Russian Disinformation Targets Vaccines and the Biden Administration
The cartoon posted to the far-right discussion board showed police officers wearing Biden-Harris campaign logos on bulletproof vests and ramming a door with a large syringe. One caption reads in part, “In Biden’s America.”
The cartoon appears to be an example of the latest Russian-aligned disinformation effort: a campaign that taps into skepticism and fears of the coronavirus vaccination to not only undermine people’s vaccination efforts, but also to try to falsely link it. Biden-Harris administration on the idea of forced inoculations. The image was one of many spotted by Graphika, a company that tracks disinformation campaigns.
Russia and China have made efforts to promote their own vaccines through messages that undermine U.S. and European immunization programs, according to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. But in addition to overt messages promoting their own vaccines, Moscow has also broadcast conspiracy theories. Last year, the department began warning about how Russia was using fringe websites to raise doubts about vaccinations.
It is difficult to quantify the amount of disinformation produced at any given time by the Russians or other warring powers, government officials and outside experts have said. But the rise of the Delta variant of Covid-19 – and shifting scientific advice on how to defend against a more infectious strain and the need for booster shots or masks – have created an atmosphere for misinformation to spread more. easily, experts said.
“Disinformation thrives in an information vacuum,” said Lisa Kaplan, chief executive of the Alethea Group, which helps businesses guard against disinformation. “This is when misinformation can really set in. And knowing how Russians generally play these situations, it wouldn’t surprise me if they tried to take advantage of them.
The aim of various Russian groups continues to be to exacerbate tensions in Western societies, a key objective of Moscow’s foreign policy, according to US officials briefed on disinformation efforts.
Russian and Chinese misinformation has attempted to amplify the potential side effects of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, suggesting that the mRNA technology they are based on is not tested or risky, officials from the Department said this week. State.
In recent weeks, the nature of Russian disinformation has also started to change, some officials and outside experts said. Recent publications spreading false information suggest that the Biden administration intends to force Americans to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The campaign also comes as President Biden warned Russian President Vladimir V. Putin last month to curb ransomware attacks emanating from Russia and targeting critical US infrastructure. While ransomware attacks are distinct from disinformation campaigns, the warning was the latest push by U.S. officials to get Russia to curb destructive digital incursions.
The Biden administration actively monitors Russian disinformation and tries to counter it by encouraging the public to get vaccinated and promoting the safety and efficacy of Western vaccines, according to an administration official who spoke out under cover of ‘anonymity to discuss potentially sensitive information.
While some social media posts from Russian state media accounts target a potentially large audience, some of the bolder disinformation posts target a much smaller, far-right audience.
Graphika followed disinformation that is likely spread by a group affiliated with people who worked with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which spread disinformation during the 2016 election. The group posted cartoons on Patriots.win, an electronic bulletin board featuring far-right politics.
A recent wave of anti-vaccination cartoons appear to have been disseminated by the same people involved in bogus media linked to veterans of the Internet Research Agency, said Jack Stubbs, director of investigations at Graphika.
As the group advances Moscow’s strategic narratives, it is unclear what specific ties, if any, it has with the Russian government.
In another cartoon that appears to be the work of the organization, a group of people legend suggests could be Democratic Texas lawmakers reaching out to Vice President Kamala Harris in a menacing manner.
“We’re just looking for a little democracy,” says one of the group members.
“* Cough *. Don’t worry! We took Pfizer pictures,” said another.
“To hell with your Pfizer pictures,” Ms. Harris’ cartoon character replies, “I don’t want to get sick.”
The title of the cartoon on the far-right discussion board suggested Democrats in Texas passed the virus on to Ms Harris after she was vaccinated. The Texans had traveled to Washington last month to try to block election legislation they said would deprive minority groups of their rights. While in the capital, the group met Ms Harris and several tested positive for the coronavirus, but there is no evidence the vice president fell ill.
Understanding the state of vaccination mandates in the United States
Grammatical errors in the cartoon, according to Graphika, are similar to those sometimes made by native Russian speakers writing in English. And the technique of targeting audiences with inflammatory messages about existing social tensions and divisions has long been a feature of groups linked to the Internet Research Agency.
“This is exactly what they seem to be doing around Covid again,” Mr Stubbs said. “Rather than promoting the Russian vaccine or denigrating a Western vaccine, they take the opportunity to criticize Biden, primarily, and say that the Biden administration has failed and has not handled the pandemic properly.”
Their use of far-right message boards, including Patriots.win, had previously been reported by Graphika and Reuters.
Much of the disinformation efforts are posted on websites with little to no moderation. Patriots.win, which bills itself as a forum of support for Donald J. Trump, started on Reddit ahead of its launch. From Patriots.win, some of the material attributed to foreign disinformation campaigns has migrated to larger sites with right-wing audiences like Gab and Parler.
Patriots.win moderators responded to a request for comment with an anti-gay slur and suggested, perhaps facetiously, that Chinese organizations publish material but pass it through Russia to deceive reporters.
It is difficult to measure the impact of disinformation efforts, given the deep divisions over vaccinations that already exist in the United States and Europe; exploiting divisions among Americans is a distinctly Russian tactic. Even on the right-wing discussion forums, some users identified the designs as being of Russian origin, although the posts continued.
But Russian messaging hasn’t just changed on far-right sites. Likewise, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonprofit focused on disinformation, has tracked a shift in what Russian state media has produced.
Previously, forums like RT, an English-speaking site backed by the Kremlin, focused on promoting the Russian vaccine and denigrating Western vaccines. But more recently, Russian state media have “really looked into the crop war debates over vaccine and mask mandates,” said Bret Schafer, disinformation expert at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Russia is using RT and other state-controlled media to amplify U.S. and international skeptics of vaccines and mask warrants, according to a U.S. official.
RT has published articles highlighting athletes who resist the pressure to get vaccinated. He also suggested that the Liberals were taking at face value Donald Trump Jr.’s facetious remark that vaccinations might be required to vote. And he’s published essays aimed at exacerbating divisions over mask requirements.
The efforts aren’t just targeting Americans, Shafer said. RT’s German YouTube stream focused on public resistance to vaccines. “They hit the same notes,” he said, “with most of their Western propaganda media.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reports.
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