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Disinformation sites make pivot to covid vaccine

Russian medicine promotedin Spanish-language posts by SHEERA FRENKEL, MARIA ABI-HABIB AND JULIAN E. BARNES THE NEW YORK TIME | February 6, 2021 at 5:33 a.m.

Russian news outlets connected to election disinformation campaigns in the United States have set their sights on a new target: persuading 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 was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Sputnik V is considered less expensive and easier to transport than vaccines made by U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna. But some researchers say the criticism in Russian outlets of the Western vaccines has been misleading.

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"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 PR 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 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 Putin announced that he had granted approval to Sputnik V. Since then, Russia's campaign has intensified, said two intelligence officials who spoke 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 spokesman said Russia has tried to promote its own vaccine while "seeking to sow distrust" in the United States about Western vaccines. Analyzing more than 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 spokesman 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.

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