“World saviours”: Russia leads the fight against COVID-19, Belarus provides Sputnik V to neighbors

In addition to the wide-spread network of propaganda channels, high level officials of the Kremlin regime often amplify disinformation narratives as well - in May, the EU was accused of allegedly preparing a smear campaign to fault Russia of igniting an anti-vaccination drive. Moreover, quotes by a Nobel prize winner and manipulations with data on the side effects or fatalities were used to fearmonger audiences and shake their trust in the effectiveness of vaccines.

COVID-19 disinformation analysis statistics, May 2021

The share of disinformation within the false and misleading content on COVID-19 in May 2021 stood at 93.2%, as measured by articles. With regards to DebunkReach®, the share amounted to 97.2%.

Almost 90% of misinformation (122 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.

It is important to note, however, that disinformation, as systematic attempts to denigrate the magnitude of the pandemic and the measures taken against it, such as national vaccination programmes and quarantine restrictions, was found in 774 hits posted on Facebook pages and groups, representing a share of 86.4% within the relevant coverage on this social media platform and evidencing a high rate of conscious efforts to spread deceptive claims.

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

Top narratives and sub-narratives by mentions, May 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.

Top narratives and sub-narratives by DebunkReach, May 2021

It was, as evidenced by the charts, Russia pioneering in the fight against COVID-19, that was amplified the most, especially in reporting official announcements by top Russian officials and institutions. The narrative ranked only fourth in terms of hits and led with regards to the audiences affected. Similarly, West seeks to discredit Russian and Chinese vaccines ranked third measured by DebunkReach® and sixth in terms of hits.

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

A couple of the most prominent cases from the chart are discussed in the following parts of the article.

Case #1 The EU is plotting a smear campaign against Russia

What was claimed

The EU leadership is preparing another smear campaign against Russia trying to accuse it of igniting an anti-vaccination drive, according to a statement of the Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) press service. ‘Indeed, there are no limits to cynicism and hypocrisy’, the head of SVR Sergey Naryshkin said. Russian authorities are open to consider the issue of lifting the patent restraints to relevant inventions, whereas the real impediment to the expansion of the vaccination scale in European countries is the counteraction of EU officials. (Komsomolskaya Pravda, 18/05/2021)

Our verdict

On May 18, Sergey Naryshkin, the head of SVR gave an interview to BBC where he suggested that it was Western intelligence that may have orchestrated SolarWinds cyber-attack and not Russia. On the same day, Russian media vigorously reported on a statement by SVR citing Naryshkin as saying that the West was reading yet another smear campaign against Russia, trying to accuse it of igniting an anti-vaccination drive. Speaking on national television next day, May 19, Russia’s top spy said that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is “dragging its feet” influenced from the top of the EU, and not because of any genuine scientific concern. However, in mid-May, an international group of scientists over what they called a lack of transparency, missing data and questionable findings in the clinical research behind the Sputnik V vaccine. In April, Brazil’s health regulator rejected the vaccine after reviewing documentation which said the jab carried a live version of adenovirus. Accusations of carrying out smear campaigns targeting Russia and its fight against COVID-19, as well as risking the lives of the population instead of purchasing Sputnik, have been repeatedly voiced by Russia’s top officials.

Narrative timeline

Case #2 Belarus will help neighbouring countries to speed up their vaccination process

What was claimed

Many of Belarus’ neighbor states are struggling with their Covid-19 vaccine programs. This problem is particularly acute in Ukraine, where just 0.3% of the population is fully vaccinated against coronavirus.

“Although their governments behave indecently towards Belarus, you can see the demand for Sputnik V in Western countries, and there are a lot of people trying to get to us,” Lukashenko claimed. “We need to help our neighbors, especially the Ukrainians. You see what’s going on there.” (RT, 28/05/2021)

Our verdict

The claim that ‘Many of Belarus’ neighbour states are struggling with their Covid-19 vaccine programs’ is an example of an inflated situation using aspects that are true to a certain degree: it is only Ukraine that has a lower vaccination rate than Belarus among the country’s neighbours. As the share of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Belarus stood at 2.88%, the rate for Ukraine was 0.17%, whereas that of Russia amounted to 7.61%, Latvia 10.11%, Poland 14.79%, and Lithuania 19.26%. On contrary to authoritarian regimes, democratic ones are known for openly discussing problematic issues of their own, including those concerning national immunisation programmes.

Furthermore, the claim that the governments of the neighbouring states ‘behave indecently’ towards Belarus uses indefinite words without a clear meaning or particular context. The quote of Aleksandr Lukashenko is used to promote the image of Sputnik as the most wanted vaccine, continuing in line with Russia’s projected image as the pandemic saviour. In this case, even if it goes against the official stance of some of the neighbours (refusing the Sputnik V).

Case #3 Vaccinated people die more often than those who are not

What was claimed

According to the data from the Polish Health Ministry, those vaccinated against COVID-19 die at least several times more often than the ones who have not received the jab. As of May 11, 2021, around 3,000 people in Poland died of COVID-19 after receiving their first dose, and 500 more passed away after their second dose of coronavirus vaccine. (nczas.com, 21/05/2021)

Our verdict

The above claims, based on a correspondence between the Health Ministry of Poland and a caller, were included in the original version of the article, which was afterwards debunked by Polish factcheckers and updated on nczas.com to exclude the part about the vaccinated dying more often than those without the jab. Moreover, the letter from the Health Ministry which was circulated not only to evidence alleged inefficiency of COVID-19 vaccines, but, especially on social media, to claim a causal relation between vaccines and deaths, stating that COVID-19 vaccines kill more people than the coronavirus itself (however, observing a temporal relationship does not mean that there is a cause-and-effect relationship).

The news was also commented on Polish Internet television channels, massively shared, and quoted on Facebook. The letter from the ministry actually includes an explanation on why deaths may occur, referring to a period of time needed to develop immunity to the virus and the fact that the incubation period for COVID-19 is thought to extend to 14 days, with a median time of 4-5 days from exposure to symptoms onset. In addition, it stresses the need to adhere to the sanitary rules. Moreover, comparing the vaccinated and unvaccinated death rates leaves out the fact that the immunisation programmes prioritize people most at risk, so the group of people vaccinated is heavily skewed toward those whose age and medical history make them prone to serious cases of COVID-19.

Case #4 Nobel prize winning virologist claims that for those vaccinated there is ‘no chance of survival’

To give credibility to their claims, those producing and/or amplifying mis/disinformation often selectively employ official statistics as well as quotes from public figures within the scope of health sector. On May 22, a post went viral on Facebook with claims about Nobel Prize winning virologist Luc Montagnier saying there was ‘no chance of survival’ for recipients of the coronavirus vaccine. The claim has been since debunked multiple times, yet it’s still used to give ground for assertions that large corporations are looking for employees to replace their current ones soon-to-die as a result of immunisation.

An interview with the virologist used to prove the claim did not include the abovementioned words by Montagnier, yet he did speak about vaccines causing antibody-dependent enhancement, worse disease than before. Scientists were initially concerned about antibody-dependent enhancement when developing the vaccines, but there have been no cases during clinical trials or the rollout to the public. Variants of the SARS-COV-2 virus are created at random, through the mass spread of the virus, whereas vaccination is part of the solution for suppressing transmissions. The articles and posts found by DebunkEU.org analysts included the statements about variants in Estonian, Lithuanian and Polish, as well as the words by Montagnier that the ongoing vaccination across the world is an ‘enormous mistake’. Some of the posts also reminded Montagnier’s belief that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory, alleging that ‘genetically modified coronavirus was designed to contain HIV DNA. The chief COVID guru from the U.S., Anthony Fauci, was to work on it.’

Case #5 Sputnik V vaccine is so great, even Elon Musk is impressed with Russian technological development