The United States has entered a new and aggravating phase of COVID-19, with plentiful vaccines — which poorer nations could only dream of — but a stubborn constituency unwilling to embrace the cure. While much of the disinformation originates domestically, many Americans are unaware that this current firestorm around COVID public health measures and vaccines has also been manipulated and fueled by malign state actors to exacerbate our divisions and sow distrust.
Russia Today (RT) has even amplified Nicki Minaj’s infamous tweet about the COVID vaccine causing the swollen nether regions of her cousin’s friend in Trinidad, suggesting that she might be on to something. The U.S. is vulnerable and exposed — not only to worsening health outcomes but to further erosion of trust in our information space and institutions.
Information manipulation is easy in an environment with a polarized media landscape, distrust in governance institutions, and overall deteriorating democracy credentials. A country scared, vulnerable, and desperately seeking facts and advice has faced an onslaught of misleading, incorrect, and dangerous information. We have seen life-or-death COVID advisories quickly become partisan, with citizens divided into realities based on their party-affiliation. Mask-mandates, a proven effective policy to reduce COVID spread, became “a threat to the long-term life and liberty of the United States.” It did not help that communication about masks was unclear and inconsistent at the start. Stories about microchips in vaccines and governments attempting to “control” citizens are prevalent in some areas of social media. Outlandish conspiracies about Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFDA advisory panel scheduled to discuss Merck COVID-19 antiviral pill Feehery: Build back bipartisan Overnight Health Care — Presented by The National Council on Mental Wellbeing — Merck asks FDA to authorize five-day COVID-19 treatment MORE playing a decades-long game to make money through vaccines have further exposed the deep trust gap in our society. In response to recommended measures to protect public health, Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisDeSantis pledges to sue Biden administration over vaccine mandates We have a presidential leadership crisis — and it's only going to get worse Biden touts progress but warns US in 'critical period' as millions remain unvaccinated MORE (R) of Florida told citizens in his state they would not be consigned to live in a “Faucian dystopia.”
State actors, such as Russia, China, and Iran, have skillfully burrowed their way into health-skeptical audiences, denigrating vaccines and playing on domestic concerns about restrictions on civil liberties. From November 2020 to August 2021, the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) collected more than 100,000 tweets about vaccines or vaccinations from Russian, Chinese, and Iranian officials and state media outlets. Of the 50 most-retweeted tweets mentioning Pfizer posted by Russian state media outlets, 88 percent mentioned either an adverse reaction to the vaccine (including deaths) or negative information about the company itself. In Iranian government and state media tweets, 92 percent of mentions of Pfizer were negative. And in cases where vaccine safety wasn’t directly questioned, mandates, passports, and other directives from “self-worshipping health officials” often were.
They’ve been active on other platforms as well. RT’s anti-vaccine videos on YouTube have, in several cases, garnered close to or more than one million views. On RT’s German-language YouTube channel, nine out of the top 10 most viewed videos over the past six months tap into anti-public health sentiments. In fact, RT is top three in overall views compared to other media channels in the country. YouTube has recently removed RT DE from its platform. Anti-vaccine Facebook pages in German heavily engage with RT content, finding a home with skeptic movements, including those dedicated to fighting mask mandates in schools.
These information operations have gone beyond specifics about health measures to attack the overall ability of democracies to handle crises, part of a broader global governance narrative of the superiority of autocratic leadership.
No doubt the pandemic has shone an unflattering bright light on the pre-existing frayed social contract between citizens and state, division and polarization in our society, and the grotesque inequality in healthcare and health outcomes across communities. Though overall democracies did not underperform autocracies (Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand being positive examples), messaging from Russia and China paint a picture of democracies’ inefficient responses addled by messy checks and balances — and they reveled in American missteps around its COVID response.
China has also gone to great pains to cast doubt about the origins of the virus, deflecting attention away from Wuhan by pushing false narratives that COVID was created at Maryland’s Fort Detrick.
As the Kremlin knows well, disinformation is about sowing confusion and distrust more than selling a specific lie.
COVID is a great hook for a broader agenda. Malign information operations — foreign and domestic — around COVID have devastated our public health but also attacked our democracy. Arkansas Gov. Asa HutchinsonAsa HutchinsonSarah Huckabee Sanders raises over million for Arkansas gubernatorial run Arkansas governor allows COVID-19 vaccine mandate opt-out bill to become law Arkansas legislature splits Little Rock in move that guarantees GOP seats MORE’s recent appeal to constituents to get vaccinated is telling and tragic: “Let me make sure it’s clear: I’m not asking you to trust government.” Erosion of public trust in our governance institutions fostered resistance to life-saving public health guidance but will also continue to denigrate our faith in our electoral processes, deliverance of justice, journalism, and other engines of our democracy.
Autocrats will win the day if we do not deter and raise the costs of information attacks, both foreign and domestic, but also if we do not build more a more resilient citizenry, able to discern truth from lies.
Laura L. Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Prior to joining ASD, she worked for 25 years in Asia and the former Soviet Union for democracy-promotion organizations.
Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, contributed.