The cartoon published in the far-right discussion forum showed police officers wearing Biden Harris campaign logos on bulletproof vests and breaking a door with a large syringe. A caption read in part: “In Biden’s America”.
The cartoon appears to be an example of the latest effort to target Russian-targeted disinformation: a campaign that uses skepticism and fears of a coronavirus vaccination to not only undermine efforts to immunize people, but also to try to defend the Biden government -Harris mistakenly used the idea of forced vaccination. The image was one of several discovered by Graphika, a company tracking disinformation campaigns.
Both Russia and China have worked to promote their own vaccines through messages that undermine American and European vaccination programs, according to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. But in addition to open embassies promoting their own vaccines, Moscow has also been promoting conspiracy theories. Last year the department began warning about how Russia is using Rand websites to raise doubts about vaccinations.
It is difficult to quantify the amount of disinformation being produced at any one time by the Russians or other opposing powers, government officials and outside experts said. But the rise in the delta variant of the coronavirus – and the postponement of scientific advice on warding off a more contagious strain and the need for booster vaccinations or masks – has created an atmosphere where misinformation can be more easily spread, experts said.
“Disinformation thrives in an information vacuum,” said Lisa Kaplan, CEO of Alethea Group, which helps companies protect themselves from misinformation. “Then disinformation can really take hold. And since I know how the Russians usually play such situations, I wouldn’t be surprised that they try to take advantage of it. “
Various Russian groups continue to aim to exacerbate tensions in Western societies, a major foreign policy goal of Moscow, according to US officials briefed on the disinformation effort.
The Russian and Chinese disinformation has tried to magnify the potential side effects of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, suggesting the mRNA technology they are based on is untested or risky, State Department officials said this week.
The nature of Russian disinformation has also changed in recent weeks, said some officials and outside experts. Recent posts spreading false information suggest that the Biden government intends to require Americans to receive vaccines that fail against the coronavirus.
The campaign also comes when President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin last month to contain ransomware attacks from Russia that target critical American infrastructures. Although the ransomware attacks are separate from the disinformation campaigns, the warning was the latest attempt by US officials to get Russia to contain destructive digital attacks.
The Biden government is actively monitoring Russian misinformation and trying to counteract it by encouraging the public to get vaccinated and promoting the safety and effectiveness of Western vaccines, according to an administrative official who spoke on condition of anonymity to potentially sensitive information to discuss.
While some of the news posted by Russian state media accounts on social media is aimed at potentially broad audiences, some of the most daring disinformation posts are aimed at much smaller, far-right audiences.
Graphika has tracked disinformation that is likely being spread by a group connected to people who previously worked with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency that spread disinformation during the 2016 election. The group posted cartoons on Patriots.win, a message board with far-right politics.
A spate of anti-vaccination cartoons appears to have been circulated recently by the same people involved in a fake media company affiliated with Internet Research Agency veterans, said Jack Stubbs, chief investigator for Graphika.
While the group is pushing Moscow’s strategic narratives, it is unclear what, if any, connections it has with the Russian government.
In another cartoon that appears to be the work of the organization, a group of people suggested by the caption are Texas Democratic lawmakers, Vice President Kamala Harris in ominous fashion.
“We’re just looking for democracy,” says one of the group.
“* Cough *. Don’t worry! We took Pfizer recordings,” says another.
“To hell with your Pfizer recordings,” replies the cartoon character from Harris, “I don’t want to get sick.”
The title of the cartoon on the far-right discussion forum suggested that the Texas Democrats administered the virus to Harris even though she was vaccinated. The Texans had traveled to Washington last month to block electoral legislation that they said would deprive minorities of voting rights. In the capital, the group met with Harris and several tested positive for the coronavirus, but there is no evidence that the vice president fell ill.
The grammatical mistakes in the cartoon, according to the graphs, are similar to those sometimes made by native Russian speakers who write in English. And the technique of targeting audiences with inflammatory messages about existing social tensions and divisions has long been a trademark of groups affiliated with the Internet Research Agency.
“That is exactly what they seem to be doing with COVID,” Stubbs said. “Instead of promoting the Russian vaccine or denigrating a Western vaccine, use this as an opportunity to primarily criticize Biden and say that the Biden government has failed and did not handle the pandemic properly.”
Their use of far-right message boards, including Patriots.win, was previously reported by Graphika and Reuters.
Much of the disinformation effort is posted on websites with little to no moderation. Patriots.win, which describes itself as a forum supported by Donald Trump, started on Reddit before it launched. From Patriots.win, some of the material attributed to overseas disinformation campaigns has migrated to larger right-wing websites such as Gab and Parler.
The Patriots.win moderators responded to a request for comment with an anti-gay bow and suggested, perhaps jokingly, that Chinese organizations post material but forward it through Russia to mislead journalists.
Measuring the impact of disinformation efforts is difficult given the deep disagreement over vaccination that already exists in the United States and Europe; Taking advantage of divisions between Americans is a typically Russian tactic. Even on the far-right discussion forums, some users fingered the cartoons as being of Russian origin, despite the fact that the postings continued. But the Russian embassy has not only shifted to the far-right sides. Similarly, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonprofit group focused on disinformation, has been tracking a change in the productions of Russian state media.
Previously, forums like RT, a Kremlin-supported English language website, focused on promoting the Russian vaccine and denigrating Western vaccines. But more recently, Russia’s state media have “really leaned into the culture war debates over vaccine and mask mandates,” said Bret Schafer, disinformation expert with the Alliance to Secure Democracy.
Russia is using RT and other state-controlled media to reinforce American and international skeptics about vaccines and masking requirements, according to a US official.
RT has published articles highlighting athletes who are resisting the pressure to get vaccinated. It has also indicated that Liberals are taking Donald Trump Jr.’s joking remark that vaccinations might be required to vote at face value. And it has published essays aimed at exacerbating divisions over the mask requirement.
The efforts aren’t just directed against Americans, Shafer said. RT’s German-language YouTube feed has focused on public resistance to vaccines. “They hit the same note,” he said, “with most of their Western propaganda channels.”