfounded claim that the CIA purposely created HIV to cause the AIDS epidemic.
In recent years, Moscow had an ally in the White House for vaccine disinformation in the form of Trump.
Trump has been a vaccine skeptic for more than a decade, going back to a press conference he held in Mar-a-Lago in 2007.
“When I was growing up, autism wasn’t really a factor and now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic. Everybody has their theory,” he said. “My theory and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’re giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.”
Trump continued to embrace the anti-vaxxer movement as he entered the White House. He even invited the father of the modern anti-vaxxer movement, disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield, to his inauguration ball.
Just as Trump was launching his campaign to become president, Russia saw another opportunity for sowing division among Americans.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), also known as the “troll factory,” helped push vaccine conspiracy theories and disinformation around the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, according to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
That study found that accounts linked to the IRA were a lot more likely to tweet about vaccination than the average user, and the messages they posted were designed to create conflict, just like those spread about the election campaign.
Despite his anti-vaxxer tendencies, Trump did get his COVID-19 vaccine shot while he was still president in January. But he did it in secret rather than on camera like many world leaders, missing a perfect opportunity to send a message to his followers about the safety of the vaccine.
Last week President Joe Biden’s administration announced that it would have enough vaccines for all Americans by the end of May, two months sooner than the previous timeline.
Now, the government has to shift focus from simply rolling out the vaccines to convincing enough people to take the jab. A recent poll suggests vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. is dropping. But for Republicans in particular, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
A recent poll from Civiqs found that Republicans stand out as the only demographic group in America who say they more likely than not to refuse the vaccine.
Whereas 63 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Independents who haven’t already received the job plan to get vaccinated, only 27 percent of Republicans say they plan to do so.
Trying to convince the 73 percent of Republicans unwilling to be vaccinated to take the COVID-19 shot is going to be a tough ask, given that the people who will be charged with getting the message out there — the media — were routinely demonized by the Trump administration for the last four years.
It means that the very people who need to hear the message that the vaccine is safe are the people who are least likely to be receptive to it.
The only person these Republicans are likely to listen to is Trump, and given that he hasn’t even admitted to getting the vaccine, it is likely the former president will continue to stay silent on the matter — leaving a void that the Kremlin will be more than happy to fill.