Russian disinformation campaigns are trying to sow distrust of COVID vaccines, study finds

July 23, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

Russian propagandists and Internet trolls are increasingly targeting companies with disinformation campaigns that are intended to damage their corporate reputations and stir public animosity. 

That’s according to new research published Friday by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a non-profit that studies the spread of misinformation and deception on social media like Facebook and Twitter. The report’s findings are important because they highlight “a trend that disinformation is now being used as a means of economic warfare,” said NCRI lead intelligence analyst Alex Goldenberg. 

Traditionally, disinformation campaigns have been used “in the context of political warfare,” said Goldenberg. For instance, organizations with ties to the Russian government distributed fake news on social media before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Some of it centered on race and politics as a way to divide the nation.

The NCRI report said that some of the same groups that spread political misinformation during the 2016 presidential election, including Russia’s Internet Research Agency and the Global Research website, have been spreading and amplifying articles intended to “create distrust of U.S. 5G technology.” Some articles repeat conspiracy theories that 5G wireless technology causes health problems and that it is responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“This proliferation of 5G conspiracy theories, many of which are now intertwined with COVID-19 conspiracy theories, now threaten U.S. 5G infrastructure, associated companies, and their personnel,” the report said. “Last year, the Department of Homeland Security put the U.S. telecom industry on alert about related potential cell tower attacks and risks to telecommunications workers.”

Some of the biggest producers of anti-5G conspiracy theories include Russian disinformation sources like the Russian state controlled television network RT. Alternative health and wellness sites like Natural News and Children’s Health Defense are also peddling anti-5G propaganda, the NCRI researchers said.

Additionally, the report discovered that Russian troll outlets are spreading conspiracy theories on social media that are intended to sow doubt about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. The goal is to promote the Russian Sputnik V vaccine at the expense of other COVID-19 vaccines, especially in African countries. Even if the propaganda campaign fails to convince U.S. citizens to consider taking the Sputnik V vaccine, the spread of the basic idea that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are ineffective and perhaps dangerous is valuable to the Russian troll outfits, Goldenberg said.

For the report, the researchers analyzed 4 million articles since January 2020 that mentioned U.S. pharmaceutical companies like Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer and discovered that known-disinformation sources produced over half-a-million of those articles. The researchers also analyzed over 8 million Twitter posts and noticed a huge uptick of tweets containing the name Pfizer and words associated with conspiracy theories like “plandemic,” “big pharma,” and “scandemic” over the past year and a half. Sometimes, up to 100 of these malicious tweets were posted in a single minute, with surges occurring during the recent U.S. presidential election and when the phase 3 clinical trials of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine were revealed.

Retailer H&M was also subject to a recent disinformation campaign that the researchers said may be linked to the Chinese Communist Party. The disinformation campaign involved the spread of articles and videos of various Chinese citizens criticizing H&M after the retailer expressed concern about reports of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Starbucks was the victim of a disinformation campaign in 2018 that involved Internet pranksters creating a fake coupon that people of color could use to receive free coffee after an incident involving the arrest of two Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks. The NCRI research said that the fake Starbucks coupon scandal ballooned to the point where political commenters were referencing the incident as it if it were real, “reaching millions of viewers and promoting outrage on Twitter.”

As for future potential corporate propaganda campaigns, Goldenberg suspects that if scientists determine that people need a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine as protection from the emerging virus variants, it’s likely that disinformation sources will flood the Internet with anti-booster shot propaganda.

NCRI CEO Adam Sohn believes that more corporate disinformation campaigns will continue as state and non-state actors have a solid playbook to spread misinformation across social media. He recommends that corporate marketers must have “an all-seeing eye for their brand on social media to get a sense of where the misinformation trends are in their industry.”

“It might be Company A tomorrow, but it could be you the next day,” Sohn said. 

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