(NEXSTAR) – Misinformation and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines have flourished on social media since the start of the pandemic — even before the vaccines were officially available. But new data reveals how Russia, currently in the midst of its invasion of Ukraine, aided in spreading misinformation in an attempt to make the U.S. look bad.
According to a study by Stanford University, fake social media profiles pretending to be based in the U.S. cropped up around November 2020. The operation was linked to “Russian actors,” researchers say. Throughout the pandemic, accounts for fake people zeroed in on far-right forums and “alternative” social media platforms like Gab and Parler with bad-faith information.
Researchers for “Memes, Magnets and Microchips: Narrative Dynamics Around COVID-19 Vaccines,” write:
“The accounts in the network posted a series of memes, articles, and messages that appeared aimed to exacerbate existing social and political tensions in the United States, including around the Biden administration’s response to COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout.”
The inflammatory content took several angles, and included false information that the Biden administration was forcibly vaccinating Americans and that the FDA-approved vaccines contained Microsoft microchips. Unproven, disproven or altogether fake “studies” were also shared.
Themes of the divisive content included equating vaccinations to racial segregation and apartheid. Other posts tried dismantling trust in the vaccines with anecdotes or claims they were unsafe or even deadly.
The study explains at least two major actors accounted for these operations: a group with ties to the fake right-wing news outlet “Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens” and a Russian marketing firm called Fazze.
According to researchers, the marketing firm even tried paying prominent YouTube, Instagram and TikTok influencers to help distribute the misinformation. The study says some reports reflect at least two influencers followed Fazze’s “Task for the Integration” directions.
China and Iran engaged in similar tactics, the researchers also found.
Stanford’s study explains Russian misinformation campaigns also sought to warm American feelings toward Russia.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been nearly universally condemned as an unprovoked attack and has resulted in economic sanctions from several countries, including the U.S. While general American sentiment veers toward disapproval of the invasion, new reports show some right-wing media users (and QAnon conspiracy believers) are siding with Russia and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.