Protecting freedom without killing it: Combating vaccine disinformation

A coronavirus vaccine is prepared
Greg Nash

Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether to have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” For the Sage of Monticello, it was simple: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” But how are we, in this age of almost limitless mass media — coupled with a sea of disinformation — to live up to Jefferson’s exacting standards?

Given the world of the internet and multiple platforms, there is more content out there than at any other time in the history of man. Unfortunately, and predictably, along with this news explosion, the very unhealthy scourge of state-sponsored disinformation — with America’s authoritarian foes trying to take advantage of this editorially unregulated Wild West of content — has followed in the internet’s wake.

This basic conundrum of our age has reared its ugly head most recently over the COVID-19 crisis. In October 2020, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused Vladimir Putin’s Russia of mounting a worldwide disinformation campaign aimed at eroding the credibility (and hence the efficacy) of the West’s coronavirus vaccines. Beyond targeting the West, this state-sponsored disinformation campaign has been specifically directed at countries such as Brazil, India and Indonesia, aimed at discrediting the highly effective Western vaccines, in part to build markets for the Russian-sponsored Sputnik V vaccine

Confirming Raab’s fears, a European Union task force also came to the same conclusion, accusing the Kremlin of launching a disinformation strategy involving fake news, social media manipulation, and propagating conspiracy theories as key elements of this campaign. For example, Russia has, through third parties, paid online influencers to run disinformation ads on their highly-traveled social media platforms. Russian state-controlled media sources, in a boomerang effect, then pick up on this Kremlin-generated disinformation from abroad, and report on the manufactured growing Western public skepticism about the vaccines.

For example, in September 2020, Vesti News, a flagship public affairs program broadcast by Russian state-controlled television, included images portraying Oxford’s AstraZeneca vaccine as a “monkey vaccine,” sowing ridicule and fear in equal measure. While it is surely true that the Oxford vaccine was tested on monkeys (as most vaccines are) and that it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector, the contextual reality that this is entirely routine was entirely omitted. General Nick Carter, chief of the British Defense Staff, has accused the Kremlin of engaging in “political warfare” over the vaccine question, purposely seeking to encourage gullible Western conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers, slowing down the West’s recovery from this horrendous pandemic.

China, following in Russia’s footsteps, also has engaged in a disinformation campaign, attacking Western credibility regarding its various vaccines. Beijing uses large numbers of fake social media accounts to spread disinformation abroad, while its tightly state-controlled media domestically manages the pandemic conversation at home.

Chinese strategic disinformation goals are somewhat different than Russia’s: To distract its many critics from focusing on Beijing’s undeniable culpability in facilitating the spread of the virus; highlighting American failures in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, while pointing out China’s relative successes; making the larger point that Beijing is on the global rise while America is in relative decline. A recent study by the State Department found China, Russia and Iran are increasingly carrying out common disinformation narratives about the U.S. and the virus.

So, what are we, Jefferson’s heirs, to do about a level of disinformation in the news that would have been beyond even his prodigious imagination to believe was possible?

Three general points are crucial. First, let the free market work its magic. Experimental platforms are coming online based on solving this precise riddle. For example, Pixstory — a new social media platform where a user’s trust score is based precisely on the factual credibility of the posts they choose to share — values accuracy above the number of hits a post engenders. This market-driven solution goes a long way toward solving the disinformation problem, because concerned citizens are free to join in searching for facts-based platform alternatives to what is going on today.

Second, Western governments must remember the old Cold War strategic reality that propaganda is part and parcel of the overall global geostrategic competition; the Biden administration must regularly (via press conferences and social media) call out Russia and China and other rogue nations, discrediting them globally — on a specific case-by-case basis, if possible — as untrustworthy propagators of disinformation, contrasting Western facts-based governments as looking at the world as it truly is.

So, third, when President Biden finds himself standing next to Presidents Putin or Xi, he should regularly, in front of the world’s news media, take them to task over sowing disinformation. It is past time the West took the narrative fight to those spreading lies for their own purposes. Jefferson rightly recognized that a free, facts-based press was the most revolutionary force on earth. It is high time his successors, taking up our common mantle, recognize that safeguarding Jefferson’s treasure will continue to set the world free. 

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy.

Tags China COVID-19 vaccine Disinformation Iran Joe Biden Propaganda techniques Russia Vladimir Putin

More Healthcare News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video