Picture of a red, suspended pipeline dissapearing into the fog.
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🎧 How Russia Exploits Antivaccine Sentiment to Spread Energy Disinformation: Season 4 Episode 1

The prospect of a cold winter makes energy a hot topic in Europe. Russia, aiming to chip away at Western support for Ukraine, is spreading energy disinformation.

Eva & Daiva @ The Inoculation

The prospect of a cold winter makes energy a hot topic in Europe. Russia, aiming to chip away at Western support for Ukraine, has an interest in stoking people’s fears. And where does Russia find enthusiastic supporters? You guessed it — among public health skeptics.

This is the first episode of our 4th season, in which we will focus on Germany and the ways various health, energy and climate conspiracies link up there. For this episode we talked to GMFUS’s Bret Schafer and Kristine Berzina to learn about how Russia goes about shaping public opinion abroad.

Here are some of the information sources used for this episode:

Polling Nordstream 2: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1282647/umfrage/festhalten-am-projekt-nord-stream2/

Germans’ opinion now: https://www.n-tv.de/politik/Mehrheit-ist-gegen-Offnung-von-Nord-Stream-2-article23536541.html

Share of Russian gas in Europe: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1201743/russian-gas-dependence-in-europe-by-country/

Dependency on Russia:

Russian gas reserves: https://www.statista.com/topics/6207/russian-natural-gas-industry/#dossierKeyfigures

Imports: https://ihsmarkit.com/research-analysis/russian-gas-imports-in-the-eu-threat-or-a-chance.html

and: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/07/business/russia-gas-europe.html

How Russia cut gas supplies: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60131520


Bret Schafer  0:00
Energy is the top topic in Europe for Russian propagandists at this point, because they understand the war is not popular, they're probably not going to swing Germans to Putin side and convince them and it's a just war, what they can do is under start chipping away at support, and get people to say, well, I don't like this war. I am not in favor of what Putin is doing. But I also don't want to freeze to death over the winter, or I don't want to go broke paying exorbitant energy prices.

Eva Schaper  0:43
Hello, and welcome to the inoculation. My name is Eva von Schaper. And I'm Daiva Repeckaite. So welcome back after the summer. We're starting today we're starting our new season. And we're really excited about it.

Daiva Repeckaite  0:57
Yeah, and we're, we're planning to be a bit more focused. And we're going to talk more about Germany.

Eva Schaper  1:04
Today, we're talking about energy misinformation, especially looking at energy supply in Germany. And I think we have an exciting episode coming up in two weeks as well. What are we going to be talking about in two weeks time?

Daiva Repeckaite  1:21
Yeah, we're planning an episode on homeopathy. So it'll be very interesting to see how this links up.

Eva Schaper  1:28
We want to do a really deep dive into homeopathy. We're gonna look at the history of homeopathy. Is there any evidence that it works, we don't think there's evidence, and also how homeopathy ties into the anti vaccine movement. And the history of that. And since we're talking about this, I just want to remind you, you can support us by sharing the link to our show, you can donate on our website. Or you can tweet about if you'd like to you can tweet about our show or post on Facebook

Daiva Repeckaite  2:07
directly. Everything helps us reach more people. So we really appreciate that.

Eva Schaper  2:16
Actually confused because usually we talk about anti vaccine disinformation and misinformation. Why are we talking about energy disinformation today?

Daiva Repeckaite  2:28
It's first of all linked by the political forces that have been spreading anti vaccine disinformation and misinformation, and Mal information. And then it's also linked by the context in which these malicious behaviors reach their audiences.

Eva Schaper  2:52
Welcome to the first episode in this season, how Russia exploits anti Vax sentiment to spread energy disinformation, who did we just hear in the opening quote,

Daiva Repeckaite  3:03
we heard from Bret Schafer, he works at the German Marshall Fund of the United States,

Eva Schaper  3:09
right. And he's been researching disinformation and misinformation for a long time. And he has a program that looks at that can gather and looks at information disinformation. And can kind of see where it's popping up. And what it's doing. So we talked to him before we talked to him for the episode on Russian disinformation. And on Sputnik, disinformation, Sputnik being the Russian Corona vaccine, the Russian COVID vaccine.

Daiva Repeckaite  3:48
Yes, exactly. So it's nice to have him back on our podcast.

Eva Schaper  3:53
You also had the chance to talk to someone else can you can you tell me who that was?

Daiva Repeckaite  4:00
Yes. So in Brussels, I met his colleague Kristine Berzina. She is a senior fellow for security and defence policy at the German Marshall Fund the United States. And she co leads this organization's Russia transatlantic initiative. So her focus is on security policy. And she was the first person to introduce me to this idea that Russia and Russia affiliated actors might be using health disinformation, to influence opinion about its interests and spread disinformation about energy.

Eva Schaper  4:39
Okay, I think we have to look at some some background here. So think, diver, we're going to add all the links to the transcript and to the website.

Daiva Repeckaite  4:50
Right now, who is most most dependent on Russian who is buying Russian energy in Europe?

Eva Schaper  4:57
Russia is the world's largest gas exporter. And of all the European countries Germany's largest importer followed by Italy.

Daiva Repeckaite  5:06
Exactly. So for example, in Lithuania, where I'm from or Malta, where I currently live, they use these giant ships, liquid natural gas shipments. But this is not the case for European countries that get their gas by land. That's right.

Eva Schaper  5:25
Yes, exactly. And a lot of the Russian gas travels through pipelines and two, that we hear a lot about our Nord Stream one and Nord Stream two, so Nord Stream two was still being built. And due to a fifth unprovoked attack on the Ukraine, we're not going to, it's probably never gonna go online. And then there's more from one, and it runs from Russia, on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, all the way to Germany, to a town in the north of Germany called Greifswald.

Daiva Repeckaite  6:05
So it's a huge investment in that sense. So the countries really have to agree and work very closely to build such a massive piece of infrastructure.

Eva Schaper  6:15
Exactly. It's a huge investment. And in fact, Europe, and especially Germany is quite dependent on Russian gas, when when Russia invaded the Ukraine, this immediately had repercussions.

Daiva Repeckaite  6:31
And the gas is used for what for heating for energy generation.

Eva Schaper  6:36
So it's used for heating. And it's it's used to generate electricity. And but also what we're especially talking about in Germany, because a lot of public spaces are turning down heat and swimming pool has been turned down by two or three degrees, which is quite cold, I can tell you. public swimming pools are colder, public buildings are being kept cold, or people are worried about this.

Daiva Repeckaite  7:08
So it's definitely something our kind of bread and butter issue, something that people face every day.

Eva Schaper  7:15
Yes, and especially in Germany, I can tell you this is that people are quite worried. And you know, they're buying wood, or they're buying little solar generators to go on their roofs to, to have some something to depend on. And they're also quite worried because prices are are going up, especially for prices for electricity and prices for heating, are looking to be astronomical. I think some forecasts say that the average German household will have to pay something like 450 euros a month for electricity versus about 130 last year. So if

Daiva Repeckaite  8:00
so many people are getting upset about this. That's a big challenge to to the ruling politicians, right. And that's something potentially useful to Russia. Well,

Eva Schaper  8:10
it's something that I've been that everybody is impacted by course, this is this is a huge deal. And I think what we also have to clearly say is that there are some voices saying, you know, what, Putin or Russia is, is using this energy to this way, German public opinion from being against Russia for being anti Russian. So what is happening now, so Europe, in Germany, they've been using Russian natural gas for a long time, and less even last year, a majority. By far of all Germans, I think, over three quarters, were were pro completion of the second Nord Stream pipeline. And then, of course, in February of this year, Russia invaded the Ukraine. And since that, since that invasion, not only has energy become much more expensive, but Russia has also stopped sending natural gas via the pipelines, both the overland pipelines and the Nord Stream pipeline pipeline for some Germans and for some German politicians. Obviously, there is a ceiling that Putin is using Russia's gas supply to put pressure on the German public, and also to put pressure on German politicians, of course and on European politicians. So

Daiva Repeckaite  9:43
Russia wants to influence the public opinion, to maintain this pressure and to maybe flip flop on Europeans and Western support to Ukraine's armament efforts.

Eva Schaper  9:59
Well, I think it would be definitely would be in Russia's interest to influence the public opinion. And so how do they did what when you talk to Kristine Berzina? Did she tell you how Russia goes about influencing public opinion? Yeah, so

Daiva Repeckaite  10:17
based on her and her colleagues research, Russia is using its extensive media ecosystem to influence public opinion. Let's listen to what she had to say.

Unknown Speaker  10:29
So disinformation on energies has been a very important part of the Russian narrative that they have pushed in Europe, in Germany, a random random project looking at the Russian and Chinese info space in Germany in German, before the elections. So with the messaging that we saw, during the pandemic, before the election, from from Russia, to Germany, in their German language outlets, was pandemic response. And Nord Stream, it was so we saw what seemed to be a very conservative strategy to take those who are unhappy about COVID response about restrictions about, you know, like encouragement of vaccinations, they get pulled in and starts clicking More on the RT or slipping articles, then they start putting more and more nordstream context.

Eva Schaper  11:13
So actually, what I'm interested in is how does this operation? How does this Russian disinformation operation actually get people interested in the energy supply? Because this has been going on for some time. So how actually do they pull people in?

Daiva Repeckaite  11:32
Kristine says that they use other issues that people are searching for, including public health issues, let's listen to what you told me.

Unknown Speaker  11:43
But the way they got people in the door, to be looking at the foreign policy, or energy issues, which might not be at all, what the audience initially wants to do, is to go into that hot button issue of the moment, which was the pandemic and the corona response, they was in a strategic arc to shape the views of audiences on that energy issue, Nord Stream issue? No, I feel as though all these foreign policy or big, more abstract pipeline issues are not the issues that are going to be motivating people to get pulled in, right? It's a simply the thing that you hear in the background are the few headlines that you saw, and you maybe didn't even click on them. But you saw the line,

Eva Schaper  12:25
what they're doing is kind of putting out things putting out issues that they know people are interested in.

Daiva Repeckaite  12:33
Yeah. And Brett told us that once they feel seen and heard by these channels, then they might give them a follow

Eva Schaper  12:39
using those morsels of information or those like salacious information. Or there's this information or these headlines that people they know people would get worked up about, just to get people looking at their channel. Is that right? Is that what they're doing?

Daiva Repeckaite  12:57
Exactly. And we already heard from Malin and the episodes about Sweden, how different issues link up and once people are lured into one conspiracy, then it will sooner or later be driven to another.

Eva Schaper  13:11
Okay, so let's just let's just drop the snippet of what Bret told us. Basically, they they looked at RT, which is a Russian state run television channel, Russia today, they looked at it over a couple of months. And they said, well, the videos that get the most engagement that are most viewed, are those that deal with public health. And just let's just say COVID, skepticism, vaccine skepticism.

Bret Schafer  13:44
Russian state media had a bigger footprint in Germany than it has in many parts of the world. So when we did a survey, about a six month survey before the German elections, what we found is RT Deutsch was actually the number one most engaged with German language media outlet on Facebook, and our monitoring. When you looked at the posts that were gaining the most traction, like 80% of them were about public health skepticism. I mean, it was sort of a shocking amount. So where they found an audience, or at least their most committed audience was pushing sort of anti Vax or anti mass just sort of anti public health messaging, especially into countries where you probably weren't seeing a ton of that in the mainstream media. So for example, on RT Deutsch RT Germany YouTube channel when it was operational, something like 90 to 95% of their most viewed videos over a five month period before the election, dealt with public health. skepticism.

Eva Schaper  14:54
Yes, exactly. And Malin I think spent a very long time is a Swedish journalist who spent a very, very long time with Swedish and Scandinavian anti Vax groups just to see how what they did to pull parents in. And she posed, I think, as a concerned mother, and I think she said what she was most astonished about was that the leader of these, of the Scandinavian of one of the Scandinavian anti Vax groups just clearly said, you know, once you have the, you know, once you pull the parents in, then you can, then it's time to just start disseminating more and more information. And let's just say like, right wing conspiracy theories, etc, etc, etc.

Daiva Repeckaite  15:44
You can listen to this episode, if you haven't so far, we'll put the link in the show notes.

Eva Schaper  15:49
And one other thing that I thought was interesting that Bret told us was that he's very, this is not actually about Russia, spreading falsehoods or lies, is it? I mean, it's very the, I think it's it when we talked to him. Last year, I think it's something that he called mal information, but just hear what he had to say how he explained how Russia feels about contouring information for their game.

Bret Schafer  16:22
What we're seeing is what was categorized as now informations, which means the information is technically true, but it is presented without context or within its misleading context, to mislead an audience. So I'll give you an example. An RT headline, much of it in all caps, seven die in Spanish nursing home after receiving Pfizer vaccine. This This was true, is technically true, but it's a nursing home. People unfortunately, die all the time. They're old. And it even says in the article at a certain point, none of the deaths had anything to do with the Pfizer vaccine at all, unrelated. So what they would do is often create these causal fallacies, where you present some terrible thing that has happened to people who have received a vaccine. And they cover themselves even in the article themselves saying, well, they aren't actually related. So they're, they're essentially debunking their own headlines. But we know the way people consume information right now, they read the headlines because they're scrolling through a feed. That really salient point is how I'm gonna say effective. Russia is at using public health skepticism, as a sort of stepping stone into audiences to then promote foreign policy goals and agendas. But I think it actually it also really highlights how malevolent their information systems are. I mean, you're you're talking about really damaging public health globally, in an effort to spread propaganda.

Eva Schaper  18:01
I think our episode where we talked about Russian disinformation actors, which we call the falsehood Firehose is actually quite interesting, listen, as well. And we'll put in a link to that. And I think you took a look at Twitter to find out if we could find evidence of this working right.

Daiva Repeckaite  18:22
So we collected German politicians tweets. So these are German politicians who sit at the European Parliament. So they actually shape policy at the European level. And we wanted to see which tweets are the most popular, so which ones have are the most retweeted and get the most favorite. Among those that mentioned the not Nord Stream pipelines? The most popular tweets was by Maximilian Krah.

Eva Schaper  18:55
And so who is this Maximilian Krah guy?

Daiva Repeckaite  18:58
He's a representative from Treston of the Alternative for Germany, political parties in

Eva Schaper  19:05
the far right of Germany's political spectrum. I think we're gonna say so quiet nationalist. Anti immigrants. Also, I think it's fair to say that there's a lot of anti vaccination anti lockdown sentiment in that party.

Daiva Repeckaite  19:23
Exactly. So in the European Parliament, he sits with identity and democracy group. And, actually, so on the topic of Nord Stream, the four most popular tweets were his

Eva Schaper  19:37
okay. And let me guess, more of a pro Nord Stream Are they more critical of Nord Stream,

Daiva Repeckaite  19:45
as you can expect, they're very pro Nord Stream. I think the pipeline has a very enthusiastic ambassador in the German far right party here. So for example, in his most popular The tweets he veers into kind of conspiratorial mode,

Unknown Speaker  20:05
not stream debater pipelines but often zint Chinatsu, five hours of the mirrorless, Bowden's are both Togiak to our Soufeel. And without s Marina Tao calm, here had onStart and Zabo Togiak gueguen Dodge land valued on das mozzie Hello, Nick toseland,

Daiva Repeckaite  20:22
whatever damaged Nord Stream under the sea must have been a state actor, and definitely not Russia. So who could who could this be?

Eva Schaper  20:32
So at the end of September, there were reports that natural gas was streaming out of both Nord Stream one and Nord Stream two. And at first, it really wasn't clear if there was damage to the pipeline, if there was somehow some kind of accident. But then, who do you think he was alluding to? I mean, who could who would? Would the European Union damage its own pipeline? That makes no sense? Or do you think he was trying to say maybe the Ukraine?

Daiva Repeckaite  21:07
Exactly. I think that's, that's

Eva Schaper  21:09
okay. Yeah, well, I think they're actually busy doing other stuff.

Daiva Repeckaite  21:13
But he also claims that Ukrainians celebrating this hit on the pipeline. And so why are we arming them. He also says that, among the energy sources for Germany, Nord Stream is offers the most safety and value for money.

Eva Schaper  21:34
I also thought was interesting because looking at maximizing crop, the, the politician with the pro Russian tweets was that was what Brett shaver told us, about how Russia still is, is spreading its message, although the RT channel was was basically shut down in Germany. So let's just listen to that, because I think that's a that's a really important point that he made there.

Bret Schafer  22:03
I think the biggest problem or the trickiest problem, are the real individuals who promote Russian talking points that again, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes knowingly, because there's nothing the platform's are going to do to censor those opinions. And they shouldn't to be clear. And many of those people have genuine audiences and some are prominent figures in media in their own right. And so those are always the most influential voices. It's not the troll accounts. It's not the fake accounts. It's not the bot networks. It's the real people who have been sort of sucked into the Russian orbit, and now promote those viewpoints as if they're there.

Daiva Repeckaite  22:45
There's another tweet, Christine Anderson,

Eva Schaper  22:49
she sits in the European Parliament for the AfD. Okay, yeah. And tell me about her tweet.

Unknown Speaker  22:57
We are being sold the Ukraine Russian war and Corona as the alleged reason for extremely rising gas, fuel and consumer prices. Strange that global corporations are making record profits at the same time. There are other tweets. The EU Commission makes freezing in the darker reality. The EU gas emergency plan is so bungling that it is on the brink of collapse already had disaster for Europe and its citizens who have to pay for the green ideology.

Eva Schaper  23:23
Okay, so this is basically exactly what what Bret talked about, and also what Christine talked about. And that also reminds me of the episode we did about the link between vaccine disinformation and climate disinformation.

Daiva Repeckaite  23:38
We'll put a link in the show notes and you can find it if you haven't listened to it.

Eva Schaper  23:43
Did Christine tell you talking about anything else? Because I think she also said that she had some kind of outlook on how this issue might just turn into not only energy disinformation, but climate disinformation.

Unknown Speaker  24:00
I think we could get to a place where if coal consumption goes up significantly, that there could be a campaign to climate minded young people in particular, that, you know, Russia is the client, much better climate actor and therefore more safer for the long term health of the planet. It is better to reestablish ties to Russia and get gas back rather than using coal as it's happening right now. And that this is irresponsible. But could they make that argument because they do play on the right and the left is anything and often the further left in the further right you go you get to similarly, anti establishment and therefore more receptive and vulnerable audiences.

Unknown Speaker  24:47
You could push both of those. But again, their their reach right now is significantly limited.

Eva Schaper  24:53
She thinks that some of the discontent in the population might be used to Pull in another a completely other type of audience. Is that how you understand what we just heard?

Daiva Repeckaite  25:06
Yes, exactly. So this was our episode for

Eva Schaper  25:12
today. Okay, I thought it was a really interesting topic and a really important and timely topic. And in two weeks, we're gonna do that deep time, the deep dive on homeopathy, which I'm really excited about. And I just wanted to thank you all for listening. Please check out our website, the inoculation.com We'll have the transcripts up as soon as we can. If you like you can support us buy us a cup of coffee. It's not only that you can buy a cup of coffee, you can pay my gas, or like, keep my keep the light on in my in my little home office

Daiva Repeckaite  25:49
here. So maybe helped me save on a solar panel

Eva Schaper  25:53
and sign up for our newsletter show. Thanks for listening. Bye bye

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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