State-Sponsored COVID Vaccine Disinformation: A New Front in Geopolitical Conflict

By Vrushab Gowda

Weaponized COVID vaccine skepticism efforts are mounting in frequency. Just days ago, the State Department named three Kremlin-backed platforms engaged in a sustained campaign targeting Pfizer and Moderna products.

They are not alone, with Chinese and Iranian outlets following close on their heels.

Anti-Vaccination: Past and Present

To the extent it constitutes a coherent set of beliefs, the anti-vaccination movement is not a particularly novel phenomenon. In one form or another, it has existed for centuries, even predating Edward Jenner’s celebrated experiments with smallpox. Today, it draws adherents from a disparate range of affiliations, from conspiracy theorists, members of religious communities, alternative medicine proponents, and fringe physicians, to the occasional celebrity. However, anti-vaccination has taken on a new salience in the wake of COVID-19, both in the scale and scope of its consequences.

Public health institutions have reacted accordingly, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), myriad offices within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and other federal bodies taking pains to uphold civic trust. These have translated into a relatively lengthy approval process for vaccine candidates, repeated reassurances of safety, and sustained efforts to dispel falsehoods and misconceptions. These bodies would be well-advised to remain on guard not only against these conventional wellsprings of misinformation, but additionally those originating overseas from state-sponsored malign actors, which rise to the level of disinformation, given that they are conveyed with a manifest intent to deceive.

Cynicism as State Policy

Vaccines are now regarded as key implements of soft power. China’s CoronaVac is exported abroad to traditional allies – such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia – as well as more distant trade partners in Africa and Latin America. Russia is no exception; virtually all constituents of the Commonwealth of Independent States have stockpiled its Sputnik V, which has gained fresh ground in Mexico, Brazil, and India. Both states have sought to position their flagship vaccines as alternatives to Western-developed products, thereby securing public relations coups and propagating influence abroad.

The scientific campaigns to develop these vaccines have been matched with digital initiatives designed to promote their uptake. Russian outlets are exceptionally active in this regard. State-sponsored, -directed, or -operated venues have generated a mass of information aggressively touting Sputnik V’s clinical benefit, even as early studies had yet to fully characterize its efficacy. Some went further, flooding Latin American and African media with false narratives of its overwhelming clinical superiority.

The value of offensive disinformation is not lost on these actors. In a nihilistic bent, this strategy consists of disrupting public trust and sowing domestic confusion among rival Western states, pursued as goals in their own right. This is precisely what Russian and Chinese troll farms, news providers, and social media influencers have aimed to accomplish in their attacks upon the Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca products. They broadcast exaggerated side effects, falsely reported deaths, intentionally contradictory information regarding Western regulatory approval processes, personal attacks upon pharmaceutical executives, so as to undermine public confidence in vaccines. In their pervasiveness, these campaigns hold more in common with frank cyberattacks than standard “anti-vax” misinformation. They risk derailing immunization campaigns and bear remarkable staying power; 1980s Soviet dezinformatsiya linking AIDS to a deliberate CIA operation continues to persist.

Buttressing the Ramparts

The State Department continues to monitor these campaigns via the Global Engagement Center (GEC), its foreign disinformation clearinghouse authorized by the 2016 Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act. It has identified a number of Russian “proxy sites” – New Eastern Outlook, News Front, and Oriental Review in particular – as key sources of vaccine disinformation. Their perniciousness lies not in their primary readership, which remains small, but rather in the risk of their narratives’ amplification on social media platforms.

Responding to coordinated disinformation requires a multi-modal approach. Although the GEC is charged with marshaling interagency cooperation, its mandate extends across the breadth of information warfare threats to the homeland. A more specialized institution with a primary focus on health care concerns may be necessary; health-related disinformation campaigns can be expected to continue through the end of the COVID pandemic. This may exist either as a task force within GEC or as a separate body entirely. Regardless, close engagement with domestic public health agencies is critical; their technical expertise will prove vital in distinguishing more sophisticated false narratives and developing appropriately tailored responses. Specifically, FDA’s Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats and HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response offer natural homes for such a program.

It should apply a two-pronged approach to identifying threats and containing them as they arise. Firstly, it can offer robust digital “prophylaxis” to U.S. citizens, continuing existing vaccination-safety messaging through official channels, and encouraging citizens to take note of venue, messenger, and post timing when active on social media. The program can secondly deploy “reactive” countermeasures in response to known disinformation, tracing their digital origins back to their sources. Much of this function would be performed by the private sector, in consultation with the program. Social media platforms can continue to flag and potentially remove the posts in question, consistent with their recent practices and editorial discretion. First Amendment protections would not extend to foreign-located uploaders, although U.S.-based “sleeper agents” or unwitting distributors may present a more difficult problem.

The threat of foreign disinformation is real and tangible. It is incumbent on the federal government to take muscular countermeasures, if not as an imminent public health concern, then as a matter of national security. This can only be achieved through a full-spectrum response, with extensive consultation between counterintelligence and public health apparatus, with the technology private sector, and ultimately citizens at large.

Vrushab Gowda

Vrushab is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School and MD candidate at the University of North Carolina. He has previously served on the masthead of Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, as a research assistant to Deputy Dean I. Glenn Cohen, and clinical student within the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. Vrushab's scholarly interests focus on the legal, regulatory, and ethical dimensions of digital health products.

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