‘The EU is failing the fight with COVID-19’: increased tensions amplify pro-Kremlin coverage

The news on suspending vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine and delays in dose supplies caused a spike of false and misleading content claiming that vaccines were developed without rigorous testing. Additionally, the news on side effects and fatalities were tied to the immunisation with Western COVID-19 vaccines by the pro-Kremlin media to showcase the superiority of the Sputnik V. In March, disinformation flow was heavily influenced by increasing tensions between the EU and Russia, and many Kremlin sources claiming that the West was undertaking disinformation campaigns targeting Sputnik V.

COVID-19 related disinformation, @DebunkEU data

However, the polarization of views in terms of those supporting strict measures against COVID-19 and opposing it has continued to grow, evidenced in the less sporadic nature of sharing false and misleading content (misinformation) and becoming ever more targeted and systematic attempts to denigrate the magnitude of the pandemic and the measures against it (disinformation), such as national vaccination programmes, lockdowns, mandatory face masks etc.

COVID-19 related disinformation and misinformation by reach, @DebunkEU data
COVID-19 related disinformation and misinformation by articles, @DebunkEU data

In fact, the same story can be used to spread both misinformation and disinformation. For example, news about an 80-year-old from the Lithuanian city of Panevėžys who died minutes after getting a Pfizer-BioNTech jab appeared on March 9, 2021. However, no formal causal relationship between vaccination and death were established. This piece of news paved the way for claims that COVID-19 vaccines are not safe enough to be used, as well as blaming authorities for hiding ‘the truth’ about the side effects of immunisation.

Misinformation example: a Facebook post has been shared about the death, providing a link to a mainstream media article with factual information, and yet claiming that 'Again, no one will take the responsibility' for the death. The post does not seem to be of repetitive nature or an attempt to produce/amplify false and misleading content, but it suggests there is someone/something to blame for the fatality, hence creating misleading environment. Therefore, the post has been qualified as misinformation.

Disinformation example: an article about the death of the 80-year-old appeared on Lithuanian mainstream media outlet Respublika. By employing malign rhetoric, it claims that doctors and the government should bear responsibility for the deaths caused by vaccination. The article is also a part of a series of publications by Respublika with false and misleading claims such as the inoculation of seniors with AstraZeneca in Lithuania being basically a genocide. This qualifies it as disinformation.

Dynamics of COVID-19 related disinformation, @DebunkEU data

Case №1 Sputnik V targeted through a Western-sponsored information campaign

Within the period of analysis, main trigger stories behind the biggest mis/disinformation spikes included reports on an anonymous ‘high-ranking source’ in the Kremlin warning about the West preparing a scenario of information attack on the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. The news is one of the pieces of the propaganda mechanism built by Moscow and further propelled by pro-Kremlin media for several months and claiming the West was making numerous attempts to trash Russia’s achievements in the fight against COVID-19. It should be noted that in March, the EU and the US were increasingly vocal about Russian disinformation attacks, which, in turn, was countered by pro-Kremlin media by shifting the blame on the West.

What was claimed:

A scenario of an information attack on Sputnik V is being prepared through controlled non-governmental organizations (the US Agency for International Development, Soros’ foundation, Thomson Reuters Foundation) and media structures (BBC, Reuters, Internews) by the U.S. and its allies. The attack aims to promote the claims that Sputnik is unreliable and dangerous by faking mass deaths allegedly caused by using the jab. The move comes as the Russophobes are worried about Russia’s success in fighting COVID-19. (Sputnik, 12/03/2021)

Our verdict:

The unsubstantiated claims are built upon the words of an anonymous ‘high-ranking’ Kremlin official, which makes it possible to target specific institutions with accusations as far-reaching as ‘faking mass deaths.’ Similar claims have been voiced by Russia’s highest top officials and institutions, including the Defence Ministry’s statements about foreign-funded sabotage of Sputnik V in December 2020, as well as the statement by the Russian President Vladimir Putin on the same topic in February this year.

The list of countries to have approved the use of Sputnik is growing, yet the vaccine has not yet been approved by the WHO and the European Medicine Agency (EMA). Claiming that the EU is rejecting the vaccine because of Russophobia is a part of Moscow’s armour of countering any criticism against the regime, applicable throughout such fields as sanctions against Russian broadcasters in the Baltics, or energy sector (e.g., opposing Nord Steam pipeline).

Case №2 Pfizer vaccine causes deaths whereas Sputnik V does not cause serious side effects

What was claimed:

During a meeting with participants of the “We Are Together” nationwide volunteer campaign at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: ‘Pfizer is being used. In Switzerland, I think, 16 people died after the vaccine. In some European countries, administering Pfizer vaccine was halted because there also were lethal outcomes. Thank God, we haven’t had any serious side effects.’ (vesti.ru, 04/03/2021)

Our verdict:

The article showcases the engagement of Russian top officials in purveying false and misleading content on Western vaccines within the vaccine diplomacy or what has now been termed a new Cold War. With regards to 16 serious cases of side effects reported in Switzerland, people concerned died at differing intervals after receiving the vaccine, yet despite a chronological correlation, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the vaccination was the cause of death, as concluded by Swissmedic. As far as allegedly halting the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine because of ‘lethal outcomes’ in Europe, Mr. Putin may have referred to the false suggestion that the vaccine manufacturer shut down production because of deaths among vaccine recipients, which circulated via a video shared on social networks, yet this claim has been debunked by Reuters: Pfizer did slow production in Belgium for a week in January, but this was so that production could be ramped up in February.

Case №3 Even though thousands die, the Baltics irrationally oppose Sputnik V vaccine

What was claimed:

Foreign policy of the Baltic countries creates conflicts in the international relationship of Eastern Europe. In fact, the Baltics primarily implement the military policy of the U.S. and NATO, even if it goes against EU interests. Such an unbalanced foreign policy causes conflict situations and contradicts interests of the peoples. Thousands of people died of Covid-19 in the Baltic States. Despite the high mortality rate and the huge number of cases of infection, the Baltic leaders refuse the Russian Sputnik V vaccine only because it is form Russia. (The Baltic World, 02/03/2021)

Our verdict:

This article comes from the outlet Baltic Word, which in now active via its website at balticword.com and was previously operating via balticword.eu. In 2019, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) published an analysis on how the Baltic Word was a part of a large-scope disinformation campaign of a multi-platform nature targeting NATO and involving a group of personas – accounts with unverified operators.

This publication spreads several Kremlin-promoted narratives, such as irrationality and Russophobic nature of the foreign policies pursued by the Baltics or being a vassal of the U.S./NATO.

Referring to the Baltic countries as EU troublemakers continues in line with the statement by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in February 2021, when he claimed that the three countries ‘have become the most ardent Russophobes and were pulling the EU to Russophobic positions.’ The Lithuanian authorities indeed stated that Lithuania will not buy Sputnik V even if it is approved by EMA (which has not happened yet). The Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė referred to Sputnik V as a ‘hybrid weapon,’ whereas the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Gabrielius Landsbergis explained that the money, which Russia would be paid for Sputnik V, could be used in the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Case №4 The EU is failing the fight with COVID-19 when Russia is succeeding

What was claimed:

Eastern European start ordering Sputnik V vaccines without approval from EMA and Brussels as they are aware of their own inferiority in the EU, as well as the fact that they are doomed to receive leftovers of COVID-19 vaccine supplies. At the background of Brexit, the moves may be a very dangerous sign to the [unity of] the EU. A year ago, the EU proved to be unable to deal with the surge of the pandemic, showing confusion and inactivity. Now, the EU proves to be taking erroneous decisions, as evidenced by the fiasco of lockdowns and catastrophic situation with vaccination programme. Meanwhile in Russia, life is getting back to normal. (RIA Novosti, 03/03/2021)

Our verdict:

The claims that Eastern European countries are only receiving leftovers of vaccines after the mightier countries take most of the stock may have been fed by some of the EU members complaining about uneven distribution of COVID-19 jabs, yet Austria, which does not belong to Eastern European countries, was among those complaining. Hence the generalisation and hyperbolised assertion seem to have been made to target the post-Soviet bloc. In addition, the European Commission responded that doses had been distributed in proportion with the population of each country and considering the epidemiological data.

In terms of erroneous decisions, it should be noted that restrictions, such as nation-wide lockdowns, on contrary to what conspiracy theories may hold, have been introduced to save the core value of Western democracies – human lives. Aiming to ease the burden of the pandemic, the European Commission has adopted a comprehensive economic response, including the mobilisation of a €37 billion Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, and revising the State Aid rules. Despite the problems with vaccine supplies and falling behind the schedule of vaccination programme, the situation should not be referred to as ‘catastrophic’, as, for instance, the EU has managed to inoculate more people per-capita than Russia.

Case №5 The EU is deliberately undermining Sputnik V

What was claimed:

According to the press office of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the EU is attempting to take urgent measures to undermine trust in Russia's COVID-19 vaccine. The desire of certain representatives of the European bureaucracy to unconditionally follow the path of Washington's harsh attitudes towards Russia and everything connected with the country is acquiring simply grotesque forms, as they are trying to suppress Russia’s activities and take urgent measures to discredit the Russian vaccine. A clear example of the trend is the words by Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for Internal Market, stating that the EU does not need the Sputnik V.

Our verdict:

Russia has been heavily advertising its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, Sputnik V is the only vaccine to have its own Twitter account with more than 300,000 followers. In the meantime, Russia has been accusing the West of sabotaging the Sputnik V vaccine, dismissing the criticism directed at the politicized rollout and its unseemly haste by labelling it anti-Russian bias, Russophobia and/or disinformation attacks. The words by Thierry Breton that EU does not need the vaccine were presented without a proper context. The latter is what Terence Zakka, Communications Adviser of the Commissioner, wrote commenting on tweet by Sputnik V, accusing Mr. Breton of bias towards the Russian vaccine: ‘The EU already has a full portfolio of safe vaccines and production is ramping up. If EMA approves the Sputnik V vaccines, doses will not be available at large scale before 2022 at the earliest. It’s a fact - not a bias.’

Timeline of a disinformation case, @DebunkEU data

False measures to fight COVID-19 was the top narrative within the false and misleading coverage on COVID-19 in March 2021, as measured by both articles and DebunkReach®. Messages within the narrative were used to spread mis/disinformation about vaccines being developed without rigorous testing, and news on side effects and fatalities were twisted by pro-Kremlin media to prove the superiority of the Sputnik V.

Top COVID-19 related disinformation narratives by articles, @DebunkEU data

Country fails to fight COVID-19 was the second top narrative, with the focus falling on Lithuanian efforts to curb the virus, a result of domestic mis/disinformation directed at the Government of Lithuania or authorities in general.