In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. Russian trolls have spread the myth via social media. They are also spreading other vaccine disinformation. Antivaxxers are doing Putin's work for him.
The Virality Project (2022). Memes, Magnets and Microchips: Narrative dynamics around COVID-19 vaccines. Stanford Digital Repository. Available at https://purl.stanford.edu/mx395xj8490
The first operation linked to Russian actors involved a small network of fake personas that targeted right-leaning audiences on alternative social media platforms Gab and Parler, as well as the far-right discussion forum patriots[.]win, as early as November 2020. The accounts in the network posted a series of memes, articles, and messages that appeared aimed to exacerbate existing social and political tensions in the United States, including around the Biden administration’s response to COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout. Many of these posts featured highly inflammatory political cartoons, which may have been created by the actors themselves, and leveraged a variety of divisive partisan themes, such as suggestions that Biden was benefiting from Trump’s hard work to combat the pandemic while ignoring other issues such as rising US inflation. The accounts also attempted to amplify anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, spread doubts about vaccine efficacy, and depict the vaccine rollout as state-imposed oppression designed to enrich pharmaceutical companies and erode American freedoms.146 The actors behind this operation have been linked to the same group responsible for the “Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens” (NAEBC), a fake right-wing news outlet that targeted US audiences ahead of the 2020 election and was connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency.147
A second operation was attributed to a marketing firm operating from Russia called Fazze.148 While it is not clear who Fazze was working for, the company appears to have engaged in a concerted effort to covertly disseminate narratives online denigrating Western-made COVID-19 vaccines, including by attempting to hire YouTube influencers to deliver unattributed messages. In late 2020, for example, the group spread memes on Facebook and Instagram suggesting the AstraZeneca vaccine was dangerous because it was developed from a chimpanzee adenovirus—claims echoed by some Russian state media outlets that have attacked AstraZeneca for producing a “monkey vaccine.”149 Months later, the same actors were caught attempting to seed misleading information online about the safety of the Pfizer vaccine, this time by disseminating an alleged internal AstraZeneca report on vaccine mortality rates.150 Fake personas posted copies of the report online alongside a propaganda article, which claimed that the report was hacked orleaked. Fake social media accounts then posted these articles to groups concerned with COVID-19 information and vaccine safety. Fazze also contacted prominent social media influencers, offering to pay them to post videos amplifying the claims to YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.151 The effort was quickly exposed, in part because the targeted influencers posted instead about the manipulative outreach, but some reports have noted that at least two influencers posted videos that appear to match the instructions that Fazze distributed.152
The narrative themes present in the efforts undertaken by the covert actors, particularly attempts to exacerbate existing social and political cleavages, were mirrored by Russian state media and representatives. For example, RT amplified claims suggesting vaccine passports are akin to government overreach and population segregation, proclaimed the emergence of a global “#Covid apartheid,” and suggested that harms associated with mRNA vaccines were downplayed by the media in collusion with US business elites.154 Russian state media also amplified research of questionable veracity that suggested Western vaccines are ineffective or harmful. However, in contrast to the covert campaigns , which were not intended to be obviously pro-Russian, the overt state media approach additionally contrasted the supposed failures of Western vaccines with the success of the Sputnik V vaccine. When the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused to review a possible risk of blood clots, Russian state media paired neutral coverage of the specific story with articles highlighting the lack of blood clots associated with the Sputnik V vaccine.155 Russianstate media additionally featured interviews with anti-vaccine influencers who had been deplatformed by mainstream social media platforms—implying or suggesting that the US was censoring those critical of potentially dangerous vaccines.156