Covid-19 disinformation campaigns shift focus to vaccines

In ASPI’s latest report on Covid-19 disinformation, Albert Zhang, Emilia Currey and I investigated how the narrative of an American vaccine trial killing soldiers in Ukraine (which did not actually happen) was laundered from the propaganda site of a pro-Russian militia into the international information ecosystem. What this case study highlights is the way in which the battle for control of the coronavirus narrative is shifting from the origins of the virus to the hopes for a vaccine.

On 17 July, a press release was posted in Russian and English on the website of the Lugansk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian militia and self-declared government in Eastern Ukraine. The statement described a vaccine trial by ‘Americal [sic] virologists’ in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Kharkiv which had led to the death of several volunteers, including Ukrainian soldiers.

From the beginning, this narrative had strong political undertones of both anti-Americanism and opposition to the legitimate Ukrainian government. The implication was that Americans did not value Ukrainian lives, and so wanted to test their dangerous vaccine on Ukrainians rather than on their own people—and that the puppet government in Kiev was letting them do it.

The completely fictional story was quickly picked up by Russian-language media and by a handful of fringe English-language conspiracy sites. Despite multiple fact-checks which found that no such incident ever occurred, the narrative swiftly established a foothold in the digital information ecosystem. Beginning with Russian-language outlet, the story was further embellished by attributing the deadly vaccine trial to US company Moderna and its mRNA-1273 vaccine candidate.

Intentionally or not, the effect of this move was to expand the appeal of the disinformation narrative to conspiracy and anti-vaxx communities. These communities’ generic opposition to vaccinations has coalesced in recent weeks into a specific fixation on mRNA vaccines, which they believe change a person’s DNA (they do not), among other things.

Our research has found that the disinformation narrative gained relatively little traction on English-language social media until 24 July, a week after it was originally published. On that day, Twitter and Facebook shares of English-language articles about the fictional vaccine trial suddenly and dramatically spiked.

This spike may be linked to an unusual viral Facebook post which began to spread that day, which is discussed in more detail in the report. It’s difficult to reconstruct exactly what occurred, however, as Facebook appears to have clamped down on the viral growth of this piece of disinformation, deleting much of the relevant data in the process.

The clampdown came too late. Despite the best efforts of fact-checkers, the disinformation narrative of a US vaccine killing Ukrainian soldiers spread in multiple languages in addition to Russian and English, including Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Czech and French.

As of early August, it had effectively reached the final stage of the information-laundering cycle: decontextualisation. This is the phase in which the disinformation is just out there in the information ecosystem and asserted as fact, completely independent of its original context. It has since been incorporated into a range of other mis- and disinformation narratives, from conspiracies about US bioweapons labs in Ukraine to fuelling resistance to the Moderna vaccine in Canada.

This case study is one example of a broader shift which is taking place in the fight for control over the narrative around Covid-19. Earlier in the crisis, when there was a much greater international focus on the nature and origin of the virus, disinformation efforts were centred around those questions. We saw, for example, the duelling conspiracy theories about whether the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab or was created in a US Army medical facility and released in China.

As the global conversation shifts to the hopes for a vaccine, naturally the targets of disinformation efforts shift too. While the medical efficacy of any vaccine is essential, there’s another ingredient which is crucial for the success of any mass vaccination effort: public trust.

Intelligence agencies around the world have warned of state-linked cyber operations targeting vaccines and vaccine manufacturers. Such efforts are aimed at stealing intellectual property to give a nation’s vaccine candidates a leg-up in the race for the first safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine.

It should be assumed that some state and non-state actors are prepared to consider other tactics to give their own vaccine candidates the edge, including grey-zone disinformation campaigns. It’s perhaps worth noting that the US–Ukraine vaccine disinformation was launched the day after Russia announced plans to mass-produce its own vaccine in a matter of weeks.

While it might have been hoped that the global search for a vaccine would be above this kind of geopolitical jostling, clearly that’s not the case. Policymakers, media outlets, social media platforms and vaccine manufacturers should be aware that politically motivated disinformation is only likely to increase as the race for a Covid-19 vaccine intensifies.