NEW DELHI: As the world’s focus moves from the initial response to the coronavirus crisis to the race for a vaccine, information is being manipulated for “strategic gain” by some countries. With geopolitical adversaries adept at cyber-mischief like China and Pakistan, India has to be alert to thwart such theories and campaigns which can easily be replicated in the local context.
A new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute shows state and non-state players in major countries injecting disinformation to influence public opinion on the vaccine.
For instance, the report says, on July 17, news reports originating in Luhansk Peoples Republic (LPR) – a self-declared state in eastern Ukraine formed by pro-Russia militias – declared in press releases that trials of Covid vaccine by “US scientists” in Ukraine had led to the deaths of five volunteers, including four Ukrainian soldiers.
Such a trial never actually took place. And the press statements in English and Russian also read differently. “From the beginning, this was a deeply political narrative, as the initial disinformation from the LPR was published the day after Russia announced plans to mass-produce its own vaccine in a matter of weeks. The likely goal of this effort was to smear both the US and Ukrainian governments by suggesting that they didn’t care about the lives of Ukrainian soldiers. This initial focus was swiftly augmented by Russian-language media to add a focus on Moderna and to undermine confidence in Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine candidate,” the report said. The story was amplified on Twitter, and in media outlets from Crimea.
The report said that between 17 July and 11 August, the narrative began to spread in multiple languages. The study looks at a second instance, where pro-Chinese state and non-state actors are targeting US audiences to highlight US mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, amplifying the current debate, but with the ultimate political goal of targeting the Trump administration.