Anyone active on social media is aware that there is a great deal of passionate but ill-founded opposition to vaccination, including to the new COVID-19 vaccines. How could that be? Physicians and the public health establishment are constantly promoting vaccination, especially as we try to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic.
It turns out that the anti-vaccine sentiment is the product of what can only be described as an industry whose principal protagonists are an organized group of professional propagandists. As recently reported in the science journal Nature, they are people "running multi-million-dollar organizations, incorporated mainly in the USA, with as many as 60 staff each."
Moreover, the source of much of the misinformation about vaccines comes from an unobvious source: the Russian government's propaganda apparatus, which cultivates and exploits foreign anti-vaccine "useful idiots," causing palpable harm to Americans and citizens of other Western countries.
This is part of a much broader and long-standing pattern of attacks by Russia. As journalist and historian Anne Applebaum wrote last week (March 19th) in The Atlantic:
For decades now, Russian security services have studied a concept called 'reflexive control'—the science of how to get your enemies to make mistakes. To be successful, practitioners must first analyze their opponents deeply, to understand where they get their information and why they trust it; then they need to find ways of playing with those trusted sources, in order to insert errors and mistakes. This way of thinking has huge implications for the military; consider how a piece of incorrect information might get a general to make a mistake.
As I've previously described, Russia regularly conducts health-related disinformation and propaganda campaigns intended to humiliate or disparage the country's foreign enemies. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union concocted an elaborate disinformation scheme to blame the appearance of HIV and AIDS on U.S. military research. They first planted the story in a sympathetic Indian newspaper, then followed it up with other fake stories that cited the initial report.
A 2018 U.S. Senate-commissioned analysis by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm, confirmed that Russia's infamous troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, conducts "modern information warfare" against its adversaries. Renee DiResta, the research director of the firm, described the IRA's battle plan as a "cross-platform attack that made use of numerous features on each social network and that spanned the entire social ecosystem."
A study published by academics in 2018, "Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate," found that thousands of Russian social media accounts were spreading anti-vaccine messaging. From an examination of almost two million tweets posted between 2014 and 2017, the researchers found that Russian troll accounts were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than were Twitter users generally. They noted that Russian tweets like, "Apparently only the elite get 'clean' #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?!" seem intended to exacerbate socioeconomic tensions in the United States.
Russia is at it again now, in earnest. Using online publications to raise concerns about the rapidity of the coronavirus vaccines' development and their safety, they have been conducting an aggressive campaign to undermine confidence in the Pfizer-BioNTech and other Western coronavirus vaccines.
THE VACCINE WARS
As reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 7th, "an official with the State Department's Global Engagement Center, which monitors foreign disinformation efforts, identified four publications that he said have served as fronts for Russian intelligence." They are New Eastern Outlook, Oriental Review, News Front, and Rebel Inside. The official said that, although the outlets' readership is small, they spread false narratives that can be amplified by other media organizations and, of course, by the domestic anti-vaccine industry.
The Journal further reported:
In addition, Russian state media and Russian government Twitter accounts have made overt efforts to raise concerns about the cost and safety of the Pfizer vaccine in what experts outside the U.S. government say is an effort to promote the sale of Russia's rival Sputnik V vaccine.
"The emphasis on denigrating Pfizer is likely due to its status as the first vaccine besides Sputnik V to see mass use, resulting in a greater potential threat to Sputnik's market dominance," says a forthcoming report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on the danger that authoritarian governments pose to democracies and that is part of the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank.
Interestingly, in the past, the Russian disinformation accounts also occasionally posted pro-vaccine messages, to give the illusion of genuine controversy, while attempting to exploit a wedge issue and foment social discord, erode trust in public health institutions, and elicit mistrust of pharmaceutical companies.
Further evidence of Russia's intentions was established by the 2017 Tweets from Russian troll accounts discovered by New Knowledge's DiResta, which created a synergistic link between vaccine denial and U.S. racial divides. For example, "Diseases Expert Calls for White Genocide Since Most Vaccine Deniers are White" was tweeted by several Russian trolls. DiResta believes the Russians' motive is "opportunism—opportunistically amplifying controversial topics," but the bottom line is that Russian agitprop campaigns seek to stoke controversy over vaccination to both divide and injure Americans.
Russia's disinformation about vaccines, particularly during a historic viral pandemic, has severe consequences, not least of which is promoting skepticism about the pronouncements of public health, medical, and scientific experts, and encouraging "vaccine hesitancy"—with the palpable damage that results. More Americans will become infected, more viral mutants will emerge, and control of the pandemic will be more elusive.
THE BROADER WAR ON AMERICAN INNOVATION
The Russians' perfidy isn't limited to vaccines. There is evidence that for decades Russia has attempted to sow distrust and skepticism to undermine key U.S.-dominant industries. For instance, genetic engineering in agriculture ("agricultural biotechnology") also holds intense interest for the Russians, whose propaganda machine works closely with the well-financed, U.S.-based anti-genetic engineering movement. These collaborations with Russia on disseminating propaganda are described here and here. U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), the most aggressive of the anti-genetic engineering nongovernmental organizations in the United States, and the outlet RT (formerly "Russia Today") have the same objective: to undermine American science and technology.
More direct evidence of a Russian connection to anti-genetic engineering trolling in the United States can be found in a bizarre 2017 story claiming that first lady Melania Trump banned genetically engineered foods from the White House and favors organic products. Much of the article, including some of the quotes attributed to the first lady, was cribbed verbatim from a 2010 Yes! Magazine article that had nothing whatever to do with her. (Yes! is a radical left-wing publication devoted to "social justice, environment, and health and happiness.")
That article ran on Your News Wire, another fake news source linked to Russia. The author of the article, "Baxter Dmitry," has penned pieces for New Wire that allege, among other things, that "Sweden Bans Mandatory Vaccinations Over 'Serious Health Concerns'" (untrue, but there's the vaccine connection again) and that a "former Hillary Clinton employee" was arrested for "treason" (untrue). He also wrote in 2107 that Melania Trump "has credited the healing and nurturing properties of nature for her good health, and urged Americans to stop leaning so heavily on Big Pharma to provide 'magic potions' to cure their ills" (untrue).
If the involvement of Russia and its notorious troll factories in disparaging U.S. biotechnology seems a stretch, consider the 2018 study by two Iowa State University researchers, Shawn Dorius and Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, who looked at the source of articles containing the word "GMO" (genetically modified organism) and how genetic engineering was portrayed. They found that Russia's English-language propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik produced more articles containing "GMO" than five other major news organizations—Huffington Post, Fox News, CNN, Breitbart News, and MSNBC—combined.
The two Russian outlets together accounted for more than half of all the GMO-related articles among the seven sites (RT, 34%; Sputnik, 19%), and "RT and Sputnik overwhelmingly portrayed genetic modification in a negative light," the researchers wrote. "Among U.S. news organizations, the left-leaning Huffington Post produced the most 'anti' articles, followed by CNN. Fox News produced the most neutral or mixed coverage of GMOs." The researchers also found that RT published "nearly all articles in which the term GMO appeared as 'clickbait.'"
According to Dorius and Lawrence-Dill,
Russian misinformation attacks reflected the full spectrum of anti-GMO attitudes, covering, for example, environmental concerns (cross-pollination, species loss, chemical pollution), health risks (a cause of cancer, Zika), nutritional deficiencies, political corruption, negative social and economic consequences for developing countries (suicide of Indian farmers), corporate malfeasance (manipulation of facts by Monsanto), and corruption of federal regulatory agencies. The extensive nature of Russian News portrayal of GMOs reflects a deep understanding of the psychological antecedents of public distrust in bioengineering and an intent to more firmly link these antecedents in the public consciousness.
Speaking with Cornell University's Alliance for Science, Dorius notes the significance of this specific disinformation campaign: "GMOs are deeply connected with international trade, environmental and food policy, and the strategically important issue of food security... That we are seeing a pattern of contrast between the U.S. model of agriculture, and what Russian news frames as a cleaner, alternative agriculture system, suggests that there may be different, or additional motivations."
In 2016, Russia placed a ban on commercial GMOs, making goods produced in Russia more favorable to Yes! Magazine-type consumers. But Russia's rejection of genetic engineering and its embrace of "agroecology," a vaguely defined concept that amounts to reliance on primitive, lower-yielding agricultural techniques, ultimately doom it to fall ever-farther behind the modern agriculture of the West. Because Russia lags far behind the U.S. and many other nations, both in sophistication and the amount of genetic engineering research and development it conducts, its government has adopted a strategy of aggressively trying to demean and discredit other countries' efforts. By discouraging the acceptance of modern genetic engineering techniques abroad, Russia hopes to prevent the gap between their and others' agriculture from becoming a chasm.
Similar to the case of COVID-19 vaccines, Russia's disinformation about U.S.-dominant scientific and technological sectors such as fracking and genetic engineering is intended solely to damage American interests. The actions of the Russians and their U.S.-based "useful idiots," are in many ways a throwback to the malevolence of the Stalin era: injure and kill Americans, promote discord, create mistrust of U.S.-dominant industries, and damage our health, ability to innovate, and productivity. These attacks are growing in scale, sophistication, and effectiveness. Isn't it time we did something about it?
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.