The Food and Drug Administration’s recent full approval of the Pfizer vaccine is a huge blow to the anti-vaccine movement and Russia’s consistent efforts to undermine confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines. More than 26% of Americans are reluctant to get vaccinated, and for some, the lack of FDA’s full authorisation has been the rationale. However, the anti-vaccine rhetoric runs deeper, and mounting evidence suggests that Russia is behind it.
Although proven to be 95% effective at preventing severe COVID-disease, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been the subject of a plethora of false claims, ranging from its long-term effects such as infertility to it being part of a global conspiracy theory to kill humanity. For anyone even slightly unsure about getting the jab, it is very easy to find those on the web that will reinforce concerns with suggestions that we are all participating in the biggest health experiment in human history. That narrative combined with the demonization of pharmaceutical companies—the epitome of innovation and capitalism—fits perfectly into Russia’s agenda.
I have personally experienced how anti-vaccine propaganda works. A few days before getting my first shot, I came across what seemed like sensible vaccine scepticism, then quickly found myself sliding into vaccine hesitancy. The more I wanted to balance out the risks and make my own decision, the further away I was driven from common sense. Many anti-vaccine comments on social media make the same point: vaccines are unsafe, and Western governments and media are intentionally hiding the truth from you.
As it turned out, those anti-vaccine efforts were structured and well-coordinated. In May, The Guardian reported that French and German YouTubers, bloggers, and influencers were offered money by a PR agency linked to Russia to make false claims about the Pfizer vaccine. The influencers were asked to go on various social media channels to ask: “Why are some governments actively purchasing the Pfizer vaccine, which is dangerous to the health of the people?” along with promoting a fraudulent leaked report.
A July report by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) found that Russian intelligence agencies did indeed launch a coordinated disinformation attack at Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. The researchers analysed over 8 million Twitter posts and noticed a huge increase of Tweets containing the name Pfizer and words associated with conspiracy theories like “plandemic,” “big pharma,” and “scandemic” since the public began getting vaccinated. Unsurprisingly, there was a spike in the use of these terms during the U.S. election of 2020, and occasionally a staggering 100 of such malevolent Tweets would be sent in just one minute.
Furthermore, the report found that, out of 4 million articles mentioning American pharmaceutical companies involved in COVID-19 vaccine production that appeared online since January 2020, more than half a million were from known disinformation sources. Sadly, It is these articles—not credible ones—that have attracted the most engagement.
The popular 5G conspiracy theory—another anti-vaccine theme pushed by Russia—also proved to be successful in eroding Americans’ trust for the vaccines. According to a July 2021 poll released by Economist/YouGov, 1 in 5 Americans believe the U.S. government is using the COVID-19 vaccine to microchip the population.
Russia’s continuous meddling with American public opinion and domestic politics is hardly news, but in the case of vaccines, it is a question of life and death and an end to forever lockdowns. To bring normalcy back, we need to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Efforts by the pharmaceutical companies to make that happen are inspiring. Yet convincing that 26% of vaccine-hesitant Americans that vaccines are safe will take more than just a glossy PR campaign. Exposing the Russian propaganda that fuels vaccine hesitancy must be a part of the solution.