A NARRATIVE STUDY OF THE COVERAGE OF VACCINES BY RUSSIAN STATE MEDIA IN FRENCH
by Nicolas Hénin
This blogpost is part of the EU DisinfoLab Covid19 hub, an online resource designed to provide research and analysis from the community working on disinformation. These resources highlight how the Covid19 crisis has an impact on the spread of disinformation and policy responses.
The full report from which this piece is drawn is available here
- Vaccines did not receive very significant media coverage in the Russian state-controlled media in French (namely Sputnik France and Russia Today En Français) until Russia had a candidate vaccine.
- On average, articles shared by RT and Sputnik containing negative news on competing vaccines were more recirculated on Twitter than articles promoting Russian vaccines enthusiastically.
- A review of fact-checked items showed that both Russian state-controlled media outlets and traditional media outlets published articles in French that were used to propagate anti-vaccine disinformation. However, while the core content of these articles often remained quite similar, Russian outlets tended to embrace a more alarmist tone-of-voice, clickbait titles and made factual approximations that left room for misleading interpretations. .
- Narrative-wise, we found several ‘classic’ divisive narratives, including anti-establishment discourse to undermine confidence in the authorities or concerns over the limitations on civil liberties.
- These outlets set up an artificial confrontation between two vaccines: the smaller but resourceful Sputnik V “David” against the giant Pfizer “Goliath”. However, the finding is based on data collected up to mid-February 2021; an update would likely reflect controversies related to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The surge of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in the past year made them the target of disinformation operations, drawing on long standing narratives, especially in France. These operations exploit doubts on the unprecedentedly quick development of vaccines during the global pandemic.
Our study, which focused on Russian state-controlled media in French, is compatible with previous research on other countries and languages on the amplification of negative coverage of foreign vaccines in order to promote those produced by Russia. This tendency has been documented from Australia to Eastern Europe, and other countries of the world. An article in the Wall Street Journal, quoting U.S. officials, asserts that “Russian intelligence agencies have mounted a campaign to undermine confidence in Pfizer Inc.’s and other Western vaccines“, naming four publications with known connections to the SVR, the FSB and the GRU.
A study by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) tries to make sense of a seeming paradox: the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, whose development has been less transparent than that of Western vaccines, initially enjoyed a better reputation in Africa than those produced in the West, which have been subject to more stringent quality evaluation criteria at every stage of their trials. According to the CFR, this is the result of a disinformation campaign waged by Russian governmental entities.
This influence operation, which aims to increase market share and assert Russia’s scientific leadership, is inflicting serious damage by propagating vaccine hesitancy that is prolonging the global health crisis.
For our analysis, we looked at the tweets from the Twitter accounts of Sputnik France (@sputnik_fr) and RT France (@RTenFrançais), which provided us with a picture of the virality of the narratives through the count of retweets.
We extracted all the tweets talking about vaccines with the keywords “vaccins”, “vaccin” and “vaccination”, although if should be noted that some do not relate to COVID-19. In order to capture a full picture including the pre-pandemic period, our request ran from 1 January 2020 to 15 February 2021.
Timeline of the volumetrics
Until early August 2020, vaccines were not a prominent subject for the two flagship Russian state-controlled media in French. In fact, 115 articles (13% of the total) were published between 1 January and 31 July, and 790 (87%) were published between 1 August and 15 February 2021. Volumes increased only when a Russian vaccine candidate appeared, and mentions peaked in early November, after Pfizer announced the positive outcome of its clinical trials. However, the same query with RFI and France 24 accounts showed similar results.
Timeline of the tweets and retweets of articles responding to our request from 1 January 2020 to 15 February 2021.
Study of narratives
Distribution of narratives:
We exported the complete set of 923 articles posted by these two media on Twitter and extracted 251 articles (66% from Sputnik France and 34% by RT France) that the two accounts retweeted at least 15 times.
We manually performed a qualitative narrative analysis by labelling the articles according to the wording of their title, and, if relevant, to a main sub-narrative. Given the complex nature of information, there are cases in which two or more narratives overlap, and so the decision to classify the content according to one category is the result of a purely subjective evaluation. Four articles were not relevant and were removed from our sample.
The distribution of these narratives is illustrated below.
Positive and negative messaging
Concerning the tone of voice, we found that 61% of the articles concern negative messaging on vaccines, which represents 69% of tweets and retweets. Therefore, articles carrying negative messaging are more viral than the positive ones: on average, negative messaging articles were retweeted 40 times, while positive ones were retweeted only 28 times.
Promotion of a Russian vaccine:
Interestingly, 36% of the articles promoted a Russian vaccine solution. This apparent paradox actually reinforces these outlets’ double standard of advocating for the “domestic” vaccine while espousing vaccine hesitancy towards the “foreign” inoculation. In detail, Sputnik V is mentioned in 55% of the articles labelled according to this narrative.
Denigration of a competing vaccine:
24% of our sample slanders a competing vaccine, usually by exaggerating minor post-vaccine discomfort, or presenting exceptional side effects (death or severe illness) as common consequences (46% of the articles in this category).
We classified all the “Denigration of a competing vaccine” articles with sub-narratives and we obtained the following split:
Moreover, 67% of the denigrating articles name a pharmaceutical company in their title. Pfizer is by far the first vaccine cited in this smear campaign, reaching 65% of the sub-sample and almost three quarters of the tweets. The over-representation could be partly imputed to the fact that this was the first Western vaccine to be distributed. Another reason could be a desire to embody the Western pharmaceutical industry under a specific, symbolic brand name. The inclusion of more recent data is likely to reflect ongoing controversies surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Note: Only articles whose titles mentioned a company name are shown in the table above
Criticism of a vaccination campaign
We distinguish the 15% of articles classified as criticising the vaccination campaign into three subcategories: Unsurprisingly, 57% of these articles target France, 30% tackle Europe and 13% focus on the West in general. The main sub-narratives accuse authorities of self-enrichment, or even corruption, as well as infringements of civil liberties (e.g. controversy over the obligation to vaccinate; restrictions on movements, etc.) and privacy breaches (e.g. the creation of a vaccine passport).
Then, 14% of the articles we analysed encourage vaccine hesitancy in general, weakening trust in vaccine efficacy, feeding on conspiracy views and other fears.
This narrative covers 5% of our sample. Considering that Russian state-controlled media outlets operating in French target all French-speaking countries, particularly in Africa, relevant articles address post-colonial subjects (e.g. amplification of a controversy around ambiguous statements made by a French doctor suggesting that the efficiency of BCG vaccine against COVID-19 should be trialled in Africa), or deal with geopolitics, implying a reshuffling in the balance of power caused by vaccines.
Review of narratives covered by fact-checkers
Several articles in our set covered events or incidents which led to the spread of disinformation debunked by French fact-checkers. However, most of the time, the articles did not convey disinformation per se, although they contributed to raising doubts about COVID-19 vaccines.
A crucial point is that misinformation is most often not the result of the facts presented, as much as of the misleading insinuations made around them. Although the body of these articles includes information that is very close to that of traditional media, they regularly play on doubt or ambiguity. Evidence in this sense is that these articles are widely disseminated in spheres prone to conspiracy: even if they do not actively support conspiracy theories, their formulation allows sufficient space for obscure interpretations.
One final note is important to bear in mind. Russian state-controlled media (but sometimes also traditional media outlets) tend to appeal to the public through clickbait titles that contain inaccuracies and misleading framing. There are occasions in which, following the headline and initial paragraph, the content of the article adopts a more cautioned tone or even takes distance from the debunked information. As 59% of Twitter users were found not to have opened an article before they shared it, a cursory glance could lead readers to believe that misleading content in the title is true, convincing them to spread it further on social networks, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of disinformation.