The Inoculation Episode 8 - Russian Vaccine Disinformation and the Collapse of Slovakia's Government
An elaborate media network promotes Russia’s Sputnik vaccine. But what happens when an EU country decides to use Sputnik?
An elaborate media network promotes Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine by undermining the others, currently approved by the European Union. But what happens when an EU country decides to buy the Sputnik vaccine? Does vaccine disinformation adapt? Slovakia has recently started injecting the Sputnik doses it bought in winter. Daiva and Eva try to figure out what happened with help from Slovak journalist Lukáš Onderčanin.
To learn more about disinformation, you can read the EUvsDisinfo’s report. To learn how Slovakia succeeded in containing the first wave but then infections went out of control in autumn, you can read articles on Foreign Policy and The Atlantic and listen to our earlier episode on how the health ministry was combating misinformation on social media. You can read more about Slovakia’s Sputnik V purchase here and about the domino effect in the region here.
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
Peter Stano 00:08
All these efforts basically could be classified as concentrated coordinated efforts to undermine the credibility of the Western vaccines. And of course playing with countries like Czech Republic, Slovakia Hungary who are flirting with the Sputnik even without the necessary Authorization for Use on your territory. So Slovakia traditionally, is a country where a large amount of population is pro Russian has sympathies towards Russia is watching and observing and following the Russian media.
Daiva Repeckaite 00:39
We just heard from Peter stano, who follows this information and is a spokesperson for the US diplomatic service.
Eva Schaper 00:50
Welcome to the inoculation in our last episode, listen to it if you haven't yet, we found out how Russia is using half truths and exaggerations about Western way of vaccines such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer to try to boost its own Sputnik v. COVID-19 vaccine. And one thing I found really interesting was that Russia's vaccine disinformation drive seems to have backfired divert. Do you remember what Russian journalist Olga Dobrovidova told us? Let me look for the file here to
Olga Dobrovidova 01:23
on the other side of the Russian government's side, I think their attempts at criticising and downplay the importance of the Western so called Western vaccines such as Pfizer and Madonna. Their criticism against those vaccines had an unintended effect of indeed, suppressing the trust in vaccination in general.
Eva Schaper 01:47
Oh, right. And that reminds me of what Kevin told me for our last episode with who is subclavian. He was the analyst I talked to who works for first draft news. He does a lot of research on disinformation.
Seb Cubbon 02:04
What I think is interesting from an audience perspective, is that there might be unintended consequences to that because was we, you know, systematically analyse their headlines and the content and we always find that they specifically mentioned international organisations and the who, and then people like Bill Gates and then Western governments. The overall message as well contained within these these articles in these social media posts are ultimately beginnings vaccines.
Daiva Repeckaite 02:30
Media Networks in Europe, linked to the Russian government are multilingual and adapted to local contexts. They promote the Sputnik vaccine at the expense of the four vaccines, the European Union is buying together. Last time Maria Matthews, senior behaviour and social scientists that Rand told us that these messages appeal to political powers on the fringes, it appeared 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. But what happens when messages of distrust in EU approved vaccines and institutions that deliver them come from ruling politicians in Europe? For this we zoom in on Slovakia?
Eva Schaper 03:18
Why are we looking at Slovakia
Daiva Repeckaite 03:20
it's just started inoculating its population with Sputnik earlier in June, the second country in the EU to do so after Hungary. But unlike Hungary, Slovakia was also grappling with high levels of vaccine hesitancy before the pandemic. We are the inoculation. And on this show, we explore how vaccination went from being a matter of science to being a question of belief.
Eva Schaper 03:42
My name is Eva Schaper, and I'm hosting this podcast together with my colleague that I've ever slept with. I think we have a problem. I don't speak Slovak at all, do you?
Daiva Repeckaite 03:59
I'm afraid Slovak is not among the unusual languages I've picked up. So I think we need some help.
Eva Schaper 04:05
Okay, let's just call our collaborator in Bratislava.
Lucas Ondercanin 04:10
So my name is Luca zhongda. Chanin
Eva Schaper 04:12
Great. Can you tell our listeners what you do?
Lucas Ondercanin 04:15
I work as a foreign news journalist that Slovak daily uses math.
Eva Schaper 04:19
To find out how people feel on the ground. Lucas talked to 56 year old Marian who lives in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Sputnik's almost has to be available. Marian was vaccinated with the Sputnik vaccine. He told Lucas that Central and Eastern Europe trusted Soviet science throughout the Cold War and the Russians can be trusted with making vaccines. So Lucas do a lot of people think like Marian
Lucas Ondercanin 04:56
we are according to many polls are quite pro Russian or Maybe the most pro Russian country from the region and the former prime minister Igor Mata, which suggested that there are around 300,000 people who are waiting for Sputnik to get vaccinated. But it seems there are no more maybe five or 6000 people who applied this week when we started with the vaccination. So the numbers are completely different than the usually people who didn't want to get vaccinated. They said that the trust put Nick So in general, it doesn't really affect have any effect on the vaccination campaign.
Eva Schaper 05:36
Oh, that's very interesting. Lucas, did you also go to sites where people are getting the western vaccines.
Lucas Ondercanin 05:41
I talk with some people at the National Stadium where there's a vaccination site, I talked with the security guard, usually it works very well in the vaccination centre, and it's very well organised. You wait in the line, you get the time by your like mobile phone a couple of days in advance. And you have a small interview with the doctor. I talk also with one of the doctors there. They're asking the patient if they had some troubles with former vaccinations, if they have some serious health issues, then there is a shot and then they wait for maybe 15 minutes in like waiting area where there is a somebody to explain what can they expect with the side effects so
Eva Schaper 06:27
it's very well organised the it's working like the clock. What I think is surprising is that Slovakia was seen as a success story on websites like foreign policy, or the Atlantic just last spring, the Central European country dealt with the first wave of the pandemic very effectively by enforcing masks and lockdowns. And so residents were able to enjoy a largely unrestricted summer. But by March of this year, hospitals were overstretched. And about 100 people were dying every day.
Lucas Ondercanin 07:07
On the other hand, we had something which other European countries didn't have, and that is this mess testing. We tested like free million people in one weekend, in in the autumn. So everybody, if you wanted to go to the shop, or to work, you had to go get tested every week. And people got kind of fed up with that. And they blamed government for too long lock downs. And the project maybe was meant well, but in the end, the results were not so great.
Daiva Repeckaite 07:41
After testing hoped, came in the shape of vaccination. But early in winter, it became clear that suppliers of the vaccines currently approved by EU authorities will be much slower than planned. The former prime minister of Slovakia decided to try out another
Eva Schaper 07:58
unusual solution either this was not so long ago. Why is he former
Daiva Repeckaite 08:03
let's hear about from Lucas.
Lucas Ondercanin 08:05
Yes, it actually started at a time around like half of February when a European Commission announced that there will be not enough vaccines delivered on time. And he got Moto, which is kind of very populist politician. He said like we have to find some other ways if we will not have these Western vaccines. And he tried to make a deal with Russia.
Foreign voice 08:31
I can easily measure your memory it is probably not good pitch I ruscoe vaccine vaccine
Lucas Ondercanin 08:40
because he actually came with our plan that we get 2 million vaccines in until June, which was quite surprising because Russia didn't have capacity to produce it. At that time, probably now Yes, but he made the deal but the rest of the government the coalition parties refused the deal. They kind of blocked it and they said we shouldn't buy unregistered vaccines, and Igor Mata, which like blamed everybody else that they are trying to kill people or that they are like idiots. And they don't want to save a Slavic population. And he went to Russia without telling everybody anybody. So he just came one day with big surprise or the plane arrived from Moscow in the Conchita airport, which is on the east of the country. And he together with the Health Minister celebrated and welcomed as putting vaccines as a big like gift or they actually didn't really welcome any other vaccines before but this was this was like big, welcoming. He kind of you know, was used, or he helped this might be Russian propaganda because Russian media we're talking about it a lot that Slovakia is the second country after the Hungary, which will use putting vaccines.
Daiva Repeckaite 10:09
Yes, I remember, Hungary approved the vaccine in January, and in February it was already using it. So this was the argument for the Prime Minister of Slovakia to copy this strategy.
Lucas Ondercanin 10:22
Oh, this sounds like he was kind of going on his own. How did people react? In the end, it was still in the beginning of the process, because nobody said that we can use it from day one. It had to be approved. So the whole process just started that time and the foreign minister was very critical because he didn't know about that. Even the Slavic ambassador in Moscow, we didn't know about that. And he got even called to check with Foreign Minister. He even said that matter of age, or Sputnik is kind of used as a tool in hybrid war. The whole government got in a chaos because of this delivery, and maybe in free for weeks, it collapsed because of this deal.
Daiva Repeckaite 11:07
Yeah. And it turns out that even the Prime Minister's coalition partners were dismayed. Nobody asked them about buying vaccines not approved by the EU. But the move one praises in the far right opposition and far right movements so far had been vaccine sceptics.
Eva Schaper 11:23
Oh, Isn't this what Miriam told us in the beginning of the show
Daiva Repeckaite 11:27
sounds like it, but this time it went beyond the fringe.
Lucas Ondercanin 11:31
According samples, it's around 30%, who don't want to get vaccinated, and they are mostly influenced by this information by far right parties, which are messenger of this disinformation in Slovakia.
Eva Schaper 11:48
websites that promote conspiracies in Slovakia are mostly pro Russian. So when Slovakia made the contract to buy the Russian vaccine, Sputnik, it was a challenge to these conspiracies that claim that COVID can be cured and that no vaccines are needed.
Daiva Repeckaite 12:07
Yeah, there was a lot of back and forth in these networks. Slovakia
Eva Schaper 12:10
is a country in which there are a lot of conspiracy theories. It's ranked third in a conspiracy ranking among 10 countries. According to Globsec, a think tank based in Bratislava, on average, a bit less than one in three Slovaks believes in a conspiracy statement about the virus. So we asked Lucas to talk to a Globsec researcher, her name is miroslava Severus, you know,
Miroslava Sawiris 12:39
at the beginning, yeah, we could see like the, you know, anti vaccination movement, demonising vaccination even before any vaccines were available. But once Chinese and Russian vaccines have been developed, suddenly it wasn't all vaccination is bad. Suddenly, just Western vaccinations were better now. So whilst the spooky vaccine has been promoted, as you know, the the only solution, the best vaccine, you know, vaccine, which is supposedly not linked to these big pharma interests. And the fact that these vaccine is not approved by the European Medicines Agency was downplayed, or even now that, you know, application has been submitted, but data was not submitted in its full spectrum that is required. Now it's you know, being interpreted as in the European Medicines Agency doesn't want to approve.
Eva Schaper 13:34
So from what I understand the main message was that the EU is too slow in approving vaccines. And Western contractors are too slow in delivery, so that the government is working hard to bring additional vaccines to residents. And along the way, the Prime Minister promoted Sputnik and created photo opportunities for Russia's propaganda,
Lucas Ondercanin 14:01
even motivate show when he was Prime Minister, and when when he ordered Sputnik on the first press conference, he said so that AstraZeneca is, you know, we all know what kind of vaccine is AstraZeneca. And that was first day when they started vaccinating all teachers, so many people, there were 1000s people who cancelled their appointments after this press conference. So you could see that the words of politician really have big influence over how people are behaving, especially in the crisis, so
Daiva Repeckaite 14:36
did to convince the population to shun the AstraZeneca vaccine, but q4 Sputnik. Not quite. According to surveys, Sputnik is more popular than AstraZeneca. But experts say that the derogatory messages spilled over to all vaccines.
So for that reason, it doesn't matter if you're spreading contradictory narratives every five days. You can VND The end result is that people are confused and don't know what to think anymore and they lose trust in the process, you know, all of these narratives in the end, cause the one thing that we do not want people to think, which is that, you know, vaccination is bad or it's dangerous, and this is the end result.
Lucas Ondercanin 15:18
I also talked to Tomas Salah, he is head of vaccination team in our Bratislava region, on the set up the biggest vaccination site in Slovakia inside the National Football Stadium. And he is also like health expert for the this county or the district. He told about maybe lack of campaign from the state and disinformation that are affecting people, and that people are not, like informed by the vaccination. They're asking very basic questions when they come to the vaccination sites.
Peter Stano 15:59
I had a very good interview with a lady who helped us as a volunteer in the observation room. During this 15 minutes, the people have time to think. And now all the fears are concentrated in this 15 minutes in their head. They are afraid. And they need to talk to someone and they talked to this lady, she gave me the information. And they asked her a lot of questions. Like basic questions, we everybody thinks that Okay, everybody knows the answer to the question. Not these people. were afraid to ask those questions. And at that point, I found out that okay, the communication campaign is a fail because the people have to ask those questions to a lady.
Lucas Ondercanin 16:58
According to one of the polls, so by glob sec, Slovaks feel that this government didn't do enough in the pandemic, and 75% of them are saying they did a bad job during the pandemic. And the main reason is maybe not they they really did a very bad job. But the communication It was very chaotic from the beginning. The former prime minister now matter, he had to step down, but he communicated a lot of things through Facebook, he refused to answer questions on press conferences, or when he did it was very kind of like attacking everybody who is against him.
Eva Schaper 17:37
For Lucas, do we know where vaccination in Slovakia is going from here?
Lucas Ondercanin 17:42
Well, when we see the vaccination trends, actually what what was surprising also from March, because these polls are from March, is that around 61% of people in Slovakia are willing to get vaccinated. But I think now the number is getting lower because of what happened with AstraZeneca. So I think we can get to around 50%. And there is a big group of people who are not decided yet. So they may be like the motivation, because they probably expected they would get, you know, more advantages as when you are vaccinated. But you can travel actually only to European Union without any problems. The other thing is that the situation is improving, everything is opened, now the restaurants are open and the weather is great, or we have very small number of people at hospitals. So after a very long period, because slowed down in Slovakia more was maybe four or four months, which is quite a long time. We see a lot of improvement and people don't really call it with vaccination because the improving situation appeared maybe a couple of weeks before we got over 20% of vaccinated people. But there are some regions where the number is under 20%. Because people they just don't trust vaccines, especially on the east of the country. And you could actually see there are both or some studies that there are the same regions where far right parties are popular
Daiva Repeckaite 19:16
to some of the story the single handed move by the Hungarian government to buy vaccines from Russia had a domino effect. It influenced Slovakia, we're not even the entire Cabinet of Ministers was on board. In turn. As we know from other reporting, the slow up developments inspired the Czech president who tried to conclude secretive deals, and even his own government did not agree with it. That sounds complicated. But actually it's exactly what Peter steno told us in the beginning, isn't it? Exactly. This was an excellent example of how Russian disinformation and propaganda work is the reason
Eva Schaper 19:54
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Daiva Repeckaite 20:08
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Eva Schaper 20:10
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