Russian news outlets connected to election disinformation campaigns in the United States have set their sights on a new target: convincing Spanish-speaking countries that the Russian coronavirus vaccine works better than its American competitors, according to researchers and State Department officials.
The Russian campaign has focused on Latin American nations, including Mexico, which this week signed a deal to acquire millions of doses of the Russian vaccine, and Argentina, which last month began vaccinating its citizens with it.
Conducted on Spanish-language social media and reinforced by the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Mexico City, the campaign signaled a new wrinkle in Russian influence operations, promoting Russian industry and scientific cachet over its competitors as governments around the world race to vaccinate their populations.
The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, was named after the first satellite to orbit the earth, which the Soviet Union launched in 1957. Sputnik V is considered less expensive and easier to transport than vaccines made by the American companies Pfizer and Moderna. But some researchers say the criticism in Russian outlets of the Western vaccines has been misleading.
“Almost everything they are promoting about the vaccine is manipulated and put out without context,” said Bret Schafer, a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an advocacy group that tracks Russian disinformation. “Every negative story or issue that has come out about a U.S.-made vaccine is amplified, while they flood the zone with any positive report about the Russian vaccine.”
Media outlets backed by the Russian government posted to Facebook and Twitter hundreds of links to news stories that reported potential ties suggesting American vaccines may have had a role in deaths, the researchers said. The accounts left out follow-up reports that found the vaccines most likely played no role in the deaths.
“This was a coordinated effort that was part P.R. campaign and part disinformation. It is one of the largest operations we’ve seen to promote a narrative around the vaccine in Latin America, and it appears to have had an effect,” said Jaime Longoria, a disinformation researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit that supports journalists and independent researchers. “Russia steadily seeded a narrative that has grown and been, to some degree, accepted.”
Researchers have tracked similar Russian efforts in Eastern European countries that are still negotiating with Russia to buy the vaccine. Disinformation researchers have also monitored Russia spreading similar narratives in a half-dozen languages, targeting countries in central and West Africa.
China has also joined the fray, striking a similar anti-American vaccine tone aimed at a domestic audience, according to disinformation researchers. While Russia and China do not appear to be working together, their shared interests have led to a shared narrative. Last month, a Twitter account dedicated to Sputnik V included a Chinese report that falsely claimed the U.S. media had remained silent on deaths related to Pfizer’s vaccine.
Intelligence officials in the United States…
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