Snowmen against Putin, Netanyahu’s chatbot and Kim Jong-un’s fake vaccine

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our lives. Below are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

Earlier this month, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei ordered his government to spurn Western-made vaccines, prompting Iran’s Red Crescent to cancel its order of 150,000 Pfizer shots. The decision caused outrage across the country, with opposition leaders condemning it as irresponsible. But now an open letter, signed by 2,500 doctors and academics, has surfaced in support of the government. The letter, published by Iran’s state media agencies, contains fake claims, including that mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer’s “cause unknown and possibly irreversible side-effects.” It turns out that some of the signatories are fake too. The fact-checking site Fact Nameh says some of the names don’t even show up on the medical register, while others are notorious conspiracy theorists and purveyors of unproven traditional medicine.

“If you know someone who is nervous about getting vaccinated, send me their name and number,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Facebook followers last week. “Maybe they’ll get a surprise phone call from me – I’ll convince them.” Netanyahu encouraged his followers to give him their relatives’ details using his chatbot, which automatically replies to people who message him. Facebook removed the video, saying it broke its privacy rules, and temporarily blocked the bot.

Ecuadorian police have shut down a fake medical center in Quito, after it gave out 70,000 fake Covid-19 vaccines to local patients. The secret operation masqueraded as a “slimming massage spa,” and its owner told reporters that he was just giving out “vitamins and serums to boost the immune system.” Authorities seized boxes and boxes of the fake vaccines, which had been administered in three doses, costing $15 each. According to local media, neighbors were upset when the police closed the business. One man told Ecuador’s El Comercio: “I got sick with Covid-19 and the doctor saved me. I believe the Virgin protects him.” Ecuador has so far recorded almost 10,000 Covid deaths, and just began its real vaccine rollout, with the first shipment from Pfizer arriving last week.

North Korea has begun human trials on its Covid-19 vaccine, which may have been developed using research stolen by a dedicated team of cyber hackers. Pyongyang has reportedly been making sustained hacking attempts on South Korean and other foreign pharmaceutical companies since October. It’s not known what kind of data the hermit state managed to steal and North Korea does not have the technology to produce its own vaccines. Nonetheless, Kim Jong-un has ordered that North Korea have its own vaccine, so the nation’s scientists have been obliged to come up with something — anything — to show him. The country still claims it has no Covid-19 cases, and those with symptoms are not being tested, quarantined or treated.


The most extraordinary video I saw this week came from Moscow. 

It shows a woman with long blonde hair playing a white piano in the living room of her apartment. 

As her fingers glide across the keys, a group of people behind her read out details of the search warrant they have come to deliver. Beethoven drowns out the words of a policewoman who says that Anastasia Vassileva must hand over all her electronic devices. 

Vassileva, who has since been arrested, is the head of the Doctors Alliance, an opposition-aligned medical trade union. She is also a close ally and a doctor of Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician whose return to Russia and subsequent arrest has captured global attention and sparked mass protests across the country. The government responded with mass arrests, jailing nearly 4,000 people in cities from Moscow to Vladivostok. 

Dozens more, including Vassileva, but also Ludmila Sobol, Navalny’s closest ally, and his brother Oleg, were detained after the demonstrations and accused of violating Covid-19 lockdown rules. 

“We were working in a cafe, when they came for her and ordered her to go home,” Vassileva’s press secretary Aleksandra Zakharova told us. “So when she went home she decided to lift the spirits by playing the piano. What else is there to do?” 

Vassileva joins a dozen of Navalny’s close allies who have all had their apartments searched and electronic devices confiscated ahead of more planned rallies. Most of them are now in jail.

Arrests for violations of Covid-19 rules were made even in places where these rules are not normally enforced, for example in the Russian Arctic. Police looked on when hundreds took to the streets of Murmansk last weekend, shouting “Putin is a thief” and demanding Navalny’s release. Later, Violetta Grudina, the head of the Murmansk branch of Navalny’s Russia of the Future party, was among many who were visited by the police. She was arrested for “failure to wear a mask.”

“No one wears masks in the streets. Life is normal here, there are crowds in the shops, cinemas and malls are open,” said Natalia Seligerskaya, a Murmansk nurse and regional representative of Doctor’s Alliance.

The most unusual, although not Covid-19-related, arrest happened in the Archangel region, where activist Elena Kalinina organized a “demonstration of snowmen” in front of her house. She put up four snowmen holding anti-Putin slogans like “Down with the Tzar”. Russian media reported that the protest sent police into a flurry of confusion, but eventually, they knocked down the snowmen and arrested Kalinina, who remains in jail. 

While Navalny supporters were arrested en masse for violating coronavirus restrictions, Kremlin-friendly channels shared a video of a performance by hundreds of people in black and gold uniforms doing a synchronized dance to patriotic music and shouting “Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin), we are with you.” All in an enclosed space. 

Ahead of more planned demonstrations this weekend, Moscow’s detention facilities are reported to be full. 

Vassileva’s press secretary told us that last time she spoke with her, just before the arrest, she had said, “Everything was wonderful and that we shouldn’t be afraid and that we should continue to fight.” 

Interviews by Coda’s Tania Torocheshnikova

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