In this episode, we took a look at how the Russian government and its media networks used their power and reach to discredit Covid vaccines made by Western companies and how it boosted its own Sputnik V Covid jab -- and how this might backfire. Experts say that attributing anonymous or obfuscated social media profiles is tricky, but they tend to be remarkably consistent and align with the goal of promoting Sputnik V at the expense of Western, but not Chinese vaccines.
We talked to Seb Cubbon, a research analyst at First Draft (one of their reports here), Miriam Matthews, senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND, Olga Dobrovidova, a Russian science journalist, Bret Schafer from the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Peter Stano, lead spokesperson at the European External Action Service, which is the EU’s diplomatic service, and Peter Balasz, a former diplomat and professor emeritus, Central European University.
Our reporting is supported by Journalismfund.eu, Media Lab Bayern and Alfred Toepfer Stiftung. Please subscribe to 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
Our reporting is supported by Journalismfund.eu, Media Lab Bayern and Alfred Toepfer Stiftung. Please subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify or another platform of your choice.
Here is the transcript of the episode:
Olga Dobrovidova 0:01
They didn't name it Sputnik for nothing, right? They're trying to win a race, essentially.
Eva Schaper 0:09
Hello and welcome to The Inoculation. You just heard from Olga Dobrovidova. She's a Russian science journalist who's been published in Science Magazine and Undark magazine. She's also a science communicator at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. On this show, we explore how vaccination went from being a matter of science to being a question of belief. And today we're going to take a look at how the Russian government is using its disinformation machine to discredit COVID vaccines made by Western companies, and how it boosted its own Sputnik COVID job. My name is Eva Schaper, and I've been reporting on issues surrounding Health and Science for the past 15 years, and I'm hosting this podcast together with my colleague diver Hello, my name is David educator. I'm a journalist covering human rights, politics and society. Today we'll hear from Miriam Matthews, senior behavioural and social scientists that trend author of a report on Russian disinformation. It's been so
Miriam Matthews 1:14
massive the amount of conspiracy theory and misleading information that is coming from Russia and Agent
Daiva Repeckaite 1:23
Seb Cubbon a research analyst at First Draft a nonprofit coalition against disinformation,
Seb Cubbon 1:29
detailed, specific, accurate nuance information can never rival sensation.
Eva Schaper 1:38
And one of the experts I talk to is computational propaganda expert Brett Schaffer from gmF. us a nonpartisan policy organisation Schaefer explained the strategy the Russian government uses that makes it so hard to combat these false narratives.
Bret Schafer 1:57
So what we've seen is just a sort of cobbling together selective bits of information to create a narrative that is damaging towards Western vaccines. We also talked to Peter Sano, lead spokesperson at the European external action service, which is the US diplomatic service and Petter Balazs a former diplomat and professor emeritus at Central European University.
Eva Schaper 2:26
We just want to take a minute to welcome our new listeners. Hello, and thank you for your interest. If you'd like our show, please tell your families, your co-workers and your neighbours.
Daiva Repeckaite 2:38
If you know of someone who might enjoy this show, just pick up your phone and text them the link right now. And you can also support us by sending us feedback and questions.
Eva Schaper 2:48
Okay, we'd also just like to point out that if you want to learn more about the topic of this episode, please listen to who is spreading vaccine misinformation and why with Dr. Alexander harassing minko to find out why Russia and China are spreading disinformation, and how that endangers our democracy. And if you're confused about the differences between misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, please check out our episode on the 30th of April.
Daiva Repeckaite 3:20
I remember seeing misleading claims on Russia state run channel. Does amplification of misleading claims go further back, we asked Peter Stano.
Peter Stano 3:30
This information is not new. Russia has been using it since since we can remember basically the Soviet Union was basically the first organised state sponsored disinformation actor because the propaganda was one of the important means of survival of this regime. And what happened when we first heard about the Coronavirus about one and a half years ago now Coronavirus, been there pandemic was fertile ground for this information. Because at the start, it was global. There were much more questions than answers. So there was global insecurity, no one knew how to handle it. And this is ideal environment for all these conspiracy theories and disinformation actors. The Russian Channel started questioning the existence of the virus early last year, then the narrative changed. Okay, you're right.
And I talked to first drafts Seb Cubbon. And here's what he told me about the information content or actually the dis information content that's being spread by Russian state actors right now.
Seb Cubbon 4:35
From the analysis that kind of I've been doing around
said that the content from these these proxy sites and from Russian state owned media, it's not necessarily targeting vaccines in general, it's actually targeting specifically the Pfizer vaccine in western institutions that are connected to vaccines. And conversely, more or less unrelated
It's a promotion of their own Sputnik vaccine. And there's been a lot of work done on this idea, not necessarily curing democracy, for example, the India disinfo lab, have kind of systematically analysed messaging from Russian states and media to kind of, kind of show that. So I think the key things is really kind of more targeting the credibility of institutions connected to vaccines, as opposed to vaccines as a concept itself. And what
Daiva Repeckaite 5:28
I thought was interesting to know was that do we know if Russia targets specific countries in the EU? We ask the EU expert, Peter Stano.
Peter Stano 5:41
They are not that active in countries which were they were they No, they have no chance. Like, I mean, the Baltic countries, they try to undermine them, but mostly through the Russian speaking minority. But they are not even trying to reach to the to the others because they know it's lost cause because the Baltics by default, and the polls, they will not trust the Russians. They will not vote Russian media. But they play with countries like Italy, you know, they play with countries like Spain, Germany, I mean, Germany is like one of the biggest targets. I mean, out of the all the cases in our database, most of the cases of this information are targeted on Germany or are in German language.
Daiva Repeckaite 6:15
I think we also have to tell our listeners that we won't be repeating any of the claims made by Russian or affiliated disinformation actors, because that is one way falsehoods are spread. As we will find out a bit later, when I talked to RANSs, Miriam Matthews, I wanted to know if there are specific channels which spread this misinformation in the United States.
Miriam Matthews 6:39
So some of the things that we identified include, of course, RT, America has been associated Facebook and YouTube channel. And then there's South news brands,global research, strategic culture Foundation, One World Press, all of these sorts of things. So multiple different sources.
Eva Schaper 7:01
And I also asked her, if these messages target one end of the political spectrum, are they targeting left leaning audiences? Or are they targeting right leaning audiences?
Miriam Matthews 7:16
It appears more of an effort to get fringe ideas that could some of them might appeal to the right some of them might appeal to the left and get those out and disseminated to larger audiences.
Daiva Repeckaite 7:29
What is so confusing is that the Russian disinformation is not blatantly false according to first draft sokoban
Seb Cubbon 7:37
Another thing I think to bear in mind in terms of when we say Russian disinformation is that a lot of the the the vast majority of the RT articles or Sputnik articles don't contain blatant misinformation don't contain blatant misleading facts or, or false fears etc. Well, they do contain is is is sensationalised as a sensationalised content? The pushes the message that clearly tries to amplify why the anti institution narratives? And that's where it's going to become really difficult because I think there's so much in the debate right now over content moderation and counter misinformation and counter disinformation measures.
Eva Schaper 8:18
This is a strategy that's made for the way people consume information today. And here's what Bret Shafer told me.
Bret Schafer 8:28
But we know the way information works now. And most people who see the headline aren't going to read the story. Most people who see the tweet aren't going to read the story. So when we look at what's coming out of RT or Sputnik, it's not as if there's someone sitting in the Kremlin, who's sending out a memo every day of what to publish the you know, to sort of big kind of understand the party line for lack of a better term, and are given sort of a pretty wide area to experiment and try things. So there is coordination in the sense that everyone knows that, yes, we're supposed to talk about Sputnik vaccine in a positive light. And we're supposed to speak negatively about Western vaccines, but I don't think there's it's getting down to the sort of talking point level.
Daiva Repeckaite 9:10
Is that a concerted action? Peter Stano,
Peter Stano 9:12
we are not saying that it's Putin doing it. Because I mean, sometimes attribution is relatively difficult and legally tricky.
Eva Schaper 9:20
And what I think is really scary is that a lot of these falsehoods are being spread by people who don't necessarily have a malicious intent, according to RAND's Miriam Matthews.
Miriam Matthews 9:33
So absolutely a large part of this comes from people who don't know that what they've been exposed to, it's actually incredibly false misleading. It's actually very damaging and harmful. And they just assume that it is. It is a truce. And I couldn't be because it looks like it's coming from an official source. It looks like an official news source, or it incorrectly says this information came from some sort of official governor, government person or a medical individual or what, you know, all of these different options. And so they assume, based on these bits of the messages that they're actually true, when in reality, if you if we really dug into this, are you checked us towards or you saw that there were these misalignments throughout the message, it's, it would be a little bit more clear that this is false. And these individuals would hopefully be, you know, aware of this more. So a lot of it is just just lack of knowledge.
Daiva Repeckaite 10:42
Do we have an idea of why Russian channels are attacking vaccines?
Eva Schaper 10:46
Talking to the experts? I think what we heard again and again, are that there are three distinct motivations, which are money, inciting political division in foreign countries, and, of course, Russia's own financial interest in its Sputnik vaccine. On this, I spoke to Peter Balazs who told me how Hungary's Viktor Orban use the Sputnik vaccine to provoke other EU countries.
Peter Balazs 11:14
This Hungarian government decided to order important quantities of the Russian vaccine, and the Chinese vaccine is spite of the missing approval on behalf of the European authorities. This was again, an action to provoke West European partners and to show to the world that Mr. Oban does what he wants.Recently, newspapers published statistics about some problems with the Pfizer. And it turned out that it came from Russian sources. So it was justpublishing the Russian statistics as if they were both anti where they will not. And Russia in turn, uses this in their own messaging. You know, we have seen this all this messaging also target Europe largely by looking at the suppose and successes of Hungary and Serbia, who have been more willing to import Sputnik. So some of the charts that we have seen targeting European audiences, essentially are saying, look, these countries are ahead of you in terms of percentage of the population receive the vaccine. This is what happens when you, you know, drop the sort of political, geopolitical, theatre and port Sputnik and etc, etc. It allows this sort of alliance of pro Kremlin countries to gain a little bit of strength and maybe appeal particularly in some of the European countries that have struggled with the rollout of vaccinations.
Daiva Repeckaite 12:58
And in general, the Russian government is known to be interested in sowing discord.
Miriam Matthews 13:03
It is this rapid and massive dissemination of whatever kind of information can lead to greater divisiveness.
Eva Schaper 13:12
I think one of the things we don't talk about enough is that Russia is promoting its own financial interests.
Bret Schafer 13:19
They are a essentially a business competitor for the western vaccines. And they're very much trying to target their vaccines to key countries in the global south. and Mexico has been a major recipient of Sputnik, Argentina. So when you look at their goals here, some of it is just sort of this geopolitical one upmanship. But there's also huge market opportunity here and getting their vaccines into some of these countries that may also be looking at Pfizer or other European or American brands. I mean, again, that can be a big economic wind, but it's a huge diplomatic win as well. It gives them a lot of political leverage in these companies or companies countries, if, you know, they're able to say we desperately need these vaccines, and Russia is able to show up with 5 million doses. So there's there's a lot at stake here that just goes beyond, you know, trying to just broadly hurt a Western competitor because they're American, they really the win in it.
Daiva Repeckaite 14:29
But we also heard that the Russian government may be shooting itself in the foot by spreading negative information about Western vaccines, they're eroding trust at home. Here's what Russian journalists all got the brevity of
Olga Dobrovidova 14:40
it just isn't against those vaccines had an unintended effect of indeed, suppressing the trust and vaccination in general. That is why I think it's this idea that you can just kind of denigrate your competition is because by denigrating them by playing Down the strength and emphasising perhaps over emphasising some concerns, you ended updegrading the trust in vaccines in general.
Daiva Repeckaite 15:14
At the end of our interviews, I was left with the question of what can we do? And what can government's do and what can social media actors do.
Bret Schafer 15:25
But the problem with this mal information is when it is technically true, most of our measures to try to mitigate the effects of falsehoods are based on trying to highlight lies. So if you talk about fact checkers, or labelling and all of these things that the social media companies have tried to do, it's it's hard to fact check and label a tweet that, again, it's sort of technically true. But you really need context there. And context takes a lot of explanation. It's hard to get across to people. If you look at the sort of percentages of people who are sceptical about the vaccine, you've got the sort of hardcore anti vaxxers as a part of that. And to agree, I don't think there's much government or anyone else is going to do to change their mind, but you have a lot of other people who are still able to be convinced. And when you look at sort of the world of public diplomacy, you always talk about the fence sitters, I mean, that's your target audience, who really just need good information to make the right choices.
Eva Schaper 16:35
I also asked Miriam Matthews, why it's important not to repeat these falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and disinformation.
Miriam Matthews 16:46
So by telling people here is a conspiracy theory. And it's false. After after a few days, what from the psychological literature is that people can disconnect, that it's false from the message, and they just remember the message. But there are some exceptions. Matthews told me, there's some sort of message that is being put out so much, and it's so so damaging that you have to directly refute it, then there has to be a subsequent providing of information that people can they'll glom on to that new information. Instead, they'll be able to connect to that because people essentially they like to have consistency and how they see the world and their stories. And so if you take this incorrect, this conspiracy theory or this misleading message, and you say it's incorrect, that that leaves a gap in their mind, so well, then how do I connect this information, so you need to provide them with true correct information that can sort of fill that in that can help to create that consistency.
Daiva Repeckaite 17:51
Again, this is one thing we need to get right Schafer says,
Bret Schafer 17:56
You know, I think different groups of people are living in different information realities, that makes it really hard to have a functioning democracy. I mean, the basis of democracy is sort of understanding the facts, the two sides of the debate, and making at least a semi informed decision based on the facts and the reality on the ground. But if we're just living in many different realities, that starts to erode democracy from within. So I don't think it is a an understatement to say that it's sort of fundamental to the health of democracy is getting a better sort of grip on what is happening in the information space. Okay, thank you, Brett Schaffer. That's a really, really good reminder.
Eva Schaper 18:43
And that's one reason that we want to bring you more stories like this. And so to make sure that you'll never miss an episode, subscribe to our newsletter. You can find our podcast on Google Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.
Daiva Repeckaite 19:00
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Eva Schaper 19:27
Our reporting is supported by journalism fund.eu Media Lab Bayern and Toepfer Stiftung. We'll be back in two weeks so bye for now.