Russia’s campaign to undermine confidence in Western coronavirus vaccines continues to draw scrutiny from USAGM journalists, resulting in exclusive coverage that Russians likely aren’t getting anywhere else.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty investigated a secretive drive to pay French and German social-media influencers to discredit the U.S.-backed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. A team of reporters from RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Central Newsroom found a Moscow-based businesswoman named Yulia Serebryanskaya, linked to Russia’s ruling party, along with a network of Russian marketing companies known for selling dubious nutritional supplements and pushing malware.
“The disinformation campaign involving marketing companies adds a new dimension to Russia’s murky, under-the-radar efforts to promote its own COVID-19 vaccines — in particular the Sputnik V vaccine backed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russia Direct Investment Fund,” RFE/RL reported (English, Russian). The fund has aggressively promoted Sputnik V, extolling, and at times exaggerating, its benefits, while also openly criticizing Western vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna, and amplifying negative scientific results.
RFE/RL’s exclusive report was widely picked up by other media outlets, including The Daily Beast, Newsru.com, Meduza, Blesk, EurasiaReview, and Oleg Kashin on Telegram. It also sparked broad dialogue with Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves, and others discussing the piece on social media.
VOA Russian also offered an in-depth examination of Russian propaganda that questions the safety and efficacy of Western vaccines while promoting the Kremlin’s own Sputnik. VOA’s 25-minute special report includes interviews with officials at the World Health Organization and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. U.S. and European scientists told VOA they question the quality and transparency of Sputnik clinical trials.
Konstantin Andreev and Vasily Vlassov, authors of Lancet publications, said that important information is missing from the studies and if Russian authorities do not provide these critical numbers, they cannot say the vaccine is effective.
Disinformation expert Bret Schafer said that Kremlin-sponsored media distort credible results by cherry-picking information. The VOA report aired on Current Time and was shared on social media, and video-sharing sites.
Both networks’ coverage illustrates the kind of independent reporting that the Kremlin is trying to repress as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to silence media that he can’t control.