The cartoon posted on the far-right discussion forum showed police officers wearing Biden-Harris campaign logos on bulletproof vests and battering down a door with a large syringe. A caption read in part, “In Biden’s America.”
The cartoon appears to be an example of the latest effort in Russian-aligned disinformation: a campaign that taps into skepticism and fears of coronavirus vaccination to not just undermine the effort to immunize people but also try to falsely link the Biden-Harris administration to the idea of forced inoculations. The image was one of several spotted by Graphika, a company tracking disinformation campaigns.
Both Russia and China have worked to promote their own vaccines through messaging that undermines American and European vaccination programs, according to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. But in addition to overt messaging promoting their own vaccines, Moscow has also spread conspiracy theories. Last year, the department began warning about how Russia was using fringe websites to promote doubts around vaccinations.
It is difficult to quantify the amount of disinformation being produced at any time by the Russians or other adversarial powers, government officials and outside experts said. But the rise of the Delta variant of Covid-19 — and shifting scientific advice on how to defend against a more infectious strain and the need for booster shots or masks — has created an atmosphere for misinformation to more easily spread, experts said.
“Disinformation thrives in an information vacuum,” said Lisa Kaplan, the chief executive of the Alethea Group, which helps corporations guard against misinformation. “That is when disinformation can really take hold. And knowing how the Russians typically play those situations, it wouldn’t surprise me they are trying to take advantage of it.”
The aim of various Russian groups continues to be to exacerbate tensions in western societies, a key foreign policy goal of Moscow, according to American officials briefed on the disinformation efforts.
The Russian and Chinese disinformation has tried to magnify the potential side effects of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, suggesting that the mRNA technology they are based on is untested or risky, State Department officials said this week.
In recent weeks, the nature of Russian disinformation has also begun to shift, some officials and outside experts said. Recent postings spreading false information have suggested that the Biden administration is intent on mandating that Americans get vaccines that are failing against the coronavirus.
The campaign also comes as President Biden warned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia last month to rein in ransomware attacks emanating out of Russia and aimed at critical American infrastructure. Though the ransomware attacks are separate from the disinformation campaigns, the warning was the latest effort by United States officials to prod Russia to rein in destructive digital incursions.
The Biden administration is actively monitoring Russian misinformation and is trying to counter it by encouraging the public to get vaccinated and promoting the safety and efficacy of Western vaccines, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss potentially sensitive information.
While some of the messaging is posted on social media from Russian state-media accounts aims at a potentially wide audience, some of the most audacious disinformation postings have been aimed at much smaller, far-right audiences.
Graphika has tracked disinformation that is probably spread by a group affiliated with people who used to work with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which propagated disinformation during the 2016 election. The group has posted cartoons on Patriots.win, a message board featuring far-right politics.
A recent spate of anti-vaccination cartoons appears to have been spread by the same people involved in a fake media outlet linked to veterans of the Internet Research Agency, said Jack Stubbs, Graphika’s director of investigation.
While the group advances Moscow’s strategic narratives, it is unclear what precise ties, if any, it has to the Russian government.
In another cartoon that appears to be the work of the organization, a group of people that the caption suggests might be Texas Democratic legislators reached toward Vice President Kamala Harris in a menacing way.
“We just looking for some democracy,” says one in the group.
“*Cough*. Don’t worry! We took Pfizer shots,” says another.
“To hell with your Pfizer shots,” the cartoon figure of Ms. Harris responds, “I don’t want to get sick.”
The title of the cartoon on the far-right discussion forum suggested the Texas Democrats had given Ms. Harris the virus even though she had been vaccinated. The Texans had gone to Washington last month in an attempt to block voting legislation that they said would disenfranchise minority groups. While in the capital, the group met with Ms. Harris, and several tested positive for the coronavirus, but there is no evidence the vice president became ill.
Understand the State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
The grammatical errors in the cartoon, according to Graphika, are similar to those sometimes made by native Russian speakers writing in English. And the technique of targeting audiences with inflammatory messages around existing social tensions and rifts has long been a hallmark of groups linked to the Internet Research Agency.
“That’s exactly again what they appear to be doing around Covid,” Mr. Stubbs said. “Rather than promote the Russian vaccine or denigrate a Western vaccine, they’re using this as an opportunity to criticize Biden, primarily, and say the Biden administration has been failing and they haven’t been managing the pandemic properly.”
Much of the disinformation efforts are posted on websites with little to no moderation. Patriots.win, which bills itself as a forum supportive of Donald J. Trump, began on Reddit before it was kicked off. From Patriots.win, some of the material attributed to foreign disinformation campaigns have migrated to larger sites with right-wing audiences like Gab and Parler.
The moderators of Patriots.win responded to a request for comment with an anti-gay slur and suggested, perhaps facetiously, that Chinese organizations were posting material but routing it through Russia to fool journalists.
Measuring the impact of the disinformation efforts is difficult, given the deep divisions over vaccinations that already exist in the United States and Europe; exploiting splits among Americans is a typical Russian tactic. Even on the hard-right discussion forums, some users have fingered the cartoons as being Russian in origin, though the postings have continued.
But the Russian messaging has shifted not just on the far-right sites. Similarly, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonprofit group focused on disinformation, has tracked a change in what the Russian state-run media has been producing.
Earlier, forums like RT, a Kremlin-backed English-language site, were focused on promoting Russia’s vaccine and denigrating western vaccines. But more recently, Russia’s state-run media has been “really leaning into the culture war debates over vaccine and mask mandates,” said Bret Schafer, a disinformation expert at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Russia uses RT and other state-controlled media to amplify American and international skeptics of vaccines and mask mandates, according to an American official.
RT has published articles highlighting athletes who are resisting pressure to get vaccinated. It has also suggested liberals were taking at face value Donald Trump Jr.’s facetious remark that vaccinations could be required to vote. And it has published essays aimed at exacerbating divisions over mask requirements.
The efforts are not just targeting Americans, Mr. Shafer said. RT’s German language YouTube feed has focused on public resistance to vaccines. “They’re hitting the same notes,” he said, “with most of their Western propaganda outlets.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.