Russian Anti-Vaccine Disinformation Campaign Backfires

For more than a year, Russian-aligned troll factories overseeing thousands of social media accounts have been accused by Western countries and disinformation experts of spreading anti-vaccine messages in an aggressive campaign to spread conspiracy theories and cast doubt on Western coronavirus vaccines. 

But the year-long offensive appears to have backfired. 

Russian officials now worry that the anti-vaccine skepticism encouraged by the troll factories has spilled over and is partly responsible for the high level of vaccine hesitancy among Russians. Only 35% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated, despite the wide availability of the country’s home-grown Sputnik vaccine. Despite surging cases the uptake remains sluggish. 

Social network analysis company Graphika reported last month how Russia-aligned troll factories have recently been focusing on mandatory vaccination campaigns in the West seeking to undermine the effort to cajole more people to get jabbed. The U.S. Department of State last year started to warn that Russia-based propagandists were using social media platforms to spread conspiracy theories and to promote doubts around vaccinations.

But anti-vaccination videos and postings on the Internet are attracting high traffic in Russia, too, with tens of thousands of views. Mistrust of vaccines is pervasive in Russia. A survey conducted earlier this month by the Levada Center, a leading pollster, found 45% of Russians are not prepared to get inoculated. And the pollster found 50% are not afraid of contracting the virus, although it did find the fear of contracting the virus increased from 43% in August to 48% now.

Infections rising

Russian health authorities have been reporting recently around 40,000 new coronavirus cases a day, despite a partial week-long shutdown earlier this month that required Russians to take paid leave in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. Russia’s low vaccination rate is especially dismaying considering that the country became the first in the world to register a COVID-19 vaccine with Russian health authorities approving Sputnik V, which was named for the satellite from half a century ago, in August last year. 

While neighboring countries have sometimes scrambled to meet vaccine demand, especially earlier this year, Russia has been confronted with quite the opposite dilemma: plenty of vaccine supplies but resistance from a vaccine-skeptical population.

In the last few weeks, the number of recorded COVID-19 cases has risen inexorably, with records broken day after day. By ordering most state organizations and private businesses to stop work for a week, except for those involved in maintaining critical infrastructure, the Kremlin hoped the trend could be reversed. But since the involuntary public holiday ended there has been little let-up in the infection rates.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov admitted Wednesday to reporters in Moscow that the authorities had expected the pandemic to end quickly. “At first we thought that the pandemic would end in six months — in a year. Now we see that we were wrong in our calculations. We will soon have two years of this pandemic, and so far, there is no end in sight,” he said.

The Kremlin is planning to launch a new domestic information campaign which will stress that life can only return to normal, and pandemic restrictions lifted, when more Russians are inoculated, according to Kommersant newspaper. The information campaign will also seek to counter anti-vaccine messaging, presumably when it targets Russians, say officials. 

The newspaper quotes two Kremlin sources as saying the new public service information campaign will be overseen by aides of Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Kiriyenko is frequently called on by Putin to manage major domestic political initiatives and he was entrusted with overseeing Kremlin operations for the 2018 presidential election.

Last month, deputy parliamentary speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, a Putin ally, said publicly he feared the Kremlin was losing the information battle. He critiqued the government’s spotty information effort so far, saying on Russian television, “Unfortunately, we conducted an entire information campaign about the coronavirus in Russia incorrectly and completely lost.” Tolstoy added: “People have no trust to go and get vaccinated, this is a fact.”

Distrust

Some commentators have suggested the low vaccine uptake can be linked to rising public mistrust of Putin, but some Russian sociologists see a more complex dynamic at play and they say a variety of factors are involved, from conspiracy theories to widespread distrust of Russia’s hospitals and medical facilities.

In a recent panel discussion hosted by OpenDemocracy, a political website based in Britain, Anna Temkina, a sociology professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, said the relationship between vaccination attitudes and politics is not clear cut, noting anti-Putin protesters were among the first to get inoculated.

“In Russia, many people are not vaccinated regardless of rumors, regardless of politics, but because they have had a traumatic experience of communicating with medical institutions,” Temkina said. “Many of us have such a negative experience of dealing with [Russian] medicine that we know that it is better not to go there at all. In addition, there is also an understanding that it is generally better not to approach any medical facility in an epidemic, since this is a source of infection,” she added.

Other sociologists, including Ekaterina Borozdina, a colleague of Temkina’s, says vaccine resistance has to be seen in an historical context. She says there has been a persistence bias against vaccines for decades. “Russians are in no rush to get vaccinated, even when it comes to fighting a pandemic and getting back to normal everyday life,” she said, speaking at the same panel discussion.

Borozdina says there’s a “mistrust of government institutions” and bureaucracy in general. “Even before the emergence of the pandemic about 45 percent of Russians failed to follow the recommended vaccination schedules for their children.” 

Kremlin spokesperson Peskov admitted midweek that the government has not done enough to explain the importance of getting inoculated. Putin last week urged lawmakers to promote vaccination, saying, “People trust and listen to your advice and recommendations.”

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