The rollout of the Pfizer vaccine is welcome news for this country. But as states gear up for a vaccination roll out of epic proportions and Americans start receiving their first doses, they will need to be on heightened alert for Russian disinformation attacks. Based on the country’s long history of health-related disinformation and their more recent operations surrounding the virus, Vladimir Putin likely sees this period as a moment of opportunity to hurt the US further.
Health crises — including global ones — have long been weaponized by the Kremlin.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union launched a global disinformation operation — codenamed Operation Denver — about AIDS, including false claims that the disease was a man-made US biological weapon. More recently, Russia spread disinformation about Ebola.
Moreover, Russia has specifically weaponized content about vaccines in the past. Studies have shown that accounts linked to a Russian troll farm – the Internet Research Agency — have previously magnified the online debate about vaccinations. By amplifying both sides of the anti-vaccination debate, these disinformation operations show they all have more than one thing in common — they intend to sow confusion and undermine confidence in the US and its institutions.
This pandemic period has been no different. According to US officials, Russia has been hard at work spreading Covid-19 related disinformation — while also hacking into various pieces of the Covid-19 ecosystem and, based on new reporting, into US government systems — it’s quite clear that the Kremlin is good at multitasking in cyberspace. Using fake websites, social media accounts and state controlled media, the Kremlin’s information warriors have used this chaotic period to advance their ongoing mission to undermine the credibility of US institutions (a job made a lot easier in light of the chaotic US pandemic response effort and the President’s ongoing lies) and divide us.
Ever since Russia unveiled its Covid-19 “Sputnik” vaccine, its disinformation operations have included efforts to undermine confidence in western vaccines and to bolster its own. A Sunday Times investigation revealed a disinformation campaign specifically targeting the Oxford University vaccine, a move that British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called “reprehensible.” The Kremlin has denied the accusations, which the Kremlin’s spokesperson referred to as “circus-like.”
If we’re going to have an honest conversation about Covid-19 disinformation, including treatments and vaccines, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room: President Donald Trump.
For months, Trump has engaged in a host of his own domestic disinformation operations — spreading lies about the severity of the virus, the US response, potential treatments, the vaccine and more. One study dubbed him the single largest driver of the “infodemic.”This is a President who at one point suggested bleach could treat Covid-19. Trump’s own deluge of disinformation arguably means that the Kremlin has been able to rely on his own content to help advance their mission of sowing confusion.
Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic also helps fuel any Kremlin narratives about waning US credibility. The fact that a controversial former member of Trump’s Covid-19 task force — Dr. Scott Atlas — went (while on White House grounds) on the RT TV network, a foreign agent of Russia, was probably just the icing on the cake from the Kremlin’s perspective.
It is clear that we desperately need a public messaging campaign to counter Russian disinformation attacks — and we need it fast. Unfounded fears about the Pfizer vaccine could be seeded or amplified by Russia, leading to unnecessarily public health risks if people choose not to get vaccinated.
But based on the administration’s terrifying track record with the truth and their own spreading of misleading Covid-19 information, it is not well positioned to lead this campaign. The best thing Trump can do right now is keep quiet. States will need to step-up individually, just as they have done since the outbreak of the virus. The more they can coordinate on their messaging, the better.
While President Trump lacks credibility, President-elect Joe Biden does have standing. And with the transition now underway, he is getting updated intelligence and information about the Covid-19 response. We could see him captain this critical Covid-19 vaccine information campaign.
Biden has said, “There’s only one President at a time,” but with American lives at stake, high level messaging from the President-elect and his transition team about the vaccine — including Biden potentially personally and publicly getting the vaccine — would go a long way.