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Baltics and Ukraine targeted for refusing Sputnik V, with social media amplifying false messages

With global COVID-19 vaccination programmes getting into the full swing, information regarding any shortcomings is used to push false and misleading narratives. Major news groups in February included reports on the suspected drawbacks of Western vaccines and Lithuania refusing to purchase Sputnik V, as well as referring to it as a ‘hybrid weapon.’ Similarly, as in January, Ukraine was again in focus for refusing the Sputnik V, whereas the claims on orchestrated information attacks against Russian fight with the pandemic were this time announced by the country’s President Vladimir Putin.

COVID-19 disinformation analysis statistics
COVID-19 disinformation analysis statistics, @Debunk data
Types of information by mentions and reach
Types of information by mentions and reach, @Debunk data

The share of disinformation within the false and misleading content on COVID-19 in February 2021 stood at 76.6%.

Measured by DebunkReach®, the share was almost all encompassing, at 98.1%.

The discussion about social media becoming a place saturated with both misinformation and disinformation intensified over the years, as it seems that a growing number of fact-checking initiatives are outweighed by the weaponization of the news on COVID-19 pandemic to pursue geopolitical gains.

Our analysis has shown a trend of targeting COVID-19 policies through directly attacking government officials. In Lithuania, a Facebook post dated February 7, 2021, said: ‘Iran has started using the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Šėtonytė [uses the word “šėtonas,” which in Lithuanian means Satan, to change the surname of Lithuanian PM Šimonytė into Šėtonytė] is quietly anxious in the corner. Why has she chosen to serve the devil?’

The post refers to Lithuanian prime minister’s tweet stating that Sputnik V was Russia's ‘hybrid weapon to divide and rule’, thus targeting both the PM personally while also mocking Lithuanian stance towards the vaccine.

Throughout February, Debunk EU analysts have spotted several cases when false stories were picked up by users and groups on Facebook to amplify misleading messages even further. For instance, a link to an article titled In Spanish Care Homes, 46 Elderly People Died Immediately After Vaccination With COVID-19 was shared through various Facebook groups:

  • On February 17 via a post in an Estonian FB group. The article was accompanied by ironic comments on how care homes for the elderly had become testing grounds for the insecure COVID-19 vaccine.

  • Then, a link to an article reporting the same story was shared within a Lithuanian FB group on February 22, repeating the info within the headline of the original article. The post has been labelled as misleading information, referring to a fact-check by Reuters.

  • On February 24, in a Polish Facebook group, the news was used to make claims about COVID-19 vaccines being unsafe and causing ‘deaths around the world’, at the same targeting the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, caricatured as saying ‘Fellow countrymen! The vaccine will save your life. As reliable as a bank. 100% safe. Just as a loan in francs. Believe me.’

Meanwhile, analysis of digital media indicated a few disinformation waves throughout February 2021.

Dynamic of COVID-19 related disinformation
Dynamic of COVID-19 related disinformation, @Debunk data

Case #1

On February 5, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė wrote in her Twitter account: ‘They say, Sputnik V is good, but Putin doesn’t care to use it as a cure for the Russian people - he offers it to the world as another hybrid weapon to divide and rule. This is neither new nor good for mankind.’ A few days later, the Lithuanian PM stated that Lithuania will not purchase COVID-19 vaccines from Russia, even if the jab is approved by the EU. Those statements sparked a wave of problematic information.

What was claimed:

The statements made by the Lithuanian PM on Sputnik V evidence how deeply Russophobia is rooted in the Lithuanian political elite. Europe now speaks exclusively in a positive way about the Russian vaccine, sometimes as about a real salvation. Russophobia is widespread, yet in Old Europe it does not completely disables the common sense, and Lithuanian authorities suffer from Russophobia as a serious psychiatric pathology. The refusal to use Sputnik V whilst not being able to tackle the pandemic shows that Lithuanian political elite doesn’t give a damn about the people and its health.

Our verdict:

Faced with mounting cases and deaths, several EU members have already announced their plans to purchase doses of Sputnik V without waiting for a confirmation from European Medicine Agency. However, most of the EU discussion about the vaccine does include the dilemma of using a jab from the Putin regime, especially in the context of international sanctions against Russia and the Navalny case. Moreover, claims that Russia fares much better in national vaccination programme than Lithuania is questionable: in terms of the number of COVID-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 population, Lithuania ranks higher than Russia.

Case #2

What was claimed:

Ilya Kiva, a deputy of the Ukrainian Rada from the party Opposition Platform – For Life, claims that the rejection of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine could lead to residents of Ukraine facing the fate of ‘guinea pigs’ and will be experimented on by the US and the EU. According to him, the Ukrainian authorities do not care about the salvation of the people, but only follow external instructions. At the same time, he says that ‘for “partners” such as the United States and Europe, Ukraine is a third world country’. The article also claims that Russian Internet users ‘agreed with the deputy’s statements, noting that after Maidan, Ukrainians have already partly become “guinea pigs”.’ Tsargrad, 11/02/2021

Our verdict:

The article comes as a part of several reoccurring pro-Kremlin narratives with regards to Ukraine: first, it pushes groundless claims of Ukraine being a puppet who blindly follows orders of Western countries. In addition, it undermines the sovereignty of the country and belittles it to the status of a third world country, which is a rhetoric prevalent in pro-Kremlin media with regards to the Baltics and Ukraine. Additionally, claims that after the Maidan events Ukraine has turned into some sort of a testing ground for the West is a part of attempts to portray it as a failed state. Ukraine has been participating in the COVAX programme and started its national vaccination programme in late February. The country’s government has banned the registration of vaccines for COVID-19 from 'aggressor states,' a description it has applied to Russia since 2015, when Russia annexed Crimea and it is still involved in the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Case #3

For a couple of months now, Russian highest-ranking officials have been making statements that Sputnik V is being targeted with orchestrated disinformation attacks:

  • In December, such a statement was made by the Defence Ministry,

  • In January, a statement on an alleged campaign discrediting Sputnik V involving 200 informational attacks was made the Russian Direct Investment Fund. On February 12, the head of the fund Kirill Dmitriev said that the Sputnik V sabotaging campaigns were being prepared in several countries.

  • During a meeting of the Federal Security Service Board on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced: ‘a targeted information campaign is being waged against Russia with various peremptory and unsubstantiated accusations. Even absurd and anecdotal conspiracy theories are being used. For example, take the recent attempts to question our achievements in the fight against coronavirus.’ Pravda, 24/02/2021

Key takeaways from February 2021

As measured by both articles and DebunkReach®, False measures to fight COVID-19 was the top narrative within the false and misleading coverage on COVID-19 throughout the monitored period.

Country fails to fight COVID-19 was the second top narrative measured by articles, which included rhetoric of violating liberties for the sake of curbing the pandemic. Meanwhile, the narrative Russia pioneers in fighting COVID-19 came second measured by DebunkReach®, indicating a high effect of communication associated with this narrative.

Narratives by mentions
Narratives by mentions, @Debunk data
Narratives by reach
Narratives by reach, @Debunk data

Measured by mentions, most of the articles with false and misleading content were published in Lithuanian (34.1%), followed by Polish (28.2%) and Russian (26.0%). Measured by DebunkReach®, it was the Russian language that reached out to the largest number of potential contacts (77.8%).

It is worth to mention that in Lithuanian, vast majority of the hits (84.6%) came from social media. Fringe and/or pro-Kremlin-media occupied second position (13.4%). Those sources have rather marginal audiences, whereas official media was represented by a single outlet, an online version of the newspaper Respublika. The latter, however, reached out to the widest audience in Lithuanian (1.1 million potential contacts, or 78.5%). Meanwhile in Russian, the widest reach (91.3%) was achieved through the Russian state-controlled media outlet RT, which also ranked fifth in terms of the number of articles.

Languages by mentions and reach
Languages by mentions and reach, @Debunk data

Debunk EU analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:

· DebunkEU analysis platform

· CrowdTangle - Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram.

· Truly Media - collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content.

· TruthNest - Twitter data analysis platform.

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