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The two faces of RT’s coronavirus propaganda When it comes to Russia Today and the pandemic, coverage at home and abroad is worlds apart
As Russia confronts its latest wave of deadly coronavirus infections, the state media wages a war against homegrown vaccine skeptics. Journalists call them “halfwit anti-vaxxers” and “imbecile murderers.” Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, has raised questions about these individuals’ basic “cognitive abilities” and accused them of poisoning the nation’s solidarity, prompting allegations of hate speech against Russia’s anti-vaccine community. These same people, however, adore Simonyan’s main product: RT’s reporting for foreign audiences. And it’s no wonder why: When it comes to pandemic coverage at the network’s English-language division and especially its German-language branch, Russia Today actively amplifies unscientific information about COVID-19 and features many guests who are openly hostile to the very idea of vaccination. As a result, RT’s content for audiences abroad becomes material that Russia’s own vaccine opponents cite as “proof” against the need for inoculation.
Just a reminder: Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is crucial to ending the global pandemic and returning the human species to its normal, slightly less miserable existence. Meduza wholeheartedly advises you to get whatever jab is available in your area. You can read more right here (in Russian) about why inoculation matters.
On September 20, 2021, a private clinic in the German city of Reutlingen hosted a “Pathologists’ Conference” that featured three speakers, including Arne Burkhardt, the private clinic’s owner. For roughly three hours, Burkhardt and his colleagues addressed a small audience, describing their study of COVID-19 patients’ biomaterials (though they conducted no autopsies themselves), arguing that supposedly abnormal accumulations of white blood cells in the kidneys and liver indicate that vaccines against the disease “provoke an excessive immune response.” Burkhardt even claimed that analysis under an electron microscope showed that coronavirus vaccines contain “unusually shaped foreign bodies,” likely made of metal. His presentation included a slide that bore the question: “Mikrochips??”
Journalists at Correctiv have linked Burkhardt and one of his co-presenters to an association called Physicians and Scientists for Health, Freedom, and Democracy, members of which have been caught selling forged medical-mask exemptions. The Pathologists’ Conference itself was possible thanks in part to the Corona Investigative Committee, an organization run by Reiner Fuellmich, whose Grassroots Democratic Party combines fundamentally different marginal political groups in Germany, such as alternative-medicine believers and far-right conspiracy theorists. The German Society of Pathology promptly denounced the “unscientific statements” presented at the Pathologists’ Conference in Reutlingen.
Most news outlets ignored the event, but there was one notable exception: Russia Today’s German-language edition, which uncritically cited Burkhardt’s dubious research without even mentioning the German Society of Pathology’s objections, until an update added more than a month later. By that time, a study by Meduza shows, a Russian-language translation of the story was already a viral hit among Russian anti-vaccine Telegram channels (including some with nearly 100,000 subscribers) and similar communities on Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.
Russian social-media groups also devoured RT’s foreign-language coverage of tennis player Jeremy Chardy’s decision to suspend his season after suffering a debilitating reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine. Meduza’s study turned up dozens of hyperlinks to articles published by RT France and RT Germany, as well as a multitude of posts containing Russian translations of these reports.
For some reason, RT’s main Russian-language edition never reported the Chardy story.
What is Russia Today’s approach to pandemic reporting? That depends on the country!
When it comes to coverage of COVID-19, vaccines, lockdowns, and other measures designed to halt the spread of the disease, RT’s news coverage differs dramatically, depending on whether it’s in Russian or a foreign language. The network’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, has done an about-face since the start of the pandemic. In January 2020, for example, she claimed that the coronavirus infects only “ethnic Chinese people.” Today, however, she and her subordinates at RT are among the country’s most vocal advocates for mask requirements, remote work, lockdowns, and state-mandated employee vaccinations.
When they’re writing in Russian, RT’s columnists welcome virtually any restriction in the fight against COVID-19, and the network itself has vigorously urged Russians to get vaccinated, denouncing skeptics and uncooperative physicians as “imbecile murderers” bent on “sabotaging” the nation’s recovery.
Russia Today’s English-language broadcasts exist in another universe. In Moscow, the network’s heroes are the doctors and nurses working tirelessly to keep COVID-19 patients alive. In English, RT’s focus pivots to healthcare workers who have protested “medical experiments” and been suspended for resisting vaccine mandates. In Great Britain, for example, Russia Today airs comments comparing vaccine passports and other restrictions on unvaccinated persons to “Big Brother.” RT columnists writing in English complain routinely that they’re “forced” to accept vaccination even though they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past (despite the fact that medical experts, including Russia’s own Health Ministry, advise people with naturally acquired immunity to seek inoculation within six months of recovery).
The talking points that resurface in RT’s English-language pandemic reporting appeal strongly to Russia’s own anti-vaccine community, which shares and discusses the material (translated or summarized in Russian) on dozens of popular Telegram channels.
No single editorial policy guides Russia Today’s foreign-language coverage of the coronavirus pandemic; the network adapts its approaches to each target audience’s particular political environment. In France, for instance, RT avoids openly sympathizing with calls for sabotage and civil disobedience, though Russia Today’s English-language content sometimes comes close to inciting such actions. RT France also shuns the comparisons of pandemic restrictions to Nazi policies that Russia Today regularly broadcasts in German.
The network’s French-language coverage of COVID-19 is nevertheless far closer to work by its other foreign bureaus than to reporting by RT in Russian. RT France still showers anti-vaccine protesters in attention and still features interviews with conspiracy theorists and proponents of untested “alternative” methods for treating coronavirus infections.
In Spanish, Russia Today is more modest still, due mainly to the fact that anti-vaccine rhetoric carries little currency in Spain (where more than 80 percent of adults are inoculated against COVID-19). When RT reports on the coronavirus in Spanish, it focuses mainly on the advantages of the Russian-made vaccine Sputnik V.
Spokespeople for Russia Today declined to speak to Meduza for this article, claiming that they are prohibited from any contact with designated “foreign agents.” After this article was published, RT’s Russian-language service characterized Meduza’s investigation as part of a “planned information attack” against the network, citing speculation by Civic Chamber member Nikita Danyuk.
How Russia Today writes about vaccination and pandemic restrictions in different languages
“Like taking the knee, it is virtue signaling. It says you are happy with the lockdowns because, hey, you don’t have to go to work, and you still get a ‘stimmy’ cheque. The single most effective way of breaking down a human being is social isolation and distancing. Irreparable harm is being done to children, especially, by enforced mask wearing. […] Are we who choose to stay vaccine-free, who declare we have sovereign rights over our own bodies, to be publicly singled out, excluded, and punished? After the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed in Germany in 1935, Jews were ostracized, discriminated against, and later had to wear a yellow badge so as to make ‘the enemy within visible.’” — rt.com, source
“There’s absolutely no justification for forcing anyone to vaccinate – for travel or otherwise. This mantra being bandied about that everyone has to do their part and take the shot in order to protect others is just total nonsense. The proof is in the lack of confidence that governments themselves are showing this summer by demanding that even the fully vaccinated take Covid tests.” — rt.com, source
“If someone is vaccinated, why should they care if someone else isn’t? We never had these arguments before about the flu jab. Either the vaccine works to protect the vaccinated, or it doesn’t. Nor were those who decided not to have a flu vaccine labelled ‘anti-vaxxers.’ You can be generally pro-vaccination but have rational ‘wait and see’ reservations about the new-on-the-market Coronavirus ones, especially if your chances of becoming ill or indeed dying from Covid are extremely low. But that nuanced position is simply not recognized in the current, coercive ‘Just take the bloody jab’ hysteria.” — rt.com, source
“’Free to Obey’ — the book title sounds like a comment on the pandemic situation. But French historian Johann Chapoutot’s book is about “a brief history of management from Hitler to the present day,” not the pandemic. Its content nevertheless is reflected in current events: obedience undoubtedly plays a significant role both in the authorities’ corona-politics and in the media’s coverage of discussions around the legal status of the unvaccinated.” — RT DE, source
“It’s supposed to release us from the virus and return our freedom. It’s reliable and highly effective — our only hope in a terrible pandemic. Politicians and the media applaud vaccination against ‘corona’ with its hastily developed, not yet finalized new type of vaccine (whether its messenger RNA or vector), like it’s some holy covenant. Despite the high infection rate and large number of patients in a country with a high vaccination level. Despite the high number of reported side effects, anyone who questions the vaccine’s safety and hesitates to join this “public health act” with its free hot dogs is considered “socially harmful,” becoming a target of punishment orgies. And the tone of everything is becoming only harsher.” — RT DE, source
“While opponents of masks are open to criticism on certain points, they nonetheless have very legitimate grievances and serious arguments to make. The most honest thing would be to examine each side impartially and to allow the anti-maskers to express themselves in the media. But this current moral and intellectual terrorism precludes it. We live under a leaden cover of the most stifling conformism, political correctness, self-righteousness, constant intimidation, and, frankly, fear.” — RT France, source
Though it’s not intended for domestic consumption, RT’s coronavirus reporting in other languages has been a huge hit among Russia’s own anti-vaccine community. Meduza examined the content shared by some of the most popular Russian-language anti-vaccine Telegram channels and found more than 1,000 direct hyperlinks to articles published on RT’s foreign-language subdomains. And this doesn’t even count the general chatter and content summaries circulating on Telegram.
RT’s German bureau is especially popular among Russians who oppose COVID-19 vaccines. Here’s why.
Of the content Meduza analyzed in Russian anti-vaccine Telegram channels and chats, more than half of the shared hyperlinks to Russia Today redirected to de.rt.com. As Der Spiegel reported in February 2021 (citing leaked internal memos), the number of unique visitors to RT Germany spiked by 41 percent from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, catapulting the network to a position as one of the main platforms for the so-called “Querdenker” (lateral thinkers), as Germany’s anti-vaccine activists have come to be known.
Data from Similarweb support these findings, showing that RT DE brings in 8 percent of rt.com’s global traffic — more than any other subdomain. (Russia Today’s Russian-language domain accounts for more than 40 percent of the website’s visitors.)
For all its embrace of vaccines and state mandates at home, Russia Today’s senior management has made no secret of its alternative reporting in Germany. In an editorial response to Der Spiegel’s investigation, RT defended its commitment to “covering the full range of opinions on this issue.” Editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan has said she believes Russia Today’s on-air interviews with coronavirus skeptics in Germany were the pretext for Google blocking RT DE’s two YouTube channels in September 2021.
Google spokespeople say Russia Today violated the platform’s rules against COVID-19 misinformation before breaking YouTube’s terms of service by trying to circumvent the initial suspension. This triggered a permanent ban that remains in effect to this day.
Judging by Google’s messages explaining the ban (which RT shared on Telegram), one of the offending videos featured an extensive report from June 2021 about a conference held by the Corona Investigative Committee —the same organization that later staged the “Pathologists’ Conference” in Reutlingen. Arne Burkhardt attended this event, as well, presenting on his favorite topic: a supposed prohibition on autopsies of vaccinated people, allegedly to conceal a link between inoculation and death. Yet again, he repeated claims that mysterious “magnetic structures” appeared around some patients’ injection sites.
Even in Germany, however, anti-vaccine sentiment is politically marginal. Nearly 70 percent of all adults have been inoculated against COVID-19, which is why the nation’s “lateral thinkers” have resorted to describing themselves as an “underground” resistance and relied on outrageous comparisons of vaccination to the Holocaust. As a relatively weak political force, German anti-vaccine activists’ best means of attracting attention and compensating for their small numbers and lack of media access is to scandalize the public.
RT DE’s success in hooking the Querdenker, however, does not mean the network’s editorial policies belong to a conscious strategy. More likely, says political analyst and Social Democratic Party member Alexey Yusupov, the television network and its main audience are using identical tactics to achieve a similar goal: challenging the German mainstream. RT and its viewers are purely opportunistic allies, he says.
Common ground between anti-vaccine activists in Russia and Germany
Relative to countries in the West, Russia’s COVID-19 vaccination rate was a pitifully low 34 percent at the time of this writing. As recently as April 2021, a whopping 62 percent of respondents told Levada Center pollsters that they refuse to be vaccinated. (In a promising trend, this group’s share of Russians fell to 45 percent by late October.) In other words, unlike in Germany, Russia’s anti-vaccine community enjoys a level of “sociological comfort” that should obviate the need to present itself as an oppressed minority.
And yet one of the popular anti-vaccine talking points in Russia is to compare vaccines to Nazism. For example, after Moscow started using QR codes in late June to enforce vaccine mandates at restaurants, actor Egor Beroev walked on stage during a television awards ceremony wearing a Star of David yellow patch on his coat. In a speech, he cautioned against “segregating society into the smart and the stupid, into people with and without Down syndrome, into whites and blacks, Jews and non-Jews, and the vaccinated and unvaccinated.”
Some have relied on other antifascist rhetoric, as well, like actress Maria Shukshina, who directed her 170,000 followers online to the research ethics principles for human experimentation set down in the Nuremberg Code as an argument against vaccine mandates enforced through QR codes. Also, Russian Orthodox television personality (and frequent Russia Today columnist) Anna Shafran has encouraged her 45,000 social media subscribers to sign a petition addressed to President Putin that also cites the Nuremberg Code and says QR-code “segregation” could lead to “social destabilization and civil unrest.”
In the Telegram channels reviewed by Meduza, mentions of the Nuremberg Code and the Nuremberg Trials grew from a few dozen times in April 2020 to more than 2,000 monthly mentions by June 2021, when Moscow introduced the first QR codes needed to visit public establishments. Among Telegram’s popular anti-vaccine channels and chats, Meduza counted 40,000 mentions of the Nuremberg Trials, fascism, Nazism, and other similar terms. We found far more word forms, including offensive phrases, that corresponded to “Jew/Jewish,” plus another 10,000 mentions of philanthropist George Soros and more than 27,000 mentions of “globalists” (often an antisemitic "dog whistle”).
Meduza even counted 314 mentions of “Kanalgerukh,” Sergey Sobyanin’s supposedly “real” surname. Seeking any means to discredit Moscow’s mayor, anti-Semitic critics of the COVID-19 vaccine have embraced this conspiracy theory, which journalist Dmitry Treshchanin concocted as a joke in 2010.
Elena Savinova, the cofounder of a nonprofit group devoted to improving vaccine adoption in Russia and the author of an Instagram blog about vaccines, told Meduza that Russia’s anti-vaccine activists likely seized on the Nuremberg Code in order to “exploit an emotionally charged topic and attract new supporters.” It’s noteworthy, she says, that fears mobilize around Nazi concentration camps rather than the more recent, less dramatic Declaration of Helsinki, the modern-day cornerstone document on human research ethics.
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In the fall of 2021, another wave of coronavirus infections hit Russia, causing more deaths than at any point, so far, in the pandemic. Addressing constituents who still refuse to get vaccinated, state officials have adopted increasingly furious language. The head of Karelia, for example, has called these people “murderers,” and the authorities in many cities have gradually expanded vaccine mandates on most public activities.
The rhetoric in the media has grown harsher, too. NTV talk show host Roman Babayan says “the gloves need to come off” against the country’s “halfwit anti-vaxxers,” and news executive Dmitry Kiselyov (who needed to be hospitalized after contracting a breakthrough case of COVID-19) accused the unvaccinated of “sociopathic behavior.”
Even Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who once said the coronavirus infects only “ethnic Chinese people” and whose television network amplifies anti-vaxxer content abroad, wrote in her Telegram channel on October 20, 2021, that she has doubts about the anti-vaccine community’s “cognitive abilities.” When an anti-vaccine group reported her remarks to federal law enforcement (accusing her of hate speech and “violating their human dignity”), Simonyan quipped, “Freedom-loving anti-vaxxers who support freedom of choice and free of opinion now want to lock me up for sharing my opinion. I love it.”
English-language version by Kevin Rothrock
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