Is anti-vaccination campaign the new Operation Infektion?

Disinformation is now without a doubt an integral part of Russian foreign policy, but even though it feels brand new it dates way back. It has a long history and it is closely tied to the birth of the KGB in the 1950s and the doctrine of active measures. These active measures (Russian: активные мероприятия) included manipulation and media control, written and oral disinformation, use of foreign communist parties and front organizations, clandestine radio broadcasting, manipulation of the economy, kidnappings, paramilitary operations, and support of guerrilla groups and terrorist organizations.

These attempts were nebulous and prolonged, and included operations like Operation Neptune – a 1964 attempt to use forged documents with the intention of implying that western politicians had supported the Nazis, and the most famous Operation Infektion – a disinformation campaign run by the KGB in the 1980s to spread information that the United States invented HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons research project at Fort Detrick, Maryland. When AIDS emerged in the early 1980s, Soviet bloc disinformation specialists quickly recognized the opportunity the mysterious epidemic offered and planted disinformation only months after the scientific community had coined the term “AIDS” and established the existence of a causative virus. The Soviet Union used it to undermine the United States’ credibility, foster anti-Americanism, isolate America abroad and create tensions between host countries and the U.S. over the presence of American military bases (which were often portrayed as the cause of AIDS outbreaks in local populations).

The groundwork appeared in the pro-Soviet Indian newspaper Patriot. An anonymous letter was sent to the editor in July 1983 from a well-known American scientist and anthropologist who claimed that AIDS was manufactured at Fort Detrick by genetic engineers. The scientist claimed that that deadly mysterious disease was believed to be the results of the Pentagon’s experiments to develop new and dangerous biological weapons, and implicated Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists sent to Africa and Latin America to find dangerous viruses unknown to Asia and Europe. The Patriot item appeared just as AIDS was beginning to attract the attention of the international scientific and medical communities, linking the United States with what was then an unexplored public health problem.

The AIDS story exploded across the world and was repeated by Soviet newspapers, magazines, wire services, radio broadcasts, and television.

The campaign started in earnest in October 1985 after the story was ignored for two years, with the original article being republished by Soviet newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta. To provide a scientific foundation for their charge that AIDS was manmade, the Soviet Union used a pseudo-scientific paper written in 1986 by a retired Russian-born East German biophysicist named Dr. Jakob Segal, co-authored by his wife, Dr. Lilli Segal; and Dr. Ronald Dehmlow at Humboldt University of East Berlin. The report was quoted heavily by Soviet propagandists, and the Segals (who were educated in France) were often said to be French researchers to hide their connections with communism. Dr. Segal postulated that the AIDS virus was synthesized by combining parts of two distantly related retroviruses: VISNA and HTLV-1.

In the report, Segal said that his hypothesis was based purely on assumptions, extrapolations, and hearsay and not at all on direct scientific evidence.

The Segal theory repeatedly has been dismissed by leading Western and Soviet AIDS experts, including Dr. Luc Montagnier, director of the Paris-based Pasteur Institute and Dr. Viktor Zhdanov, the U.S.S.R. top AIDS expert and chief of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Medical Sciences Ivanovskiy Institute of Virology. Dr. Zhdanov told a TASS correspondent that the AIDS virus has not been obtained artificially. Nevertheless, Segal’s allegations continue to circulate, primarily in Soviet, South Asian and African media.

In an effort to undermine U.S. defense arrangements with allied countries, create pressures for the removal of U.S. military facilities overseas, and further exploit of anti-U.S. sentiment, Moscow has warned countries that U.S. military personnel stationed at U.S. military facilities pose a public health danger to local populations. For example, the Soviet newspaper Sovyetskaya Rossiya (January 23, 1987) asserted that in Western Europe, most AIDS cases were registered in the places where U.S. troops were stationed. TASS (February 12, 1987) reported panic in Japan and that local businesses were closing their doors to U.S. military personnel; a subsequent TASS report (February 17, 1987) alleged that they were notorious for their loose morals and were spreading AIDS in South Korea. Sovyetskaya Rossiya (March 15, 1987) attributed the spread of AIDS in the Philippines to the presence of U.S. military personnel in that country. Local communist and government-controlled newspapers in Latin America (Nicaragua and Panama, for example) have picked up the charges as well, blaming U.S. soldiers for the spread of AIDS in the region.

In the late 1980s, AIDS began spreading through the Soviet Union, and Moscow developed a greater interest in exchanging medical research on the subject than it had a few years before. Because the AIDS disinformation campaign jeopardized cooperation with US scientists, Moscow began to listen to Washington’s complaints. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, through the government’s official newspaper Izvestia, disavowed the thesis that AIDS was artificially created.

The end of the Cold War threw the KGB into disarray, but the damage was already done – once a rumor takes root, it is nigh on impossible to eradicate it entirely, and the myths planted by Operation Infektion were no exception. It wasn’t until 1992 that the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Yevgeny Primakov, conceded that the KGB had instigated and perpetuated the myth.

In 2005, a study by the RAND Corporation and Oregon State University revealed that nearly 50% of African Americans thought AIDS was man-made, over 25% believed AIDS was a product of a government laboratory, 12% believed it was created and spread by the CIA, and 15% believed that AIDS was a form of genocide against black people.

The use of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to communicate and share information has made us more connected, but on the other hand, it made us prone to consuming, sharing and believing in unverified information posing as facts, such as AIDS originated in the U.S.

Putin acknowledged the importance and potential of the Internet and social networks, so that is why active measures are once again in use, this time updated for digitally interconnected information space.

Even though active measures date back to the KBG era, they offer perfect explanations and reasons behind the biggest disinformation campaigns conducted by Russia in the modern era, from the illegal annexation of Crimea, the elections meddling around the world and now the anti-vaccination campaign – yet another public health problem connected to Kremlin. The anti-vaccine movement has proliferated over recent years, in part because of its most vocal proponents using social media to churn out often misleading information.

The retrospective observational study, assessing the impact of bots and trolls on online vaccine discourse on Twitter from 2014 to 2017 was published by the American Journal of Public Health in October 2018. The study shows that much health disinformation is promoted by Russian bots and trolls. Twitter accounts run by automated bots and Russian trolls masqueraded as legitimate users engaging in online vaccine debates. It is noted that by posting a variety of anti, pro and neutral tweets trolls and bots they wanted to legitimize the vaccine debate. These accounts post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user with a goal to promote discord rather than favor one side of the vaccine debate. Exposure to the vaccine debate erodes public trust in healthcare providers and leads people to delay vaccination, exposing us to the risk of epidemics, said dr Broniatowski, one of the authors of the study, adding that just amplifying the debate can, therefore, have real consequences.

This analysis is supplemented by a qualitative study of #VaccinateUS – a Twitter hashtag designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political issue. The #VaccinateUS tweets were uniquely identified with the Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed operation specializing in online influence operations.

One tweet casting doubt on vaccines cited in the study read: Did you know there was a secret government database of #Vaccine-damaged child? #VaccinateUS.

Another that argued for vaccinations said: #VaccinateUS You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I’m for #vaccination!

Sometimes the same account would take two sides of the same issue.

In April 2017, an account named Baldwin tweeted this anti-vaccine sentiment: Vaccine dangers are hidden from parents by the FDA using a simple TRICK – make the placebo as toxic as the vaccine so both have = reactions.

A month later Baldwin seems to have switched positions.

WHO recommends vaccination with 1st dose of #hepatitisB vaccine within the first 24 hours of life #VaccinesWork, the account tweeted in May.

Dr. Broniatowski tells for Radio Free Europe he has seen no evidence of Russia’s trying to weaken Western democracies by persuading people to stop vaccination. Rather, the known trolls masqueraded as legitimate users on social media and debated vaccines as part of their strategy to promote political polarization.

At Duke University in North Carolina, people within The Forge (center for scientific health data) are working and trying to understand and respond to health-related disinformation on the Internet. Director of the Forge, Robert Califf, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has said that medical misinformation may be the issue of our times that demands top priority and that a large number of the social-media posts represent state-sponsored cyber warfare, particularly from Russia.

In order to understand why, we need to depart from disinformation per se, focus on the bigger picture and realize the grand agenda. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea, the relations between the West and Russia plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War. The Russian modern world, Putinism (Russia under Putin) feels vulnerable and not compelling compared to the West and western values. Inside Russia, we are likely to witness the continued rejection of the pillars of the European democracy, including civil society activism, freedom of speech and political pluralism, adding on top of that the most recent Internet laws adopted by the Duma. Fixing the problem would mean changing the authoritarian system and rule, which is not likely to happen. The only other suitable option is to weaken the West, through non-traditional war or hybrid warfare, that is adapted to the modern world, unlike the conventional weapons, using cyber operations, disinformation campaigns, weaponized crime, economic sanctions, energy dependence, etc. Same goal, just different methods from what we have seen during the XX century, especially throughout the Cold War. Active measures were the heart of Soviet operations, hybrid measures are the heart of Russian operations today.

That all of the abovementioned is not the mere speculation, proves the statement of the former KGB General Oleg Kalugin:

Not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs. To make America more vulnerable to the anger and distrust of other peoples.

The anti-vaccination issue is so grave that the World Health Organization included it in their Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019 alongside with air pollution and climate change, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, HIV, the world flu pandemic, vulnerable and vulnerable environment (exposed with droughts, hunger, conflicts and similar hazards), antimicrobial resistance, resistance to antibiotics and antiviral drugs, Ebola and other high risk pathogens, and poor primary health care.

Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved – it is stated in the WHO report.

It also highlights the dangers that anti-vaxxers present, including as an example a 30 per cent increase in recorded cases of measles around the world. Vaccination hesitancy, as stated by the WHO, threatens to destroy the progress of catching up with vaccine-preventable diseases.

According to the World Health Organization cases of measles in Europe have hit a record high in the first six months of 2018.

When it comes to Europe, more than 41,000 people have been infected in the first six months of 2018, leading to 37 deaths, which is almost the double from the whole 2017, when there were 24.000 registered cases and 5.200 in 2016. Experts blame this surge on a drop in the number of people being vaccinated.

Ukraine and Serbia are among the countries with the highest rates in Europe.

Anti-vaxxers and anti-vaccination players in the Western Balkans

1. Vakcine INFO

The portal and the Facebook page Vakcine INFO represent the project of the association Građanska inicijativa za neobaveznu vakcinaciju, aiming at informing citizens in Serbia and the region on the whole truth about vaccines, as well as providing lesser-known information on safety, effectiveness, and justification of vaccinations. The individual membership application form of the Association may be bought at the website, while the membership fee covers the expenses of the legal entity status amounted to RSD 1,200 for the calendar year of 2018.

Among posts on the website, there are reactions to opinions of an epidemiologist and a doctor, Zoran Radovanovic MC, also called a legal charlatan. Dr. Radovanovic is accused of giving, as they say, an inexpert opinion, as well as of making pressure upon citizens with his ruthless excoriation. In his text Infections, courts and vaccines published on November 16, 2017, at the media portal Danas, Dr. Radovanovic defends medicine and vaccination and calls on all the citizens to let go of the conspiracy theorists.

The association Građanska inicijativa za neobaveznu vakcinaciju has also its own Facebook page named Vakcine INFO followed by 17,842 users. This page is very active and posts photos, videos, and posts, then researches and analysis of certain doctors, quack doctors and healthcare institutions providing negative vaccine narratives, all in the attempt to raise public awareness on adversary effect of vaccination and consequences it bears.

This page has recently posted a photo with a list of vaccines, medicaments and cosmetic products containing cells or parts of aborted babies. However, this photo does not have a source and a piece of information on where they obtained this data. Some other photo posted under the title Da li ste znali?, reading that polysorbate 80 found in many vaccines is a preservative, does not also have precise data on its source.

Via the Facebook page, this initiative gives its continuing support to Jovana Stojkovic, a doctor prosecuted before the Court of Honor of the Regional Medical Chamber in Belgrade on charges that her public statements caused the decrease of vaccination coverage and resulted in the measles outbreak in Serbia. Dr. Jovana Stojkovic is also one of the authors whose texts may be found on the website Besides this case, the Facebook page Vaccine INFO gave support to Lidija Gaski, a doctor from Croatia and another fierce advocate for the right to freedom of choice regarding vaccination, which is legally binding in this country.

2. Pravo na izbor

The portal and its related Facebook page are created to question the justification of mandatory vaccination in the Republic of Serbia, on the grounds of numerous legal, health, ethical and other arguments. The Facebook page, putting vaccines solely in a negative context, warning against the pharmaceutical mafia and calling on all people to be informed before (non-)vaccination, is followed by 9,876 Facebook users.

On its portal, this Association emphasizes that vaccines may contain parts of aborted babies, human or animal DNA, aluminium and mercury, at the same time not stating how they got into possession of that data, and therefore the public is prevented from the whole information.

On its Facebook page, Pravo na izbor posted that NATO in its book Immunological Adjuvants[1] and Vaccines has characterized vaccines as a biological weapon.

The posted photo emphasizes that the abovementioned book on page 37 says: Vaccines cause autoimmune diseases. As an adjuvant, aluminum increases the production of certain antibodies, causing allergies and anaphylactic shock.

The analysis of the whole above mentioned book and the extracted page 37 showed that there is nowhere a similar phrase formulation to this one. Even syntagmatic unit biological weapon is not mentioned in this study.

It is important to mention that the book Immunological Adjuvants and Vaccines is published in 1989, so even if the information to which the organization Pravo na izbor refers is correct, it would be doubtful to rely on the research 30 years old, particularly when it comes to the field of medicine.

Presenting such information aims at deceiving the public and raising panic about sensitive topics.

3. Dr. Jovana Stojković

Dr. Jovana Stojkovic, who publicly and openly stands against the vaccination of children both on her Facebook page and in the TV shows, has been filed a lawsuit in December 2018 before the Court of Honor of the Regional Medicine Chamber; they also requested her medical license to be revoked. At the same time, she is the president of the citizens’ association Pravo na izbor and the movement Živim za Srbiju.

At the Živim za Srbiju campaign’s website – the website presenting measures and changes they strive for in the system of the society and the state – there is a special channel where Dr. Stojkovic presents her stances on the fight against vaccination, as well as other combats such as maintenance of a traditional family image, fight against LGBT population, the surrender of the Serbian Kosovo and Metohija, etc.

This campaign has also its Facebook page which often deals with the NATO topic. As stated in one of the posts, during 78 days of radioactive uranium bombing, 79 children were killed.

In one of their posts on the Facebook page, Dr. Stojkovic poses the following question to people: Before you were against the American shells! Now you fight for the American vaccines?

Source: Facebook

Besides anti-vaccination speeches, she gives, very frequently, anti-NATO and anti-West speeches in public, praising Russia as an ally which should be addressed for help. On her Facebook page, she organized and called on numerous protests both the anti-vaccination protests and the ones related to current issues – NATO, the LGBT people, Kosovo.

Actually, on May 14, 2017, the first Sveroditeljski protest (All-parents’ protest) was organized under the auspices of the citizens’ association Ja volim mamu i tatu.

Why this particular protest was very interesting to us is not for the reason it was organized, but for the fact that one of its speakers was actually Dr. Jovana Stojkovic, while one of the protesters was Radomir Pocuca, who was introduced in the previous issue of our Magazine when writing about Yellow vest protesters in Paris and their connections with the fighters in Ukraine. Pocuca fought for the Russian interests in Donbas and, as he said himself, against the evil threatening his holy motherland Russia. Following the plea bargain, he pleaded guilty before the Serbian Prosecution and was convicted to a prison term of one year and a half and five years of parole.

R. Pocuca attending Sveroditeljski protest

[1] A substance enhancing the immune system of a body to respond to antigens.