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"COVID-19 is a tool for control" and other disinformation narratives escalate distrust in vaccines

Analysis of COVID-19 disinformation throughout the month of June has shown an increasingly present disinformation on social networks, which may evidence already established polarisation of society in terms of views on the pandemic and more systematic attempts to spread misleading content. False stories about the coronavirus clearly echoed the challenges of national vaccination programmes, first of all via distrust in vaccines and with an increasing emphasis on immunisation as a means of segregation and control.

COVID-19 disinformation analysis statistics, June 2021

The share of disinformation within the false and misleading content on COVID-19 in May 2021 stood at 95.1%, as measured by articles. With regards to DebunkReach®, the share amounted to 97.8%. Roughly 92% of misinformation (70 hits) within the period of analysis was found in Facebook groups and pages, hence its share as measured by affected audiences was lower than that measured by hits. 339 more articles (82.9%) from the social media platform were classified as disinformation, i.e., found to be conscious efforts to spread and amplify deceptive claims.

This may evidence a growing awareness of manipulated information and our growing resistance to it and yet an already established polarisation of society in terms of views on the pandemic and the means to fight it (such as lockdown and vaccination programmes) simultaneously, as the volume of misinformation has been declining, whereas some sporadic efforts of spreading misleading content with regards to COVID-19 have translated into systematic disinformation push.

Daily dynamics of COVID-19 disinformation by articles, June 2021

Case #1 Pfizer vaccine cannot be trusted

What was claimed

How can you trust Pfizer to vaccinate your children and believe the ruling party’s propaganda on how great it will be to vaccinate all of the 31 million Poles with this experimental vaccine? Pfizer, just as many other Big Pharma companies, has not been caring for human lives and piling up money instead. It has so many records of violating regulations and being involved in bribery (as per violation tracker) and yet the Government continues manipulating the people turning them into gullible lemmings.

Our verdict

The question of whether Pfizer could be trusted in making COVID-19 vaccines and being open and transparent as to the efficacy and side effects of the jab has been asked multiple times in the media and on social platforms. As in the hereby presented case of Polish language post as of late June, a very similar question (‘And you still trust them?? With your babies ???’) was voiced in late April 2021 on Instagram along with the claim that Pfizer got sued for $2,300,000,000 in 2009 for 'bribing doctors and suppressing adverse trial results.’ The claim has been acknowledged as partially false by factcheckers. It’s true that Pfizer hassettled various lawsuits that involve allegations of kickbacks, fraudulent marketing, or data manipulation. However, it is false to assume that because of the prior lawsuits, its COVID-19 vaccines may not be safe. US FDA, EMA and other regulators have granted emergency use authorization for the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine after rigorous testing (thorough analysis of clinical trial data, ingredients, chemistry, manufacturing, and other factors). Pfizer has applied for full authorisation for its vaccine.

Examples of 'anekdoty' about COVID-19

Humour, both a cultural and a socio/political phenomenon, is usually most actively present where the sharpest transitions in (value) systems take place. Anecdotes, or anekdoty, as they’re called in Russian, have a long history of articulating societal conflicts, moods, and values. At a time of pandemic, along with memes that have taken the central stage in the social media, anekdoty seem to have developed a separate strain dedicated to the novel coronavirus. In an interesting combination, they tie together critique of the Putin regime and anti-vaccination sentiment. The latter has been widespread, as, despite free availability of the Russian jab, only about 12% of the country’s population had been vaccinated by June 30, 2021. The low uptake is thought to have been helped by a general distrust of authorities and negative (and, in many cases, providing misleading, twisted, and manipulated data) media reports about foreign-made vaccines.

As Moscow authorities were pushing for mandatory vaccination, one of the anekdoty said: “Can’t wait for the deportations of the unvaccinated to start. I’ve already packed my bags.” On June 18, a piece of false news was posted, claiming that ‘Russian citizens who refuse to be vaccinated against the new coronavirus infection will be deported to EU countries. The corresponding document was prepared and included in the agenda by a group of deputies from United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya).’

Here are a few examples of the COVID-19 jokelore:

When Yeltsin said that there would be no default, and immediately declared a default, it was horror and deception of people. When Mr. Putin said that there would be no compulsory vaccination, and it was immediately introduced - this is a completely different thing, here we need to treat it with understanding and trust Putin with even greater enthusiasm.
Announcement in the church: ‘For the deceased who have been vaccinated against coronavirus, a discount at the funeral service will be applied.’
Can a domestic vaccine be considered effective if a person has been vaccinated, and he still does not want to vote for United Russia?
Tell me, the population with only 10% vaccinated voluntarily, since ‘the authorities are definitely contriving something with this immunisation,’ and those who will vote for United Russia by no less than 75% in September is exactly the same nation?

Top narratives and sub-narratives by mentions, June 2021

False measures to fight COVID-19 was again the top narrative within the false and misleading coverage on COVID-19 in June 2021, as measured by articles. The subnarrative Vaccine has been developed without rigorous testing added the most to its leading position and was the most pronounced rhetoric overall.

Violation of liberties in the name of COVID-19 was among the leading subnarratives as well, as the rhetoric was pursued mainly on social and fringe media aiming to persuade the readers about government-promoted propaganda and mainstream media silence on any wrongs with vaccines with regards to COVID-19 control.

The number of articles claiming that The US fails to fight COVID-19 was also on the rise, as Kremlin-aligned media reported vigorously on the news ranging from the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman claiming the EU and the U.S. were not able to lead the global community anywhere as they were not able to cope with their own problems, to allegations that the U.S. will soon face the fate of the USSR and will collapse.

Case #2 COVID-19 is a biological weapon made by the USA

What was claimed

The novel coronavirus is a type of biological weapon. World leaders have known about this long before, and that’s why they so anxiously and quickly introduced lockdowns in the absence of overwhelming mortality rates. The Chinese would not have been able to develop the virus, they would just make a copy, like they make replicas of everything else. COVID-19 was almost certainly made in the United States. No vaccines are reliable yet, vaccination is like playing casino roulette. Some of them can be dangerous, some are just useless.

Our verdict

The article by Aleksandr Dugin, an ultranationalist Russian philosopher who gained notoriety for propagating fascist views and gained influence in Kremlin circles, hence also referred to as ‘Putin’s Rasputin,’ comes as yet another addition to what in their 2020 report, the Global Engagement Center (GEC) at the U.S. Department of State, referred to as capitalisation on ‘the fear and confusion surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic by actively promulgating conspiracy theories.’ Looking at a narrower perspective, an increased number of articles in June 2021 claimed that COVID-19 pandemic was in fact created by the U.S. Thus, in early June, several publications posted reviews of a conference that took place on May 28, 2021, in the capital city of Kyrgyzstan entitled ‘Sanitary Stations’ of the Pentagon: a System of Biological Laboratories in the Post-Soviet Space. The articles, entitled American Death Factories are Working Against Russia and China, cited a journalist as saying that the virus could have leaked from laboratories in Armenia or Ukraine, ‘funded from the budget of the US Department of Defence.’ Although there is no new evidence supporting the lab leak theory and most scientists still assert that the most likely explanation is that the virus had natural origins, it has gained traction within the U.S., with Biden Administration announcing their renewed consideration of the coronavirus’s origin on May 26.

The peak of Kremlin-media’s false and misleading flow dealing with the issue in June was recorded in the first week of the month, ranging from the above-mentioned assertions of the U.S. being behind the spread of the virus from a lab, to echoing the Chinese media about how the country was targeted by Western media and anti-China circles.

Top narratives and sub-narratives by DebunkReach, June 2021

The differences in the charts displaying the leading narratives and sub-narratives measured by the number of articles and by DebunkReach® highlight the rhetoric, which was pursued by major Kremlin-aligned media sources, affecting wide audiences, showcasing the narratives that they engaged in promoting the most.

It was West seeks to discredit Russian and Chinese vaccines which clearly outpaced the rest of the sub-narratives and ranked first measured by DebunkReach® and fifth in terms of hits. In parallel and at the background of COVID-19 surge, as well as tighter means to control it in Russia in the first month of summer 2021, the narrative Russia pioneers in fighting COVID-19 ranked second with regards to the audiences affected (fourth in terms of hits), whilst two of its sub-narratives, Superiority of Russian-made COVID-19 vaccine(s) and Russia’s success in fighting COVID- 19 /helping to fight it ranked second and third, respectively.

Share of languages by articles (left) and reach (right)

Measured by mentions, most of the articles with false and misleading content were published in the Polish language (a share of 41.9%, 644 articles), followed by Russian (34.4%) and Lithuanian (11.3%). The share of Estonian amounted to 6.2%, that of English was at 4.2%, with the remaining 2.1% of mis/disinformation being published in Latvian.

Measured by DebunkReach®, it was the Russian language that reached out to the largest number of potential contacts (a share of 78.0%, or 363.0 million potential contacts), followed by English (via internationally oriented state-run Russian news outlets, at 18.9%). The share of the hits in Polish stood at 2.7%, whilst the official languages of the Baltic countries made up 0.4% of the coverage combined.

The three leading web sources of the top 20 media outlets as measured by articles in June 2021 were all a part of blogosphere:, which position itself as a ‘platform for social journalism,’ ranked first. The platform, which features reddit-like functionality, has a record of being used in a large-scale malign information operation run by a professional team, possibly associated with the Russian intelligence community., which ranked second, has been a space for bloggers, including anonymous ones, and a place for the spread of false and misleading information, conspiracy theories and links to the pseudo news agency Sputnik., which has for the first time entered the top 20 of media sources within the scope of this analysis, is among the oldest and the biggest Polish (political) blogging platforms.

In terms of DebunkReach®, Kremlin-funded and/or controlled media outlets were on top, led by RT, blamed for a series of malign influence operation abroad, and RIA Novosti, a part of Russia’s state-controlled media group Rossiya Segodnya, headed by Dmitri Kiselyov, known as ‘Putin's mouthpiece.’

On contrary to the share of media sources as measured by the number of articles, which was highly diversified and included 17 outlets with a share ranging from 1% to 3%, with the highest one peaking at 7.4% and 223 web sources accounting for less than 1% of the coverage each, the picture was quite different as measured by DebunkReach®.

Here, about a quarter of the content analysed was published by RT (both in English and Russian), whilst three major Kremlin-aligned media outlets (RT, RIA Novosti and Rambler) produced about half of the false and misleading content in June, measured by the affected audiences, just as they did in the previous period of analysis.

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