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Is Putin using Covid-19 to kill people on British streets? Only in Daily Mail's fantasy world as Moscow powers ahead with vaccine

Is Putin using Covid-19 to kill people on British streets? Only in Daily Mail's fantasy world as Moscow powers ahead with vaccine
Russia was the world's first country to register a Covid-19 vaccine and many prominent Russian public figures took part in its Phase III trial. Despite this, the British media is, amazingly, accusing Moscow of being “anti-vax.”

‘Vladimir Putin doesn’t want you to take the Covid vaccine’, so said Britain’s Daily Mail in an article on Saturday, citing a British minister who claimed that Russia's president was spreading anti-vaccination propaganda via social media “due to the fact that he’s worried about Russia being seen to lag behind on producing its own vaccine.”

“We are not simply under attack from the Covid virus,” concluded the Mail, “We’re also under direct attack by a hostile foreign power. Putin is trying to use Covid to kill people on the streets of Britain.”

Britain’s management of the Covid pandemic has been among the worst in Europe. The country has one of the highest infection and death rates on the continent and also possibly the worst economic performance. It’s understandable that Brits would like to find a scapegoat. It’s also wrong.

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The idea that Russia has been promoting anti-vaccination propaganda derives from a single article published in 2018 in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). Nearly every subsequent story on the topic links back to this one piece of work. The lack of corroboration makes the case against Russia rather weak, But in any case, the AJPH article does not actually say what people think it does.

The study examined some 1.8 million messages on Twitter, and concluded that Twitter bots and trolls posted messages about vaccines more often than human users. Furthermore, Twitter accounts identified as Russian by the American broadcaster NBC were found to be especially likely to mention vaccines (though not necessarily to oppose them). This fact was then used to justify claims that the Russian government is promoting anti-vaccination propaganda.

However, using a different list to that produced by NBC – one provided by the US Congress – the AJPH article found something different: Russian trolls were relatively likely to talk about vaccine-treatable diseases, but not about vaccines. In any case, anti-vaccination tweets originating in Russia are just a small fraction of the overall volume of messages on the subject. The AJPH study focused on a mere 253 tweets using the hashtag #VaccinateUS, more of which were pro-vaccine than anti. This hardly amounts to a massive campaign of anti-vaccination propaganda.

In any case, the AJPH article noted that, “The highest proportion of anti-vaccine content [93%] is generated by accounts … [whose] provenance is ultimately unknown.” The most significant part of this group is “accounts that are known to distribute malware and commercial content,” which “use the compelling nature of anti-vaccine content as clickbait to drive up advertising revenue and expose users to malware.”

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The vast bulk of anti-vaccination messages, therefore, are clickbait of unknown origin designed to infect users with malware or redirect them to commercial sites. The AJPH report concluded that vaccine-related tweets originating in Russia served much the same purpose: Russian trolls mentioned vaccines not to turn people against them, but in order to get followers. Thus, the study’s primary author David Broniatowski told American state-run broadcaster RFE/RL that, “he hasn’t seen any evidence that Russia has tried to weaken Western democracies by persuading people to stop vaccinating.”

In short, the story that Russia is trying to undermine Western states by spreading anti-vaccination propaganda derives from a single article, and the author of that study admits that that isn’t what the article actually says!

In any case, the idea that the Russian state wants to encourage people not to have vaccines is severely undermined by the statements and actions of Russian leaders. Putin, for instance, declared on national TV in 2016, that “I make sure I get my vaccinations in time, before the flu season starts.” He then later denounced parents who fail to vaccinate their children, saying that they “endanger the lives of their own children and also of other children at a school or kindergarten.”

Last year Deputy Health Minister Tatiana Yakovleva went further. She declared that, “through the media, the internet, religious sects, and so on, there is a large amount of information about vaccines and vaccination, which is often not objective and undermines the confidence of citizens in vaccination. In this regard, the department [of health] is developing a draft bill which would prohibit the dissemination of information containing public calls to refuse vaccination.”

Meanwhile, the Russian government has expanded its national vaccination plan to include immunizing boys and girls aged 12-13 against HPV. And as RFE/RL also reports: “WHO’s [the World Health Organization’s] European regional office recently entered a ‘strategic relationship’ with Russia’s Health Ministry. They are working together with researchers in Germany to develop a framework on how to study vaccination hesitancy in the context of Russian and East European culture.”

Russia, in other words, is very much in favor of vaccines and very hostile to anti-vax messages. With the country now beginning mass immunization of its own citizens against Covid, overcoming reluctance to take the vaccine is a matter of considerable state importance. Were the Russian state indeed promoting anti-vax propaganda, it would be decidedly strange.

Anti-vaccine messages are a serious public health challenge. This has been seen in the case of measles, a disease which has rebounded in the past two decades due to the reluctance of many parents to give their children the MMR jab. Returning to the Daily Mail article, the sad thing is that the current anti-vaccine movement is almost entirely a British creation, which began with a 1998 article in the Lancet by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who linked MMR with autism. That one article has done far more harm than a handful of clickbait posts on Twitter by Russian internet trolls.

Is Putin opposed to vaccines? Is he trying to kill Britons by persuading them not to get immunized against Covid? Is he doing so because Russia is ‘lagging behind’ in producing its own vaccine (which in fact it isn’t)? No, no, and no. Does Britain have a serious problem with Covid and anti-vax sentiment? Yes indeed. But blaming it on Russia won’t help in the slightest.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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