An Australian Facebook page became a powerful tool in a pro-Russia disinformation campaign about a non-existent COVID-19 vaccine trial, a think tank has discovered.
The anti-vaccination page, boasting 21,000 followers, attracted the most interactions of any English-language post about the debunked conspiracy theory that US researchers had run a trial in Ukraine.
The discredited theory claiming up to a third of 15 Ukrainian volunteers recruited for the American-led trial had died was posted to the propaganda sites of a pro-Russian separatist proto-state in eastern Ukraine, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said in a report published on Monday.
ASPI researchers tracked the false narrative through Russian language media and then into more than a dozen languages including English and Spanish.
“The success of this completely fictional narrative reflects a broader shift across the disinformation space,” the ASPI report said.
The theory, contained in press releases on Luhansk People’s Republic websites on July 17, came a day after Russia announced plans to mass-produce its own vaccine within weeks.
By August 3, an administrator of Australian Vaccination-risks Network Inc identified as “Meryl” posted a link to the conspiracy theory saying “there is evidence” a COVID-19 vaccine may be the most dangerous of all and “this story takes the cake”.
“The fact that it is not front-page news worldwide shows how bought the mainstream media is (sic),” she said.
The post had been shared 112 times, received 56 comments and attracted 164 reactions as of Monday morning
Since the link was posted, Facebook has placed a misinformation warning on it and displayed a fact-check article showing news agency Agence France-Presse had debunked the claim.
AVN on Sunday promoted a public rally in Brisbane for “freedom-loving people” concerned about “5G safety (and) vaccine mandates” and “in opposition to government tyranny”.
Co-author of the ASPI report Elise Thomas said she was not surprised to see AVN ranking prominently in the spread of the debunked COVID theory.
“It has come up repeatedly in other COVID-19 disinfo research we’ve done,” she told AAP.
She says it’s very likely more disinformation linked to the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine will be published in coming weeks.
“The stakes are very high, and in some ways chipping away at public trust may be the weakest link for actors seeking to undermine their competition,” she said.
COVID-19 has been fertile ground for misinformation, leading to repeated efforts by fact-check agencies to correct the record.
AAP FactCheck on August 14 showed there was no evidence backing a claim that flu vaccinations would increase a person’s susceptibility to COVID-19.
In July, AAP FactCheck showed Australians were spreading a false claim that the inventor of the PCR test – one of the main methods used to detect COVID-19 – had said the tests do not work to properly diagnose COVID-19 infections.
The inventor, Nobel Prize-winning American biochemist Dr Kary B. Mullis, died in August 2019.