Why anti-vaccine groups are running with Putin’s narrative

Isobel Cockerell

 

During the first day or two of the invasion of Ukraine, I checked the anti-vaccine telegram groups I monitor to see what they were talking about. At first, there wasn’t a huge amount of discussion about the war. The posts were still concerned with vaccines, with Covid, with moving to Zanzibar (more on that here) to escape regulations. But it quickly shifted.

Using narratives similar to the anti-vaccine disinformation they had been spreading throughout the pandemic, conspiracy-minded groups started promoting the line that the West’s condemnation of Putin’s war was part of a “great deception” or a “great reset” by a mythological deep state. It took only a day or two for the virtual world of anti-vaxxers to turn into a major pro-Putin platform.

In the real world, meanwhile, far-right politicians did something similar. In the days after the invasion, Austrian journalist Nadja Hahn, who monitors fringe and right-wing groups, watched a press conference held by the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a far-right populist party that has been rallying against mandatory Covid vaccination.

“Everybody was talking about Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, and the FPÖ came out with Corona and vaccinations,” she said. The party then began to defend Putin’s invasion, advocating that we should listen to Russia. This pattern picked up and was repeated and intensified all over the world: anti-vaccine groups everywhere began to rally in favor of Vladimir Putin’s side in this war, suddenly adopting age-old Kremlin disinformation tropes that the U.S. was developing bioweapons on Russian borders, or that Putin was defending Russian sovereign land. They are regurgitating the #IStandWithPutin hashtag, and are supporting the invasion in the name of rejecting the official narrative.

Anti-vaccine and conspiracy groups are now a significant source of support for the Kremlin in Europe.

But why does Putin’s line appeal to those who have spent the past two years rallying against vaccine regulations and Covid mandates? “It’s the same narrative, the same storytelling — this conviction that the mainstream media is lying, the government is lying, that only they know what’s true. It appeals to those who are feeling left behind,” said Hahn.

The Kremlin also has a direct hand in cultivating these anti-science disinformation networks in the first place. Russian-aligned campaigns have tapped into skepticism and fears of the Covid vaccination for years, and pushed its own vaccine, Sputnik, through campaigns designed to undermine Western shots.

Even long before the pandemic, Russian-backed bots, “content polluters” and trolls amplified the vaccine debate, backing both pro- and anti-vaccine sides with highly political and divisive messages that promoted discord. The point was to erode public understanding on vaccination, while exploiting and widening existing societal chasms. Covid then created loud, powerful political groups like those in Austria and Italy, which are easy to activate.

In recent years, the anti-vaccine community has got exponentially stronger, louder and more powerful. And Putin’s chickens have come home to roost: those groups bolstered and nurtured by Kremlin disinformation campaigns years ago are now backing his invasion.

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS 

The fight over childhood Covid vaccination rages on. A bioethics paper titled “against Covid-19 vaccination of healthy children” is being lambasted by scientists on Twitter as “a superb example of how to intentionally mislead readers so as to persuade them against vaccination.” It’s been criticized for cherry picking evidence, and leaving out the fact that the Omicron surge in the U.S. saw record-high hospitalizations in young kids. There’s an ongoing, pervasive myth circulating that kids can’t die of Covid. It’s a claim repeated by Tucker Carlson on his program, and was part of the basis for the decision by the Florida surgeon general to recommend against vaccinating healthy kids. The chances of a healthy child dying of Covid are very low. But, writes Jonathan Howard on the Science-Based Medicine blog this week, “there’s a world of difference between “essentially close to zero” and “actually zero” when millions of children contract the virus. A rare event multiplied millions of times adds up.” 1,421 children have so far died of Covid in the U.S., and thousands more have been hospitalized. Howard writes: “All arguments against vaccinating healthy children really boil down to, “the vaccine won’t save the lives of that many children, so there’s really no point.” I don’t think that’s a very good argument. Do you?”

Did seven busloads of Russian soldiers really get acute radiation sickness? There’s a story circulating heavily across social media, claiming that seven busloads of Russian soldiers have developed Acute Radiation Syndrome while stationed in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Radiation experts and scientists have spoken up, saying they find it extremely doubtful these claims are true, because acute radiation syndrome only really affects those who have been on the spot when a nuclear accident takes place. “None of this is to say that messing around in the Exclusion Zone is safe,” tweeted nuclear expert Jeremy Gordon, explaining that those impacts will potentially be seen in the future, when the soldiers could develop cancer or other complications. But seven busloads of Acute Radiation Syndrome patients is unlikely. 

Japan has relaunched its HPV vaccination drive. It could mark a moment of recovery for the country, which has been dogged by anti-vaccine campaigns specifically targeting young women for years. Activists claimed the shot, which protects against cervical cancer, has debilitating side-effects, and through a smear campaign managed to pressure the government to stop recommending the vaccine. It was a devastating blow for cervical cancer rates in Japan, which causes nearly 3,000 deaths among women each year. So for thousands of women, it’s already too late to re-introduce the HPV vaccine.

WHAT WE’RE READING

The UN Population Fund has released a new report that says misinformation and myths about contraception — not lack of access — are the leading reason for unplanned pregnancies worldwide. Women around the world get pregnant because they believe contraception makes them fat, sterile, causes hemorrhages or cancer. The report is calling for governments to educate women and combat myths and misperceptions. Also, a podcast recommendation for you: check out the Inoculation, exploring the intersection of anti-vaccine beliefs, technology, and politics. Its hosts tell me next week’s episode will be about anti-vaxxers backing Russia, so keep an eye out.

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