Vaccines as an instrument of influence

Key points by Ioanna Georgia Eskiadi

During this past year, Covid-19 related disinformation spread on social media creating an “infodemic” environment, but, in 2021, disinformation has become centralized to the vaccines. Dominant narratives claim that vaccines have side effects that lead to death, microchips being embedded in us against our will, dangerous experimentation, or tools of government corruption. Vaccines have become a means of political diplomacy and manipulation to attack governments and the western world. The predominant narratives of anti-vaccination movement in Central and Eastern Europe are a mix of beliefs and ideologies posted on social media by conspiracy theorists. Those that believe these theories are shown to be on both sides of the political spectrum in terms of globalism and federalism. Narratives regarding vaccines are generally referring to sovereignty and anti-globalism against the EU, the global political and economic elites, highlighting a general distrust in authorities and mainstream media.

Covid-19 vaccines have been used as a tool of influence and soft power to promote disinformation and fake news. Russia and China have been actively promoting their respective vaccines abroad through state-funded outlets and diplomatic accounts, while vaccine disinformation aims to enhance the Russian and Chinese vaccines in opposition with the West’s vaccines. There is an ongoing effort to promote negative narratives and undermine the trust of Western vaccines to bolster positive images of Chinese and Russian vaccines in an attempt to defend themselves as “benevolent leaders combatting Covid-19 internationally.” The Russian and Chinese vaccines are generally not mentioned online becoming these countries models, not so much for what they are, but for what they are not.

When Covid-19 started, China’s public message was to assure that the virus is under control, when the data suggested otherwise. But, as the virus spread across the globe and news broke, the global competition of information increased. The information environment in China is fundamentally different then what many of us are accustomed to, as authoritarian countries more actively suppress and domestically control the flow of information. Russia and China’s early Covid-19 diplomacy played out. The two countries took the opportunity to export influence abroad considering that borders do not matter to the circulation of disinformation. Fake news started in one language and then spread quickly to other languages. Russia and China employed state-funded media and diplomatic Twitter accounts in the global vaccine race. China focused more on Asia, while Russia focused their attention on Latin America, as Latin America has generally been more vulnerable to political influences and disinformation. Simultaneously, crowdfunding Russian media outlets tried to undermine western vaccines, the Sputnik vaccine being the only vaccine with its own social media account on Twitter, tweeting in first person to show that it is there to save lives. Russia tried to link the western vaccines with death cases and exaggerate the side effects of western vaccines, while China featured positive messages surrounding their leadership. Unsurprisingly, both China and Russia refuse to share their data and continuously avoid peer review processes while ignoring recommendations from international health authorities.

Watch the virtual discussion:

Esteban Ponce de León, Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) , Colombia

Zarine Kharazian, Associate Editor with the Digital Forensic Research Lab,Washington DC

Givi Gigitashvili, open-source analyst and digital researcher, Digital Forensic Research Lab, Georgia

Erasmia Tsipou, DCN Board Member, Fake News Hunters, Greece

Ciprian Cucu, Disinformation expert with Forum Apulum, Fake News Hunters, Romania


Professor Christos Frangonikolopoulos, Jean Monnet Chair, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Aristotle University, Greece

Dr. Nikos S. Panagiotou, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Head of DCN Global, Greece

This roundtable was organized as part of Fake News Hunters project funded from GEC.

This event is co-organized by Digital Communication Network (South East Europe HUB) and World Learning and is part of DCNSEE’s Ideas in Action — Digital Engagement, a series of virtual events launched in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. DCN is supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Citizen Exchanges. Digital Communication Network created in 2015, is a 7.000 member strong collaborative network that connects professionals from a variety of fields and different regions of the world, committed to have an impact in the new information space.

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