Report: Russian Disinformation Campaign Targeted Ukraine, Other Countries During Pandemic

'Weaponizing' social media has become common as the Internet turns into a battleground

Hooded hacker person using smartphone in infodemic concept with digital glitch effect.

The Russian government used surreptitious social media accounts to spread false information about the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report (Adobe Stock).

The spread of disinformation in Ukraine started long before Russian troops invaded last month and went well beyond politics, a UConn sociologist says, beginning when the larger country implemented a media campaign to spread doubt about the COVID-19 vaccine and Ukraine’s pandemic response a year before it moved tanks across the border.

Russia’s investment in cyberwarfare is very significant, but it’s an asset that’s invisible,” Darrell Irwin, assistant professor in residence, says. “It’s deadly, and it’s directed through campaigns at countries. Right now it’s neighboring countries, but it could be any country they choose. Whether we’re in the United States, or England, or Argentina, Russian disinformation can be unleashed anywhere and at any time, on any issue on Earth that they choose.”

Portrait photograph of Assistant Professor-in-Residence Darrell Irwin.
Darrell Irwin on Feb. 24, 2022. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Irwin was a consultant on a December report put out by The Critical Mass, “Contaminated Trust: Public Health Disinformation and its Societal Impacts in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine,” that looked at the dissemination of Russian disinformation in Eastern Europe and Central Asia during the pandemic.

The study, which was conducted from February to August last year, relied on in-country civilian volunteers, journalists, and medical professionals who logged their media consumption and submitted to in-depth interviews during a time when the pandemic raged and vaccines were shunned in the three countries.

For instance, by May 2021, the report says, only 428 Ukrainians had been fully vaccinated, a fraction of the total 44 million population – for comparison, by the same time 57% of Americans over 18 had received at least a single dose of vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 12% of Ukrainians were vaccinated by September 2021.

This was in part because Ukraine was concentrating its vaccination efforts on military personnel responding to fighting in separatist regions, and information purveyors, many either financed by or with allegiance to Russia, sowed skepticism in the region by spreading untruths about the disease and vaccine – including that it was part of a microchipping effort or that folk treatments like eating copious amounts of garlic could keep illness at bay.

Russia wanted to sell its vaccines, while these three countries instead favored others, the report says, namely the AstraZeneca and Pfizer inoculations.

The pandemic disinformation campaign “was designed to weaken the public health institutions in the three countries we studied and weaken medical development, undermine trust in the public health responses, and disrupt delivery of medical care and vaccines,” says Irwin, who works in the sociology department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It was designed to increase these countries’ reliance on Russia, including supplies of vaccines.”

And that was easy to do for several reasons, the report says.

First, many older medical professionals in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Georgia were trained decades ago in the Soviet Union and today rely on Russian-produced medical journals for information, seldom, if ever, receiving significant continuing education beyond their initial Soviet schooling.

Second, in Ukraine specifically, then-newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had dismissed several health ministers, citing charges of corruption which led to distrust in medical institutions.

And third, the mainstream media in the three countries isn’t as developed as in the Western world and isn’t accustomed to questioning authority, so it oftentimes regurgitates whatever information is fed to its reporters by official sources.

Nevertheless, Irwin adds, “The people of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are savvy enough to know that if they get Russian-based media content and it’s in the Russian language then maybe it’s not trustworthy or maybe it has aspects that can be found to be politically or economically leaning to the Russian point of view.”

To sidestep skepticism, Russia employed social media influencers who appeared credible to citizens of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Georgia but who were working in Russia and translating their messages into the home languages of the three smaller countries, the report says. Their messages were dispensed on common social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Telegram, on which three channels “Legitimny,” “Rezident,” and “Temniy Rytsar,” or Dark Knight, surreptitiously promoted Russian views.

“Our study shows Russians with disregard for the lives of Ukrainians in the recent past, so any observer would say this utter disregard continues today,” Irwin says. “I can’t speak for their level of achievement with cyberwarfare but based on what I know from this study, Russia sought to damage the health care systems in the three neighboring countries that we studied. They mastered a technique that we’re labeling weaponization of social media – weaponization, that means it’s aggressive and it’s directed at anyone they choose.”

He continues, “In the same way we should have understood the signals that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor or troop movements in the Middle East, we have to understand the signals that are sent through the cyber world. We have to know what’s attacking us when we’re not seeing it.”

Lately, Russia has promoted the idea that biological weapons labs in Ukraine that were decommissioned and repurposed after the breakup of the Soviet Union are now disguised as civilian scientific laboratories for the U.S. to do its own work on biological weapons. The U.S. and Pentagon have denied the claim.

“They’ve been pushing this idea for years that these labs produce weapons of mass destruction or diseases that can be unleashed as a threat to Russia,” Irwin says. “It’s a continuation of disinformation that we’re hearing about.”

The Critical Mass report was sponsored by the U.S. State Department; an important fact, Irwin says, because it shows the U.S. isn’t looking the other way.

“Globalization is threatened by bad actors who resort not just to direct attacks but who reorder our societal bonds to each other or our global bonds to the world at large,” Irwin says. “This project really serves as a canary in the coal mine of the ill effects such disinformation can truly bring to the world.”