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Anti-vax conspiracy groups lean into pro-Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine

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Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Booba — one of France’s most popular rap artists, with an online audience of millions — spread wild claims about COVID-19. 

But since late February, the French musician has shifted gears to another global crisis: the war in Ukraine. And in post after post, Booba, who canceled a sponsorship deal with Puma after the German company pulled out of Russia, has shared content with his 5.6 million Twitter followers aligned with pro-Kremlin talking points.

The rapper, whose real name is Élie Yaffa, is just a high-profile example of how Western anti-vaccine groups and conspiracy theorists have shifted quickly from parroting falsehoods about the global pandemic to peddling misinformation about the war, often from Moscow’s viewpoint.

Over the last four weeks, Russia’s invasion of its European neighbor has grabbed global attention, putting everything else on the back burner — including the two-year-long COVID-19 crisis. For those deeply involved in online conspiracy theories, that means having to find another topic to keep online audiences interested and engaged. With the common denominator of Russia-backed misinformation and a ready-made digital ecosystem of Facebook groups, Telegram channels and various alternative social networks, it’s been a seamless pivot from the coronavirus to the war in Ukraine.

The information war is playing out in real time across the European Union and the United States as well-organized and large online communities that had previously pushed back against COVID-19 restrictions are now framing Russia’s invasion as being between good-guy Moscow and Kyiv and its Western allies — now cast as New World Order oppressors — according to misinformation experts and fact-checking groups.

“The conspiracy sphere is an empty shell of sorts that aggregates as news unfolds,” said Pauline Talagrand, who’s overseeing Agence France-Presse’s fact-checking work worldwide. “Whether it’s vaccines or masks, there is always something that will trigger people who can be easily manipulated and are distrustful of traditional information.”

“The problem with these recurring crises is that they contribute to the enlargement of these spheres and lead to the entrenchment of their narratives,” she added. 

As with COVID-related misinformation, social networks like Telegram and alternative video-sharing platform Odysee — one of the remaining platforms that provides ready access in Europe to banned Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT and COVID-19 conspiracy documentaries — are playing a key role. While mainstream platforms have removed, or demoted, much of this conspiracy content, there are few if any restrictions on the outer fringes of the web. 

COVID-19 conspiracy groups on Facebook — some with tens of thousands of members — blame the West, not Russia, for causing the war. Telegram channels that in early February railed against the so-called deep state now post pictures of dead Ukrainians, claiming they are fake. QAnon-affiliated websites suggest Russia invaded its Western neighbor to weed out child sexual abusers — a central mantra of that conspiracy theory framework.

“The amplification of pro-Kremlin narratives about the war isn’t really about Russia, it’s about the ongoing skepticism that these groups have in their own governments,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks online falsehoods. “The world’s attention is focused on Russia’s invasion. It’s only natural Ukraine would become a main talking point in conspiracy groups.”

Pan-European shift

The speed with which former COVID conspiracy theorists have pivoted to pro-Russia talking points in European countries like France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic has been rapid and stark. 

Far-right politicians and influencers in places like France, Germany and the U.S. — many of whom had been vocal opponents of COVID-19 restrictions — are championing misinformation alleging that NATO instigated Russia’s invasion or the Ukrainian army attacked innocent civilians.

In Spain, a prominent Telegram channel, once known for its COVID-19 misinformation, spread a widely debunked picture of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wearing a T-shirt that supposedly featured a swastika, according to the Spanish fact-checking media outlet Maldita. 

In Germany, another Telegram channel with more than 200,000 subscribers, jumped on false claims that the U.S. had a secret biological laboratory in Ukraine, based on research from the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS), a German group that tracks online extremism and conspiracy theories.

“All of these new [online] actors that became influential during the pandemic switched to a pro-Russia position,” said Jan Rathje, co-founder of CeMAS. “They always focus on a large conspiracy going on from the elite against the people. People are suffering in Ukraine. And they wouldn’t deny that. But they would say, ‘Yeah, but that’s part of the larger, inhumane conspiracy that’s going on.'”

In France, the EU-wide ban of RT and Sputnik was a turning point in boosting crowds on well-known French anti-vaccine Telegram channels, according to Antoine Bayet, editorial director of France’s National institute for audiovisual, a public body that archives all of French radio and television audiovisual material. “It allows for the deployment of the argument, already used during the health crisis, that it’s about defending freedom against a state that censors,” he said. 

The anti-vaccine and pro-Russian narratives have also found common ground with low-level hatred for French President Emmanuel Macron ahead of his expected reelection in April. While France’s head of state is on track to retain his presidency, based on POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, some of his rivals are seeking to ride the wave of falsehoods about the war in Ukraine to stay relevant with voters. 

Florian Philippot, a former high-level executive from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally who now backs presidential hopeful Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, has gone from organizing demonstrations against the country’s COVID-19 pass to challenging the Western consensus about the war. 

“They have been lying through their teeth for two years about COVID and they would tell the truth about the Ukrainian crisis? Come on,” he tweeted in early March. 

Kremlin-backed narratives

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, many conspiracy groups quickly jumped on Kremlin-backed narratives, including accusations the West had been slow to respond to the pandemic or mainstream vaccines weren’t as effective as those offered from Moscow.

Those close ties — fueled by Russian state media outlets that had become a go-to source for alternative news for many of these conspiracy groups — are based on common ideological roots between anti-vaxxers, QAnon believers and the Kremlin, including a distrust of traditional media and political elites, and a hatred of either NATO or the U.S.

Some QAnon followers — as they turned their attention to the war in Eastern Europe — embraced Vladimir Putin as the successor of former U.S. President Donald Trump in the fight they envisioned against a shadowy “deep state” global elite.

“QAnon has changed direction and is now looking at Ukraine as the representation of the deep state in collusion with the U.S.,” said Ciarán O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism.

Multiple misinformation analysts and fact-checking groups told POLITICO there was no evidence of direct coordination between Russia and these groups to spread online falsehoods. Instead, groups already enmeshed in fringe narratives that question mainstream thinking are more inclined to believe other variations of the anti-Western themes coming from Russia.

“Conspiracy theories call for more conspiracy theories,” said Rudy Reichstadt, director of France’s Conspiracy Watch website, who argued that once people’s “vigilance threshold” about conspiracies is lowered, it becomes much easier to jump from one falsehood to another.  

Referring to the Telegram and Facebook groups and YouTube channels that were already actively spreading COVID-19 misinformation, Reichstadt added, “The pipes are ready, they just need to be filled.”

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