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Russian Campaign Promotes Homegrown Vaccine and Undercuts Rivals

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 noticed the first uptick in Russia targeting Spanish-speaking communities in August, when President Vladimir V. Putin announced that he had granted approval to Sputnik V. Since then, Russia’s campaign has intensified, said two intelligence officials who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with reporters.

The State Department officials described Russia’s influence campaign as a combination of Russia’s state-backed media outlets highlighting reports that warned about the dangers of the U.S. vaccines, while promoting any reports that were enthusiastic about the Russian-made vaccine.

At the State Department, a report circulated last month outlining Russia’s efforts, according to the officials. A department spokeswoman said Russia had tried to promote its own vaccine while “seeking to sow distrust” in the United States about Western vaccines. Analyzing over 1,000 Russian-aligned Twitter accounts, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center found that Spanish-language accounts showed the greatest engagement. Russia’s campaign, the spokeswoman said, “undermines the collective global effort to end the global pandemic.”

The influence campaign in Mexico has become the best understood of the efforts by the outlets with ties to the Kremlin. It was different from previous Russian disinformation campaigns, which leaned on posting false and misleading information online. As social media companies have become more aggressive in rooting out disinformation, Russian operations have focused on promoting selective news stories that skirt the truth, rather than reject it.

The new approach was particularly effective because the Spanish-language Twitter and Facebook accounts of Russia Today and Sputnik, two state-controlled media outlets, regularly rank among the most influential in Latin America, said researchers at First Draft. Russia Today and Sputnik did not respond to a request for comment.

“They have cultivated a large audience and regularly rank in the top 10 of the most-shared stories or links,” Mr. Longoria said.

This week, Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s deputy health minister, said his government had signed a contract for the Russian vaccine, procuring 24 million doses that will cover 12 million people. The vaccine will be delivered in several stages through May.

On Tuesday, the medical journal The Lancet published the results of an independent review of Sputnik V, showing that it had 91.6 percent efficacy and no serious side effects. The news was a boost to the Mexican government’s procurement efforts.

In December, Facebook said it had removed a Russian disinformation campaign that posted information in French, English, Portuguese and Arabic about a number of topics, including in support of Russia’s vaccine.

“We know influence operations come in different forms, including overt messages promoted through state-controlled media,” said Liz Bourgeois, a Facebook spokeswoman. “We put clear labels on these publishers so people know who the information is coming from.”

She said Facebook had seen clandestine Russian operations mentioning Covid-19 in the past, but had not found any current campaigns. Posts by the Russian news outlets would not have been considered clandestine and would not have been removed by Facebook.

Twitter declined to comment on any Russian operations targeting Spanish-speaking audiences, but said it was still investigating.

The Russian campaign relied on cherry-picked news reports, researchers said. On Jan. 17, Russia Today Espanol tweeted that Norway was moving to investigate why 23 older people had died after receiving the Pfizer vaccine. Three weeks earlier, the same account tweeted multiple reports about six people who died during Pfizer’s vaccine trial. The reports did not include context from medical experts who said the deaths most likely had no connection to the vaccine.

The accounts shared similar narratives on Facebook. On Jan. 5, Russia Today’s Spanish-language Facebook page shared a story with its 17 million followers claiming that a Portuguese nurse died two days after receiving the Pfizer vaccine. The story implied that the vaccine was responsible, even though doctors and an autopsy concluded that the vaccine had probably played no role in her death.

Russia’s diplomatic corps also used their social media accounts to promote an image that the Russian vaccine was being subjected to unfair scrutiny.

The volume of posts was notable, said Mr. Longoria and others who study Russian influence operations. On CrowdTangle, the Facebook-owned tool that analyzes interactions on the site, they found that Russia Today and Sputnik pages targeting Spanish-speaking audiences generated more than 1,000 posts with over six million interactions over the last year with the word “vacuna,” Spanish for vaccine.

Researchers said Russia’s earlier efforts focused on other targets, like the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. A Russian effort to undermine confidence in that vaccine — including memes and posts on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere depicting it as dangerous — peaked over the summer and early fall, according to researchers.

The campaign included suggestions that the vaccine would turn people into monkeys because it was developed using a chimpanzee virus. It largely targeted countries that were debating purchases of the British or Russian vaccines, according to a previous report in The Times of London.

That campaign abruptly stopped in mid-December, after the drugmakers announced that Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had reached a deal to test a combination of their vaccines together.

“You can see a distinct tipping point, where suddenly the stories about AstraZeneca go from being wholly negative to being wholly positive,” Mr. Longoria said. “It is very stark, and very clear that when the business interests changed, so did the objectives of their influence operation.”

Oscar Lopez contributed reporting.