Russia's Sputnik V nabs first Twitter-verified vaccine handle, but is it PR or propaganda?

COVID-19 vaccine
Russia's Sputnik V is taking to Twitter with a newly verified handle to push its case for wider approval, even as its government falls under U.S. intelligence suspicion. (Kunal Mahto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

A blue check for Sputnik V—and a cautionary marketing tale for the pharma industry? The Russian-developed coronavirus vaccine nabbed verified status from Twitter last week, doubling down on its broadcasting wave of tweets, retweets and plenty of American-style attitude.

But is the now-authenticated social media account a pharma influencer case study or a cautionary tale of disinformation?

While the account's relaxed tone may offer some lightening-up lessons for pharma, the Sputnik V public relations push is also implicated in a newly revealed Russian disinformation campaign to propel vaccine sales.

U.S. intelligence officials are tracking Russian intelligence agencies’ efforts to undermine confidence in Pfizer and other Western vaccines, according a report in The Wall Street Journal. State Department officials specifically identified a handful of online publications that “have served as fronts for Russian intelligence.”

Indeed, some U.S. social media marketing executives cautioned against the convincingly convivial Sputnik V Twitter account.

“This Twitter handle is Russian propaganda with the goal of legitimizing a vaccine that Europe has serious doubts about, as they’ve seen no data to support safety or efficacy,” Justin Chase, head of innovation and media at Intouch Solutions, said in an email. “Russia is taking a page from The Trump social media playbook, who took a page from the original Russian social media playbook."

While the Sputnik V Twitter account is itself legitimate, the WSJ report notes that as the fake newsfront operation heated up, official Russian state media and social media accounts piled on to boost the vaccine. The disinformation campaign challenges the Pfizer vaccine specifically with the goal to sow doubt about it among consumers, according to the article.

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The overall goal of both Russian efforts is similar—a push for Sputnik adoption to grab coronavirus vaccine market share. Kremlin officials denied the allegations to the WSJ.

The blue-check validation from Twitter may only be adding to the confusion.

Missy Voronyak, W2O Group managing director of social media and influencer activation, said the verified status implies more than just authentication. Blue-check Twitter accounts are commonly seen as official and even influential sources.

“However, if they are providing disinformation—or not 'all of the information'—it can be confusing," Voronyak said via email. "The blue check mark on a social media account verifies that the author is who they claim to be, but it does not mean that everything they say is accurate."

The Twitter handle appears to be targeting Europe in particular as regulators there review Sputnik V's data with a skeptical eye. A senior European Medicines Agency (EMA) official Sunday confirmed its rolling review of Sputnik V but reiterated the need for more documents and data in its work and “urgently” advised against EU emergency use authorization.

“Data packages are coming from Russian manufacturers and of course they will be reviewed according to European standards for quality, safety and efficacy. When everything is proven then it will also be authorised in the European Union,” EMA managing board head Christa Wirthumer said, according to a Reuters report.

Meanwhile, the Sputnik V Twitter feed has been needling EU officials for holding back, as Chase noted. "The handle even tweeted their frustrations that Europe is not currently in talks to procure vaccine inventory," he said.

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The FDA and EMA don’t have any jurisdiction over the vaccine's Twitter communications—as it's not approved for use in either place—as they would regarding U.S. and EU pharma companies' branded social media accounts.

Wendy Blackburn, head of marketing and communications at Intouch, said Sputnik V may even be hurting its own cause for adoption in other countries with its aggressive approach and tone.

“All that said, while I don’t recommend U.S. pharma companies take a page from this approach specifically, in many cases they absolutely could make an attempt to be more conversational and topical—and could do so well within FDA guidelines,” she said.

Indeed, Ryan Burchinow, director of the social media group at CMI Media Group, said the use of Twitter as a media channel is an effective PR move by Sputnik V vaccine makers—not only to get out its message, but also to tap into social listening, monitor real-time conversations and potentially craft content to appeal to countries that haven’t approved it.

“The overall takeaway is that Twitter is a good vehicle for this because it’s a generally open platform for people who are having these conversations,” he said. “We know from social listening that COVID has dominated the Twitter conversation in the past year and health and wellness topics.”