The Covid-19 pandemic has brought various unintended consequences all around the globe. However, the start of the vaccination campaigns has lit the hope that the health crisis will be over soon.
As a member state of the European Union (EU), Latvia started the Covid-19 vaccination on the 28th of December 2020, only one day after the EU launched its official vaccination campaign. Together with the rest of the world, the EU faced various challenges importing and distributing the jabs to its member states. Moreover, the vaccination campaign stirred up after member states raised concerns about side effects caused by Covid-19 vaccines and paused or stopped the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine, even if the European Medicines Agency (EMA) confirmed it as safe and outweighing the risks of severe side-effects of the Covid-19 infection.
While transparent and credible Western media outlets aimed to cover all the issues and unintended consequences of the EU’s vaccination campaign, malicious pro-Kremlin media outlets misused this information. In particular, the malicious outlets actively portrayed this topic with twisted interpretations and exaggerated conclusions. The media sources favoured Russia’s “superiority” in overcoming the pandemic and Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Despite the growing pro-Kremlin disinformation and attempts to undermine the vaccination in the EU, Latvia over scores Russia in the vaccination speed and Russians themselves have alarming resistance towards the local Sputnik V vaccine.
In pro-Kremlin’s media debate, between January and April 2021, 37 articles discussed Latvia’s place in the EU’s vaccination campaign negatively and misleadingly. Nineteen articles stressed that the issues related to the vaccination process result from diminishing unity and solidarity of the EU. In particular, articles claimed that the Union fails to help its member states, including Latvia, to bolster the Covid-19 vaccination progress, which could lead to the breakdown of the EU. In turn, pro-Kremlin media presented the Sputnik V vaccine as an alternative, which Latvia refuses to import because the EMA has not approved it for administration in the EU.
The second-largest number of articles discussed Latvia’s vaccination progress within the overall European vaccination campaign within the same narrative – “European Union unity is diminishing”. However, this time the articles stressed that Latvia as a smaller member state is “left behind” the EU’s vaccination campaign. Furthermore, the pieces strived to polarise the EU’s member states, presenting Latvia as “less significant” than greater members. Often pro-Kremlin media sources designed Latvia as a “EU’s colony” or defined the EU as a “landlord” of Latvia.
The third most discussed sub-narrative in correlation with the vaccination process in Latvia was “Latvia pursues anti-Russian policy”. Kremlin affiliated media found various creative ways to reinforce the older narratives usually applied to the Baltics when misleadingly discussing the events happening in these countries. For example, five articles stressed that Latvia would need to overstep its Russophobia and start to think about importing the Sputnik V vaccine because, as the sources claimed, Russophobia is one of the main reasons why Latvia refuses to administer the Russian jab. Instead, Latvia’s Health Minister Daniels Pavluts has claimed that the government is ready to discuss the Sputnik V vaccine if the EMA approves it. In short, Latvia plans to align with the EU’s vaccine portfolio and rejects the possibility to import vaccines not recommended by the EMA.
While discussing Latvia’s place and pace of vaccination process in the EU’s overall vaccination campaign, disinformation actors rarely employed completely fake and easily verifiable facts. Instead, pro-Kremlin media used hyperbolisation and malign rhetoric techniques, which strived to exaggerated content, selectively engage information and present it in a malicious and unethical manner.
While analysing the data, it became clear that three pro-Kremlin media outlets - rubaltic.ru (18.9%), news-front.info (18.9%) and cont.ws (18.9%) distributed more than half of the overall disinformation about Latvia in the EU during the Covid-19 vaccination campaign between January and April 2021. Interestingly, the pro-Kremlin disinformation channels aimed for new platforms and ways to spread misleading news and cont.ws, perceivable as a rather social media platform or blog, distributed and reproduced a significant number of misleading information about Latvia’s vaccination progress in the EU throughout the monitored period.