Sputnik V arrives on Twitter: simple propaganda, or need for domestic legitimacy?

In November 2020, Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine produced by the Gamaleya Center, appeared on Twitter with a new account. As of March 2021, the Sputnik account has been officially verified by the California-based social media platform. It is the only Covid 19 vaccine with that distinction  — or rather, that decided to pursue that distinction. 

Despite being only a few months old, Sputnik has found it quite difficult to fit into the Twitter world. In January 2021, Twitter blocked access to the new Russian account due to suspicious and unusual activity. Twitter later clarified the situation by explaining that the account had been mistakenly blocked by an automatic spam filter. However, the temporary suspension of the account was not the only attempt to block the account of the product produced by Gamaleya Center. 

Wide international opinion is that behind this new social solution lies the powerful propaganda engine of the Kremlin. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sputnik’s presence on Twitter is just a piece of a bigger puzzle — namely the massive action of Russian misdirection and discreditation of Western vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna. According to the American newspaper, Russian intelligence agencies have mounted a digital and media campaign, leveraging the reporting of online publications that have in recent months questioned the development and safety of vaccines.

An analysis by the Global Engagement Center of the U.S. State Department, the body in charge of monitoring foreign disinformation, has identified four scientific publications, published on The Lancet, that served as a tool of leverage by Russian intelligence. Different propaganda websites, controlled by the Russian agencies, have harshly commented on the four publications on The Lancet. As a matter of fact, these propaganda websites played on the risk of side effects of vaccines, also accusing Washington of having excessively accelerated the approval process of the Pfizer product.

The WSJ reporting is not the only one questioning the Russian work, but only the most recent. The Russian vaccine has, in fact, found robust opposition in the West. And it is precisely at a juncture like this that the Sputnik Twitter account finds purpose to its nature. Now that the account is recognized as “verified,” it seems ready to respond to the most authoritative accusations. 

In early March, the Sputnik V account received Twitter’s blue verified badge. On March 9, via the social media platform, the account addressed the European Medicines Agency, asking for a public apology for the claims it made about the Russian vaccine. 

In an interview on Austrian television, Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, chairwoman of the Agency’s management board, had described the Sputnik V vaccine as Russian roulette. That statement that did not go unnoticed by the newly-verified Sputnik Twitter account, especially because of its tone. 

In a post, Sputnik V claimed to have been recognized and approved in 46 nations, underlining the inappropriateness of Wirthumer-Hoche’s comment. Relaunching the attack, Sputnik says on Twitter that the nature of the comments casts doubt on the credibility of the Agency and its impartiality. It was an accusation that had already been voiced after the agency postponed several times its review of the Russian vaccine, which has still not yet been approved by the European agency.

With the Sputnik vaccine having been given its own verified Twitter handle, the scope is to avoid the need for the Russian ministerial bodies to respond to criticism. Rather, it’s the vaccine itself that speaks, in an attempt toward an apolitical support for the product of the Gamaleya Center.

According to Missy Voronyak, W2O Group‘s managing director for social media and influencer activation, Twitter’s verified status implies more than just authentication. (The W2O is a leading agency for analytics-driven, digital-first healthcare marketing and communications.) Verified Twitter accounts are commonly seen as official and even influential sources. From this perspective, it seems to corroborate the report released by the Wall Street Journal that hints at a massive propaganda action by Russia. But what if Russian strategic moves were, at least in part, misrepresented by others?

Although the Sputnik V has been accepted in 51 countries to date, the list is constantly being updated. As a matter of fact, Russia recently signed its first European production agreement with Italy. Russia’s powerful media push (either propaganda or public relations, depending on one’s point of view) is necessary first and foremost for residents within the Russian Federation. Thus, the strong need for vaccine legitimacy is first and foremost within the Russian territory.

Thus, to corroborate the Kremlin’s push of its vaccine, it aims to obtain more (and progressively positive) feedback from the rest of the world. This, presumably, in the hope of generating a reverse trust phenomenon. If Sputnik V gains more credibility abroad, Russian citizens will be more inclined to accept it as trustworthy. At the moment, as reported in Levada Center surveys, 62% of Russian residents reject the Gamaleya Center’s signature vaccine. In this report, one particular fact stands out: the highest level of reluctance was identified among 18-24 year olds —  the group most active on social media and generally active in this digital age. It is, in fact, the very same group that has been most involved (and influenced by Twitter itself) in organizing the popular protests against the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. 

This represents a new challenge for Moscow, which is already struggling with its lack of central control. That is, over the last year, starting with the protests in Khabarovsk, the discontent in Russia is at the highest it’s been in the last 21 years. Under these conditions, Moscow is struggling in the exercise of its coercive power on the Russian territory, hinting at a problem in exercising its central control. Meanwhile, while the Kremlin markets its vaccine to the generational groups most present on social networks, it has also added another campaign rebranding to its agenda — always against the Californian Twitter.

In fact, the Kremlin is now threatening to close access to Twitter on its territory from April. This is because the “blue bird” has failed to remove what the Kremlin considers “sensitive and offensive” material on its platform. That move intensifies the Russian government’s standoff with social media platforms that have played an important role in amplifying dissent in Russia. It goes hand in hand with Sputnik’s social push, and its responses to comments from influential figures or agencies. The back-and-forth with the Californian social media company, however, does not improve Russian credibility. 

Only with Russia providing the data required by the European Medicines Agency, the subsequent rolling review of the vaccine by the Agency, and possible European approval, will the Russian vaccine status change. As the case of Alexei Navalny demonstrates, young Russians are increasingly inspired by Western input, such as that coming from European users of social networks. The similarity between Sputnik and the Navalny case could be proved if EMA approves the vaccine, and the domestic rejection rate towards Sputnik V is subsequently reduced. 

If, after approval, this does not occur, it could be another piece to add to the problematic puzzle of Moscow’s central control.