The Russia connectionRussia Launches Disinformation Campaign to Undermine Public Confidence in Oxford University’s COVID Vaccine

Published 21 October 2020

The U.K. government said it condemned as “utterly deplorable” a Russia disinformation campaign to undermine public confidence in a coronavirus vaccine currently under development by Oxford University scientists. The Times reported on Friday that Russian government officials have been using social media and Russian state media to depict the vaccine as dangerous – going as far as claiming that the vaccine would turn people into monkeys or chimpanzees.

The U.K. government said it condemned as “utterly deplorable” a Russia disinformation campaign to undermine public confidence in a coronavirus vaccine currently under development by Oxford University scientists.

The Times reported on Friday that Russian government officials have been using social media and Russian state media to depict the vaccine as dangerous – going as far as claiming that the vaccine would turn people into monkeys or chimpanzees.

Pictures, memes. and video clips depicting the British-made vaccine as dangerous to those who would use it have been devised by disinformation specialists working for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, and than planted on web sites in several Western countries.

The Russian campaign to undermine public confidence in the coronavirus vaccine is similar to the broader Russian propaganda and disinformation effort on behalf of the anti-vaxx movement, a movement which spreads misinformation about vaccines in order to discourage their use.

Russia seeks to undermine the confidence of people in Western countries in vaccines – and, more generally, in scientists and experts – in order to weaken Western societies and undermine the health of their populations. In the case of the coronavirus vaccine, Russia has an additional interest: To cast dounts on Western-produces vaccines in order to open the market for the Russian-made product.

The Timesnotes that the campaign to plant false information on websites in targeted Western countries also included Russian state media outlets report on the false postings GRU disinformation specialists planted on Western website as evidence of growing public skepticism about the Oxford vaccine.

Russian political affairs show Vesti News, for example, has already featured two imaged from the GRU-created memes, which falsely mock the vaccine as a “monkey vaccine.,

“Frankly it’s a shabby piece of disinformation,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Friday. “But it’s very serious because it’s an attempt to disrupt the attempts to find a safe vaccine.”

He added: “We know that Russia has a track record of using disinformation as a foreign policy tool. We’ve talked about it previously, but actually any attempt to spread lies about Covid-19 and the vaccine in particular when we’re trying to come together as an international community to resolve a global pandemic is utterly deplorable.”

A Whitehall source described the disinformation as “reckless and contemptible behaviour that could lead to real damage to people’s health”. They added: “This sort of lie fundamentally harms all of us around the world and we need to be alert to identify and counter this kind of activity to support the provision of factual information for all people about Covid-19 and vaccines.”

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said any attempt to undermine public health “could be extremely dangerous”.

“Vaccines are such an important cornerstone of public health for children, that anything that drives that wider view in societies around the world that there is something unsafe about them, really risks the health of children around the world as well.”

“Misinformation is a clear risk to public health,” Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of Astrazeneca, said. “I urge everyone to use reliable sources of information, to trust regulatory agencies and to remember the enormous benefit vaccines and medicines continue to bring to humanity.”

The Timesnotes:

The disinformation campaign against the Oxford vaccine is a small part of a long-running, undeclared quasi-war against the West.

Fake news, social media manipulation and the dissemination of conspiracy theories are key parts of this insurgency.

Russia’s strategy of using all means at its disposal has been attributed to General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, who wrote in 2013 that “the role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons”.

His thinking became known to intelligence officials, academics and journalists as the Gerasimov Doctrine. In truth, however, there is little new in this. President Putin’s Russia is continuing in the Soviet tradition of deploying spies, cultivating influence and spreading disinformation.

What has really changed in the past decade is Russia’s successful harnessing of the internet and global broadcasting.

Since 2015 the EUvsDisinfo project has been monitoring pro-Kremlin media and compiled an open and searchable database of 6,500 pieces of disinformation.

Over the past few months, different agencies of the Russian government have increased the flow of propaganda for Russia’s own coronavirus vaccine, which the Kremlin is hoping to market around the world.

“Denigrating other vaccines, notably the one being tested by Oxford University and Astrazeneca, is a logical next step in that campaign,” The Times says.

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