Fight Against Vaccine, Climate Disinformation Linked: Expert (Episode 18)

Daiva and Eva speak to Nika Aleksejeva, who is a data journalism trainer and lead researcher for the Baltics at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Eva & Daiva @ The Inoculation

Opportunistic politicians and businesspeople latched onto the pandemic in their quest for fame. In Latvia, where COVID-19 death counts went through the roof in October, this had dire consequences. In this episode, Daiva and Eva speak to Nika Aleksejeva, who is a data journalism trainer and lead researcher for the Baltics at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. She says, “COVID-19 disinformation is a very good lesson for us to be less naive about our capabilities.”

You can read more about Latvia’s emergency situation here, and about the disinformation dozen here. This is the story of Latvian lab disinformation. You can also read our Re:Baltica article about the superspreaders of vaccine disinformation in the Baltics here. You can read about the Baltic elves here, here, and here.

Our reporting is supported by IJ4EU. Please subscribe to our newsletter, and this show on Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify or another platform of your choice. Follow us on Facebook as @theinoculation, on Twitter as @TInoculation, and on Instagram as @the_inoculation


Nika Aleksejeva  0:02
First it was 5g. Then when COVID came it was different falsehoods, including that COVID doesn't exist. There were also stories suggesting that 5g is causing what we call COVID and things like that. So we see that local disinformation actors really adapted what was trending overseas.

Daiva Repeckaite  0:31
We've just heard from internet researcher Nica Alexei, she lives in Latvia, which topped the European Union's COVID-19 mortality charts in October, the situation was so bad that the government declared a state of emergency.

Eva Schaper  0:46
So diver what does that mean, if we compare, for example, Latvia's mortality to the United States or to the United Kingdom? How high is it? Well, what I found was in this could be even more extreme. For October, we have per 1 million people, 2200 deaths, compared to the United States with 2300 and the UK with 2100. This is really on the top of the charts, Brazil is a lot higher. But for example, compared with the Netherlands who have a quite difficult situation, it's double the rate of death of the Netherlands, double the rate in Germany. So yeah, it's very high.

Daiva Repeckaite  1:26
And only three in five of like the US residents are fully vaccinated. You know why that is? So Latvia has been a target of disinformation earlier in the pandemic, in news channel, writing a story that claim that Coronavirus has even been engineered in the Latvian lab, but Latvia has also developed a domestic disinformation scene and experts one that a part of the population readily believes disinformation about Western vaccines available in Latvia.

Eva Schaper  1:55
Yeah, and I think one thing that we always have to think of is that we don't really know what the connection is between disinformation that's available and hesitancy to vaccinate. So it's always seems like the link is clear. But I think we need to be careful and say, we can't establish that there's really no research to show it yet.

Daiva Repeckaite  2:16
Exactly. And that's why we talk to internet researchers who will look into how many people this disinformation reaches,

Eva Schaper  2:23
right. And a lot of what we've seen is that a lot of Eastern Europe seems to be reluctant to vaccinate, for example, if we look at Bulgaria, very, very, very low. Right,

Daiva Repeckaite  2:32
exactly. And there are some opportunistic actors who want to keep it that way.

Eva Schaper  2:39
Welcome to the inactivation join me, Eva Schaper and my co host Stiva. As we look at how the vaccine disinformation movement around the world is shaping our society.

Daiva Repeckaite  2:52
In the remaining episodes of this year, we look at how anti vaccination movements filtered into politics in different European countries. But stay with us, even if you don't care about Latvia, which we are discussing today. Because what happened there holds lessons for countries all over the world.

Eva Schaper  3:07
Yes, that's true. And what particularly struck me as we're talking to Nika, was that she had already started following anti vaccination movements as early as 2018. So these were people who obviously did not know yet about the Coronavirus. But they were anti measles vaccination, anti childhood vaccination.

Daiva Repeckaite  3:30
Exactly. And we didn't follow that year at the time because it still had very high measles vaccination rate

Eva Schaper  3:36
but divert. So let's just take a look at where Latvia is because you're from Lithuania, which I think maybe a lot of people might confuse. So can you give us an idea of the location of the Baltic states, which one is where and how they might be a bit different? Yeah, so

Daiva Repeckaite  3:56
the Baltic states are arranged in the alphabetic order north to south so Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, they're across the Baltic Sea from Sweden. They're north of Poland. And they border Russia and Belarus in the

Eva Schaper  4:11
Exactly. And for a long time. They were SSR. So Soviet republics, isn't that right,

Daiva Repeckaite  4:17
exactly. But although they're considered to be one single unit, they're actually quite different in terms of history and culture.

Eva Schaper  4:25
And I think that for example, Latvia and Lithuania, even though they're very small, I think it's about how many inhabitants are in in Latvia.

Daiva Repeckaite  4:33
2 million and close to 3 million in Lithuania. Well, 3 million

Eva Schaper  4:36
people is about the size of Berlin in Germany. Exactly. So very small countries. And Lithuania is quite distinct from Latvia, isn't it? In some

Daiva Repeckaite  4:45
ways, I think they're very similar. But for example, Lithuania is predominantly Catholic. And you can see this in architecture. Latvia is kind of split between Lutheran Catholic and Orthodox communities.

Eva Schaper  4:57
Okay, that's interesting. And also I think one important point is that they're quite different from Russia and from the neighboring states such as Poland, they're, I think they even have a different history in their language. The Lithuanian and Latvian are languages that aren't really related to any other languages.

Daiva Repeckaite  5:16
So they are related to each other. And whereas the Estonian is is completely different and only similar to Finnish, and to some extent Hungarian, okay,

Eva Schaper  5:25
but they're not related, for example, to Russian or to polish or not related to any of the Slavic language, that's

Daiva Repeckaite  5:30
a very distant connection. It can be difficult for Lithuanian Latvian speakers to learn Slavic languages.

Eva Schaper  5:37
Okay, so So back to the anti vaccination movement. Were you even interested in Latvia, when you started looking at anti Vax movement? No,

Daiva Repeckaite  5:46
because when I looked at the WHO data, Latvia actually look like it was doing so much better than Lithuania, and they didn't have a similar measles prices as we had two years ago.

Eva Schaper  5:58
Okay, that's really interesting. But the anti vaccination sentiment is really strong there now, isn't it? That's right.

Daiva Repeckaite  6:04
And Nika told us that anti vaccination actors started mobilizing at about similar time. And it's important to note that they linked to other conspiracies that were circulating at the time.

Eva Schaper  6:15
And so let's just listen into that antivax

Nika Aleksejeva  6:17
activities started to take place probably earlier, but we can pinpoint it in December of 2018, when the biggest and most influential Facebook page slash NGO that promoted anti Vax ideas was established, because of course, we had groups of people pages, other assets online that were spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories. We monitor them closely, but then they pivoted to also anti Vax sentiment, but it's very intertwined with other narratives. For instance, if you take a look at Kiana you can see how it's grew from one conspiracy theory branch called pizza gate that was created before a US presidential elections. And then it really kind of morphed and also got merged with other conspiracy theory ideas, including the New World Order and things like that. The same happened with activities of local disinformation actors. They really tapped into these international topics. First, it was 5g. Then, when COVID came, it was different falsehoods, including that COVID doesn't exist. There were also stories suggesting that 5g is causing what we call COVID. And things like that. So we see that local disinformation actors really adapted what was trending overseas. And here I mostly talk about the English language space, where these conspiracies and falsehoods were circulating, and Russian information space to a lesser extent, because well, of course, in Latvia, many speak Russian and that content can be easily adapted as well. And probably the first story about vaccines was that Bill Gates allegedly suggested that RNA vaccines will change human DNA, which he never said Nevertheless, this claim was attributed to him. And it happened briefly after pandemic broke, like in May, will briefly relatively briefly to now I mean, like in May 2020, but then it was mostly silent and wasn't kind of in the agenda of this information outlets. But then when we realize that vaccines are here, almost here and then and that's in late December, early January, they will already be available for more general public than they also saw that this information actors are also obviously reporting about it. So they are also following the news cycle. They are tapping into what may concern their readership, and their readership is usually people who are prone to simplistic explanation of complicated things because when pandemics come, it's invisible enemy. Also economical situation changes due to various restrictions. You can't go maybe to party to bars, you can't travel that freely. So it all confuses people, and they are dissatisfied. So they seek explanation for their personal situation, also general situation. And these conspiracy theories and also for simplified falsehoods and manipulative messages about true news could provide that satisfaction of oh, now I know what's happening. Now I know who to blame. And that really sucks people in because that feeling that oh, now I know it's very satisfying. And this is part of how human being is built. Uncertainty is dangerous. Uncertainty provides us feeling of safety.

Daiva Repeckaite  10:16
But do we know what was the motivation for all these people and businesses and politicians just start spreading these falsehoods,

Eva Schaper  10:25
the way I understood Nika was not always the belief that vaccines don't work. Some people were clearly just motivated by greed or other interests. So let's listen to what she had to say.

Nika Aleksejeva  10:37
So there are a disinformation actors who are seeking some political influence. But the politicians who are running for elections and are really having political parties and our leaders of them are more like piggybacking on already made this information claims, or rather, the essence of those, so they don't really repeat the same falsehoods that could be fact checked. But they mostly repeat underlying ideas as Yeah, like censorship or freedom of whatever assembly and other things that are limited to to common situation, then there are this information actors who have historically expressed interest in going into politics, but more on political fringes. So I see them still more as activists, they have their political perspective, also, in some cases, ideology, that they also project through their will this information work. And it's especially when these authors are spreading, not just simple inventions in the forms of news, but more like analytical pieces that use a lot of elements of conspiracy theory thinking, and a lot of bold words as say, genocide, or New World Order, or elite, or other kinds of keywords that are very common in the conspiracy theory thinking. So these are those people. And also they are more opportunistic fame seeking people. For instance, we have a dancer person who was the dance trainer. But now he's doing videos expressing his personal opinion about various events in the country that basically, you can see that he builds his opinions based on some falsehoods that maybe he is not the author of, but he's definitely an amplifier off. And there are other individuals who have a different kind of professional profile. So we have a musician, and wedding host, we have also piano player, yeah, this dance master. And there are many business businessmen, they used to have a business or they are having a business. And then they are creating channels garnering audience and time to time between their work as usual, by basically creating and sometimes disseminating falsehoods, they also promote their products. So it's really a mix, because it's trending. And because social media platforms also kind of willingly promote or promoted more in past the now such content, many new faces appeared. And that's maybe the rough characterization of those. So its political business and ego or fame seeking motivation.

Daiva Repeckaite  13:43
Something that we also know is that there's a large Russian speaking community in Latvia. So we asked Nica, what can explain their overall lower vaccination rates?

Nika Aleksejeva  13:56
Let's listen in. So yeah, we see that Russia has produced a part of this information about COVID-19 vaccines, but specifically targeting Western countries and Western vaccines. And it would be unsuccessful campaign if they will target locals, explicitly, of course, reading the news people in Ludmilla, which is the eastern part of Latvia, where there is a very high proportion of people speaking Russian, or they prefer a Russian media over Latvian born content. So they of course, they read very kind of articles glorifying Sputnik. So they actually expected Sputnik, we can suggest that partially it worked, but only for that region because people were reading Russian media in Russia, but for other regions, the willingness to prefer sporting vaccine, our western vaccines, Wasn't that obvious. So I was say that that was more like a spin off effect, or in our view kind of collateral damage of luggage region in Latvia being exposed to Russian information space more than sometimes maybe Latvian information space that caused that idea that people were waiting for Sputnik vaccine. But we didn't see that locally, operating Kremlin owned outlets, and we have two of them, we have Sputnik. And we have both news that they would really kind of focus on the vaccine issue. The language list is relevant when we talk about government reaching citizens and government was an is criticized for not being able to reach Russian speaking audiences first, because the official correspondence between Russian speaker and the government should be a Latvian unless the Russian speaker requests it in Russian. But that's kind of the chicken and egg problem in the sense that if a person doesn't think that vaccine is something that he or she needs, he would not bother to ask government to promote a vaccine to him or her. And therefore, yeah, in general, there was not much content official kind of content that would promote vaccine to Russian speakers, and also locally elected parliamentarians that work in La Jolla, and this eastern region of Latvia, they also weren't really active in promoting vaccination among their fellow citizens, or basically residents of their municipalities will probably was just unpopular thing to do, because people were already decided that they don't need vaccine or they will wait for the Sputnik vaccine. Of course, there was a lot of negativity also around this topic. So probably locally elected parliamentarians just decided to avoid this issue.

Eva Schaper  17:06
What I also thought was really interesting, and I think this is one reason why even a tiny country like Latvia is important for the rest of the world, is that she made a really good point about how a vaccine disinformation is linked to climate disinformation.

Nika Aleksejeva  17:23
Well, in general, I think that this information will not go away. And okay, now we are fighting with COVID-19. This information that is primarily about vaccines, but in future we may be basically confronted with other new topics, especially about the climate change, our human species are more close to the wildlife, and we haven't adopted viruses that the wildlife has been adapted to. So these zoonotic viruses are more of a threat to humanity. In general, we know that climate change is happening, we know that we need to change our behavior to do that. But we also know that for many years, there were lobby organizations and powers that resisted that I already see that climate change denialism or climate change. This information in general is, is there and is probably even more relevant and bigger fight we need to take up. So I think COVID-19 This information is very good lesson for us for what to do what not to do, also, to be commonly get less naive about our capabilities. And probably we also need to acknowledge that this information will not go away.

Eva Schaper  18:45
You know, what I also thought was really interesting about talking to Nika. A lot of the press coverage that the Baltic states get are about the so called elves, which is very interesting team of I'm just gonna say, internet activists. But here we got to take a look at somebody who is looking at disinformation beyond the elf story.

Daiva Repeckaite  19:07
If this is the first time you hear about the Baltic elves, you can read more about them in the links we will provide in the show notes. So overall, what would you say is the most important message from from what we had from Nika?

Eva Schaper  19:21
I think the most important thing was that we have to look at this now we have to understand how these things are being disseminated now who the actors are where we can find them, because it's not going to go away. It's not getting better, the problem is just going to be bigger.

Daiva Repeckaite  19:35
And we will continue covering the story in different countries in different contexts. So subscribe to our podcast that would newsletter now. And

Eva Schaper  19:43
if you know anybody who's worried about climate change, climate change disinformation or vaccine, this information, just send them the link to our show. So dive in the next episode, which is going to be in two weeks. Do we have an idea of who we're going to talk Yes,

Daiva Repeckaite  20:00
next week we're going to Romania, which is one of the least vaccinated countries in Europe. We will hear from very interesting experts why they think this is the case.

Eva Schaper  20:08
I'm very interested in this too. I'm surprised that the vaccination rate is so low. And I think we also have a show on Sweden this year, don't we?

Daiva Repeckaite  20:17
Exactly a team of Swedish journalists infiltrated into the anti vaccination movement, and this took them all the way to the US.

Eva Schaper  20:25
Okay, this is going to be fascinating. I can't wait to talk to them. Everything we talked about today, and all the links will be in the show notes so that you can find them that you can read up on the background information, and we're going to add a transcript of the show to our website, www the If you prefer to read all about the show.

Daiva Repeckaite  20:47
You can follow us on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Our reporting supported by AJ for you, bye for now.

Eva Schaper  20:55
Bye for now.

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