Russia’s internet disinformation efforts go far beyond electoral interference. State Department officials speaking to the the Wall Street newspaper say Russia is waging a disinformation campaign using at least four online posts and a host of social media accounts to shake confidence in competing COVID-19 vaccines Sputnik-V. Outlets New perspective from the east, News Front, Oriental review and Rebel inside all cast unfounded doubts about vaccines like Pfizer’s, mistakenly calling mRNA delivery a “radical experimental technology” that was dangerous and less effective.
The four sites are “directly” linked to Russian agencies such as the FSB’s security service and SVR foreign intelligence, according to a US official. Social accounts linked to these posts have mostly been retired, although some of their non-English speaking accounts were active as recently as early 2021.
The State Department acknowledged the findings in a statement to the WSJ, but did not provide direct evidence linking the sites to the Russian government. It was a “joint interagency” conclusion that Russia bears “direct responsibility” for spreading lies, the representative said. Russia has denied the allegations in its own response, but it also has a long history of denying disinformation and hacking campaigns despite strong evidence.
Russian leaders are strongly urged to attack rival vaccines. The country clearly hopes to increase sales of Sputnik-V, but it is also believed to be using the vaccine to exert influence around the world. A country willing to buy these shots might be receptive to other Russian deals, for example.
There is little the United States can do to shut down sites on its own when they are owned and operated by foreigners. Still, the findings could easily increase pressure on the U.S. government and social media to crack down on vaccine misinformation. A little like conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, false vaccine claims could be genuinely dangerous, leading people to skip life-saving injections or even attack vaccine distribution and promotion agencies.