National Affairs by Susan Delacourt

Anti-vaccination, but pro-Russia

No one has yet invented a vaccine against disinformation about Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

That’s probably just as well, because the most needy recipients of a shot against disinformation wouldn’t likely roll up their sleeves for one anyway.

This disturbing connection between vaccine resistance and attitudes toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been unearthed in the latest wave of polling by EKOS Research. Frank Graves, head of EKOS, calls it “astonishing,” “complex” and “insidious.”

Graves tested people’s views on the Ukraine crisis last week and then sorted their replies according to their vaccination status. What he found was that the more opposed people were to getting vaccinated, the more sympathetic their views were toward Russia, a notorious purveyor of disinformation itself.

Respondents with three or more doses of COVID vaccine, for instance, were overwhelmingly in favour of sanctions against Russia and massively in agreement that Russia was currently committing war crimes against Ukrainians. On the question of sanctions and war crimes, the percentage of triple-vaccinated people taking a tough stand on Russia was in the realm of 80 to 90 per cent.

Among those who have been refusing COVID vaccines, on the other hand, the opposite was true. Only 13 per cent favoured economic sanctions against Russia and only 18 per cent supported sending more military aid to Ukraine. Just 32 per cent agreed that Russia was committing war crimes, compared with 88 per cent for the triple-vaxxed and 70 per cent for those who have received two doses.

(The poll, conducted among an online panel of 1,035 adult Canadians between March 9 and March 13, is considered accurate within three percentage points, 19 times out of 20. It will be published online at the EKOS website this weekend.)

Graves believes we are seeing active disinformation at work. It’s the most plausible explanation, he told me on Friday, for how one segment of the population managed to transfer its suspicion of vaccination into skepticism about what’s really going on in Ukraine.

“Probably the most striking finding is just the rapidity with which this disinformation machine can pivot,” says Graves.

In other words, the same forces that were feeding people rubbish about vaccine mandates during the Ottawa occupation in February are now feeding them nonsense in March about Russia and Ukraine. (I would worry about insulting these people with words like rubbish and nonsense, except that the audience for this disinformation isn’t likely to be reading the Star or any other mainstream media.)

Graves is still working on tracking the sources of disinformation, but he cites YouTube as one of the big culprits so far.

Kate Graham, a former provincial Liberal leadership candidate in Ontario, was out knocking on doors in her hometown of London, Ont. last weekend, around the same time that EKOS was doing this latest polling.

Graham posted an encounter she had with one woman at the door, who summarily dismissed what was going on in Ukraine as “all fake.” The woman then went on to offer her views on the convoy protest, Justin Trudeau and the media.

When Graham asked where the woman got her information, she cited “the internet, TikTok and Joe Rogan.” Graham wrote on Twitter about how the encounter stayed with her long after she left the doorstep, especially the woman’s tearful fear about the future. “How do we possibly bridge that gap?” Graham asked. “Fear isn’t solved by fact-correcting.”

Graves says he’s similarly flummoxed by that question – and he’s asked it a lot as he presents these findings. Canada, once seen as a safe haven from Donald Trump-style disinformation, is quickly catching up, Graves fears.

In an appearance at the Munk School in Toronto on Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly promised more to say soon about the social media giants’ role in spreading disinformation, particularly their responsibility as “content producers” – a definition they have so far resisted.

That may be one step, but it’s worth noting that Trump’s conspiracy theories about the last presidential election have not evaporated with his removal from Twitter – and may in fact have flourished in the dark. The New York Times reported earlier this year that nearly two dozen people are running to be secretaries of state across the U.S. on the entirely baseless argument that victory was stolen from Trump in 2020.

It all tells us that conspiracy theories don’t just go away anymore; nor do they continue to exist on the fringe. Like the COVID virus, they’ve developed a remarkable ability to mutate – or “pivot,” in Graves’ words. While many of us see the pandemic and the war in Ukraine as separate, albeit world-shaking crises, the disinformation machine has managed to connect them.


Copyright 2022
Torstar Syndication Services

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