An intriguing survey published by EKOS Research, a Canadian social and economic research company found a seemingly surprising correlation between how likely people are to refuse COVID-19 vaccination and support for Russia. But when you look deeper, the results don’t seem that surprising at all.
According to the survey carried out by EKOS, just 2% of Canadians who received 3 doses of vaccine believe Russia was justified in invading Ukraine. However, among those who refused the vaccine, the number jumps to 26%. The perception of Russian war crimes is similarly skewed: among the fully vaccinated, 88% believe Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine, compared to only 32% for the unvaccinated.
So what gives, is this a coincidence, or are vaccine hesitancy and pro-Russia support linked?
The more you look into it, the more they seem linked — and it’s not just in Canada, everywhere you look, a similar pattern emerges.
In Australia, antivaxx groups are awash with conspiracy theories and accounts praising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an attack on the “deep state.” In the US, Russian-linked disinformation is spreading on vaccine hesitancy groups, and even some high-profile media (most notably Fox News’ Tucker Carlson) pivoted from antivaxx rhetoric to pro-Kremlin rhetoric. In Europe, it’s more of the same. In the Czech Republic, groups of Czech activists that organized mass demonstrations against COVID-19 measures now openly support Russia in its aggression towards Ukraine, while in Scotland, high-profile vaccine hesitancy groups are peddling theories that Ukraine is run by Nazis — even though Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.
International COVID-19 conspiracy groups on Facebook, some with a following of over a hundred thousand members, blame the West, not Russia, for starting the war. QAnon, the political conspiracy group that believes a global cabal conspired against Donald Trump, suggests Russia invaded its Western neighbor fight child sexual abusers in Ukraine, and the outlandish theories don’t stop there.
Which begs the question: what on Earth is going on?
It’s expected, on one hand, that people who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe another. If you believe something as outlandish as tracking chips in vaccines, you’re probably more likely than the average person to believe that Russia is invading another country to fight sexual predators. After all, studies have linked conspiracy theories to a sense of lacking control, and for most people, both the pandemic and the ongoing invasion seem completely out of our control.
But this only tells half of the story. Russia-linked groups have been spreading disinformation for a long time, and the pandemic was no exception. For instance, Russia approached influencers to convince them to peddle antivaxx messages and has been planting a lot of false-flag narratives to push its own narrative. Now, it’s doing the same thing — for instance, one investigation found that TikTok influencers were used to spread the same Kremlin-backed message. In some cases, people behind prominent antivaxx groups (such as the Czech Republic one) have business ties to Moscow. QAnon members are spreading the same messages that the Kremlin wants. Just like we had an infodemic to go with the pandemic, we now have a cyberwar to go with the real war; as Russian bombs fall down on civilian buildings in Ukraine, disinformation creeps in to justify the invasion.
The speed with which former pandemic conspiracy theorists have turned to pro-Russian points in Europe has been stark. Far-right politicians and talking heads, many of whom have championed misinformation during the pandemic, are also amplifying the message.
The most common conspiracy theories spreading now regarding the invasion are that Ukraine is led by Nazis (this “denazification” being the official excuse used by Russia as well) and that the US has secret biological laboratories in Ukraine. Just like with the pandemic, fact-checkers and journalists are trying to keep up but it’s a game of whack-a-mole that’s hard to win. In Spain, a prominent Telegram channel (that became popular with pandemic misinformation) spread a widely debunked picture of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wearing a T-shirt that supposedly featured a swastika — but despite abundant fact-checking, the falsehoods just continue spreading.
It’s hard to know when the misinformation stops and the disinformation begins — disinformation being a subset of misinformation that’s spread with the explicit intention of deceiving. No doubt, some of these conspiracy theories are spread by naive or misled people who honestly believe they’re doing the right thing. But increasingly, we’re seeing signs that this is more than just mere coincidence. The conspiracy barrels are loaded and they’re ready to shoot at any time; but a lot of the time, these bullets are Russia-made.