Vaccine diplomacy has replaced mask diplomacy - this is how the European External Action Service (EEAS) summarizes the latest developments of disinformation in the Corona crisis. Last spring, China attempted to influence public sentiment in Europe with shipments of protective masks and accompanying propaganda. This spring, vaccines are the scarce commodity.
China now has two of them on offer, Russia one. Both countries have been vigorously marketing their vaccines over the past four months in media owned by or close to them, while denigrating the competition from the West. "This so-called 'vaccine diplomacy' follows the logic of a zero-sum game," writes the EEAS Strategic Communication Unit, which analyzes such campaigns on behalf of the European Council. "It is accompanied by attempts at disinformation and manipulation to undermine confidence in Western-produced vaccines, EU institutions, and Western/European vaccination strategies."
Disapproval as "suicide"
Since the beginning of the year, the Unit has added more than a hundred examples of "Kremlin-related disinformation" to its publicly available database. The Russian vaccine Sputnik V is promoted almost daily by Russian authorities, state-owned enterprises, and state-controlled mass media, combined with attacks on the EU and conspiracy theories. A favorite target has been the European Medicines Agency, which is responsible for approving vaccines across Europe. It was said to be politically biased and delaying the approval of Sputnik V - even when Moscow had not even submitted its application for approval.
Relevant accusations were often spread by the official Sputnik V account on Twitter, they were also directed at other EU representatives such as Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton. They were accompanied by threats not to supply the vaccine to Europe, but also to say that it would "commit suicide" if rejected. Several countries have ordered or plan to order the vaccine, including Hungary, Slovakia and the state of Bavaria.
When the EU refers to its strict approval procedure, Chinese state media also accuse it of applying "double standards", acting in an "anti-Chinese spirit" and spreading "lies" or "rumors". They themselves, on the other hand, pounced on reports of individual patients who had died after being vaccinated with Biontech/Pfizer and immediately established a causal link. The modern mRNA technology used by this group and others was also attacked. It led to allergic reactions and special risks for the elderly. China and Russia themselves have only traditional vector vaccines.
Where is the threshold for disinformation?
It is striking that Moscow directs its campaign only against the West, not against Beijing. The rare cases of patients dying of blood clots in the brain after vaccination with Astra-Zeneca were a real feast for the eyes. Recently, however, this vaccine has been praised again - after all, it also belongs to the vector vaccine group. In addition, it has saved the United Kingdom from "vaccination chaos" in connection with Brexit.
Admittedly, these examples also show the limitations of the analysis and its methodology. Moscow did not have to invent the Brexit narrative. It is widespread in the United Kingdom, right into government. And the complications with Astra-Zeneca were the focus of news coverage in Europe for weeks as well. But when does the threshold for disinformation cross? The EEAS measures that not primarily by whether information is true or false, but whether it distorts opinion and is disseminated with that intent. "We are not the ministry of censorship," one EU official justifies it. Intentions, however, are much harder to prove than false facts.
Moreover, the EEAS does not specify the scope of the media it monitors. As a rule, these are rather marginal channels, publications and websites that have only a small market share in Europe. While narratives from there can penetrate the mainstream, the service cannot quantitatively support this thesis. Last year, it had at least attempted to do so.
However, the report itself points out a paradox: While state-controlled media are singing the praises of Sputnik V on a daily basis, in Russia, of all places, vaccination skepticism is particularly high and the actual vaccination rate is low. So either the propaganda is not even catching on with the domestic audience. Or the negative portrayal of Western vaccines actually promotes vaccination skepticism.
Photo by Spencer Davis