Between September-October, a new wave of anti-vaccination information gained momentum in Armenia. At the same time, the surge of the disease also intensified: In Armenia, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the region, up to 60 deaths per day from the coronavirus were registered.
We studied three media outlets that often spread misinformation about vaccines to understand the anatomy of the anti-vaccination information campaign. We looked at the articles published between September 1 and October 10, 2021, which in one way or another covered the coronavirus vaccines.
In total, we studied 632 articles from 3 media outlets: 394 from Medmedia.am, 130 from Iravunk.com, and 108 from Livenews.am. We have singled out the publications containing neutral, positive and negative messages about vaccines. We have considered the potential direct and indirect benefits and harms regarding the vaccination process. Read more about the methodology at the end of the article.
Three important discoveries:
⭕ Most of the content about vaccines in the studied sites is negative. Moreover, the vast majority of authored materials are anti-vaccine, which shows the position of the editorial team.
⭕ Most of the content of the sites is not their own articles, but reprints from Facebook, official texts, news. Moreover, the source of the reprinted material is often not even mentioned.
⭕ The sites often provided a platform for anti-vaccination activists.
Half of the materials were biased
Neutral coverage in all 3 websites studied made up only half of the published articles. Neutral articles most often contain official announcements, transcripts of briefings, or government sittings.
A substantial part of the articles studied, 34-49% (depending on the website), were negative. In this case, we are dealing with the spread of anti-vaccination claims, misinformation or conspiracy theories.
A small part, 10-14%, was positive coverage.
Reprinted material from Facebook and the media
In all 3 sites studied, reprinted materials are a significant part of the content, moreover, the sites sometimes do not mention the source, and we discover that it is a reprint only after additional research.
There are more reprinted materials on Medmedia.am – 68% of all content. About 17% of them are reprinted from Facebook posts. In other cases, the site simply copied articles from various other news outlets, official announcements, etc.
29% of the content on Iravunk.com is a reprint of another media outlet or Facebook post.
Reprinted materials on Livenews.am make up 37% of the total content. Official messages are reprinted the most often. The site also used a lot of Russian sources, they make up one-fifth of the reprinted content. Ria Novosti is mentioned the most here.
Reprint materials on all sites are mostly neutral material. At Medmedia.am and Iravunk.com, half or more of the reprints are neutral, 60% and 50%, respectively. Half of the reprints on Livenews.am are neutral, half are negative.
The Russian Sputnik vaccine received the most coverage
Of all the vaccines used in Armenia, Russian Sputnik V (or Sputnik Lite) is covered the most. This vaccine is mentioned 60 times. Moreover, Medmedia.am reprinted the messages of the Russian authorities and the fund financing the vaccine. Other vaccines have been less frequently mentioned, and in those cases, the official statements of the companies or countries producing them have not been reprinted.
Most of the author’s articles are anti-vaccine
Authored (i.e. editorial, analytical, or journalist-signed) material is relatively scarce in all three media outlets, accounting for only 14% of the total material reviewed. The vast majority of these materials, 75%, are anti-vaccine.
There are 11 authored articles on Iravunk.com, most of which (10) were evaluated negatively, and only one neutral. No positive authored material was observed. In the interviews, the other vaccines were mostly covered in a negative light: 5 negative, 4 neutral and 1 positive. It turns out that the media outlet clearly expressed its anti-vaccination position via authored articles and interviews.
There are 15 authored articles on Livenews.am, most of which were evaluated as negative. Most of such materials were authored by Arthur Hovhannisyan, who started a series of articles on the vaccination process. There was a lot of misinformation and manipulative information, for example, that pregnant women should not be vaccinated, which is wrong, because research has shown that certain vaccines are safe and effective for the health of pregnant women.
In addition, 16 interviews were published on Livenews during the study period, all of which were assessed as negative because they contained inaccurate, erroneous or misleading claims about vaccines. Lawyer Emil Markosyan, who is actively involved in the anti-vaccination movement, has been hosted on Livenews most frequently, 4 times in about a month. Twice the media outlet provided a platform for other well-known people with an anti-vaccination position, Marina Khachatryan, Karen Arayan, Grigor Grigoryan and others.
Most of the materials in Medmedia.am, 81%, were anonymous. Only 60 articles were signed by a journalist. In 15 cases “Medmedia.am editorial office” was mentioned as the author. Only 16% of the authored materials were neutral, 15% were positive, 69% were negative, that is, they contained unverified, incorrect or incomplete information.
There was a case when the editorial office of Medmedia.am changed the information in a translated article. Thus, Medmedia.am translated a BBC article, which covered the increase in the number of cases of coronavirus infection in Great Britain. The BBC stressed that the majority of the country’s population is vaccinated, and unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, the number of infections is increasing, while the death toll is much lower.
However, while translating, Medmedia.am edited the BBC text, removing from it all references to the reduction of deaths. As a result, the website referred to a reliable media outlet and expressed the following idea: even in a country with a very high vaccination rate, the infection continues to spread rapidly. It was up to the reader to make a seemingly logical conclusion: vaccinations are meaningless.
What sources did the sites get their information from?
The most frequently mentioned source of Livenews is the leader of the “Zartonk” party, lawyer Ara Zohrabyan. His Facebook posts or live broadcasts appeared on the website 7 times, more often than the messages of the Ministry of Health (6 times). All the materials with the participation of Ara Zohrabyan were assessed negatively, as there were calls for protests against the demand for vaccination or testing. Media.am checked the wrong and manipulative news spread by Zohrabyan about vaccinations.
Livenews most often referred to Armenpress (5 articles) and Russian Ria Novosti (4 articles). The vast majority of those articles were neutral coverage. The “Hayastan” bloc and the bloc MP Aram Vardevanyan were also often given a platform to voice their opinions (4 materials). All of these materials questioned the legality of the mandatory vaccination or testing requirement. Currently, the minister’s order is being examined in the Constitutional Court, the applicant’s representative in the Constitutional Court is Aram Vardevanyan.
In 4 cases, Iravunk.com referred to its own anonymous sources while talking about the vaccine. In 3 such news materials, the vaccines were covered in a negative context, one of which was titled “Gossip.”
In seven cases, Iravunk referred to Russian media outlets, including Sputnik’s Armenian and Georgian services. One of these 7 materials had positive coverage, the others neutral.
In both cases, the source of the news is the World Health Organization (WHO), but it is interesting that in one of the articles the vaccine is presented in a negative context, as the author added a comment to the WHO data, in both the title and the article. In particular, it is said that the increase in vaccination rates is in the interest of businesses.
In 8 of the 130 articles viewed in Iravunk, the news had no source at all.
The most frequently mentioned source in Medmedia.am was the Ministry of Health (18 materials). The second most frequently mentioned was Armenpress news (13 articles), the third was Hraparak.am (12 articles). The “Anti-Epidemic Alliance” initiative was mentioned 9 times as a source. This initiative had previously spread manipulative information about vaccines. “Zhoghovurd” daily was mentioned 8 times, Ara Zohrabyan 7 times.
The list of sources mentioned by Medmedia.am included the Russian Ria Novosti (12 materials) and the Georgian official stopcov.ge website (9 materials). However, Medmedia.am did not use these two foreign sources, but without making any mention of it, reprinted the articles of the local Armenian websites, which in their turn mentioned the Russian and Georgian websites. Most often Medmedia.am reprinted the articles of Shantnews.am, News.am, Panorama.am.
Authorities and their messages: Which experts were quoted the most often?
During the observed period, Iravunk quoted experts, infectious disease specialists and lawyers 36 times (in 27% of the materials). In 23 cases the coverage was negative, in 10 cases it was neutral and only in 3 cases it was positive. This means that the news outlet mostly gave a voice to specialists with an anti-vaccination point of view.
The most common thought in Iravunk refers to the requirement for vaccination and/or testing, which came into force in October. This demand is called illegal and unconstitutional 22 times in the media. This was most often talked about by various politicians, the most active of whom were Ara Zohrabyan and neurosurgeon and politician Marina Khachatryan.
Both authored and reprinted materials repeat the idea that the vaccines have not been fully tested, which is a claim that does not correspond to reality. This narrative has been repeated 8 times with different formulations. One common view is that vaccinations are not effective, because you can still be infected with corona after vaccination. This view has been shared 7 times. By the way, it has not been mentioned that despite the infections, the vaccine significantly reduces the cases of hospitalization and death. Instead, in the short period of time observed, the idea that people die even after vaccination was repeated 6 times.
Conspiracy theories are no exception to Iravunk. Marina Khachatryan and human rights activist Robert Hayrapetyan were actively involved in their dissemination. In 5 cases, theories have been put forward that vaccines are mechanisms for total control over the world or the disintegration of states. In another case, it is mentioned that the leaders of countries with high vaccination rates cooperate with “evil forces.” These are the thoughts of astronomer Karen Apoyan.
The website Medmedia.am also actively covered the order of the Ministry of Health, which came into force on October 1, which gave working citizens a dilemma: to be vaccinated or tested. This topic is mentioned in about a quarter of the articles. The announcements of state bodies were also often covered.
The experience of other countries in the fight against the epidemic is covered in 57 articles; the website most often referred to the developments in neighboring Georgia. In another 31 articles, the website covers global developments, and in 50 articles, it criticizes the policies pursued by the authorities in the fight against the pandemic.
The site has often published negative materials about vaccines. Thus, in 22 articles they suggest that vaccinated people also get sick, but most of these articles do not emphasize that even if infected, the vaccinated person recovered from the disease much more easily.
In 16 articles, the benefits of natural immunity are emphasized or it is argued that a person with natural immunity should not be vaccinated. But most of these articles do not mention the risk that the only way to get natural immunity is to get sick.
58 articles criticize the “compulsion” of vaccinations, and 15 articles state that testing should be free. In 10 articles, Medmedia.am repeated Ara Zohrabyan’s claims without checking, although he had previously spread a number of false pieces of news about vaccinations. In another 11 articles, the website repeated the statements of Samvel Grigoryan and Eduard Hovhannisyan, members of the anti-vaccination “Free Will” movement founded by Zohrabyan, without checking. The website also gave a voice to lawyers affiliated with the “Hayastan” faction (Aram Vardevanyan, Robert Hayrapetyan).
On the third website studied, Livenews, the idea that the order offering a dilemma of vaccination or testing is illegal was suggested 26 times. This constitutes the vast majority of messages.
Lawyers Ara Zohrabyan and Anna Tsarukyan were active in circulating this opinion. In addition to legal assessments, many anti-scientific views had been voiced, which have not been proven in any way. The most commonly used message was that vaccines are not safe (9 materials). Examples of deaths recorded shortly after vaccination are often cited as evidence, without explaining that the causal link between the vaccine and those deaths has not been established. Ara Zohrabyan and Marina Khachatryan most often came up with such examples. Arthur Hovhannisyan has also written about it many times in his authored materials. There is an opinion in 6 materials that the vaccines are not fully tested. Proponents of this view are anti-vaccination activists Dmitri Harutyunyan, Ara Zohrabyan, Marina Khachatryan and others.
The surveyed sites were selected as a result of short interviews with industry experts, researchers, and fact-checking journalists. 10 experts took part in the interviews, who mentioned 5 websites that spread unverified, incorrect or manipulative information about the pandemic. As a result, the 3 most frequently mentioned websites were singled out. The authors chose only one of the sites that received an equal number of citations, giving preference to the sites that appeared most often in the focus of authors as fact-checkers. As a result, 3 websites were selected: Medmedia.am, Iravunk.com, Livenews.am.
The articles published from September 1 to October 10, which in one way or another covered the coronavirus vaccines, were downloaded from the selected websites. The choice of the period is conditioned by the new order of the Ministry of Health, which requires vaccination and testing of employees, which was published in late August and came into force in early October. The order caused a new wave of anti-vaccine information.
A total of 632 articles were reviewed (394 from Medmedia.am, 130 from Iravunk.com, and 108 from Livenews.am).
During the study, articles on vaccines were evaluated as neutral, positive, or negative. Moreover, only the articles that contain an emphasis on the need and importance of vaccination were assessed as positive.
Articles that contain inaccurate, or misleading statements, as well as information that is negatively associated with the vaccine, have been evaluated as negative.
News, which did not present special emphasis on either positive or negative attitudes, was assessed as neutral. Factually accurate negative news about the vaccines which was comprehensively presented was assessed as neutral. For example, an article saying that Finland decided to vaccinate young men with Pfizer rather than Moderna because of rare cases of myocarditis was considered neutral because it contained accurate information about a Finnish government decision.