In this report concerning the COVID-19 vaccine conversation on social media (Facebook) in the Republic of Moldova (RM), we look at data gathered by the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project, via the tool CrowdTangle, to try to understand the trends and narratives that define it. We inclined towards local sources, despite the commonality of the Romanian language between the Romanian and Moldovan Facebook cyberspaces.
In terms of research methodology, data was extracted from CrowdTangle, in order to sort the 20 Facebook public pages that had the most posts containing a set of keywords referring to the vaccine conversation, like “vaccine” or “vaccinated”, or names of vaccines in circulation (not necessarily approved in Republic of Moldova), like “sinopharm”, “pfizer” or “astrazeneca”. Based on these keywords, the 20 pages that had the most posts containing one or more of these keywords in July 2021 were selected. In other words, we looked at the pages that were most active on Facebook with regards to the vaccination process and vaccines overall in July.
The main challenge in sorting a relevant sample of pages was the fact that we had to separate the Romanian and Moldovan Facebook ecosystems based on geography, not language. Because location is self-reported on Facebook, we filtered the results based on prior knowledge of the media market in Moldova, making sure that the pages that resulted are representative. We also included StirileProTV, a top tier, credible Romanian news source, which has a large following in Moldova, as a benchmark.
We also took into consideration the political and geopolitical make-up of Moldovan society, the polarization between East and West, namely Russia and the European Union and Romania, in particular. Thus, we included the two Sputnik Facebook pages in this analysis. The focus of this report is on Russian and Chinese narratives. Due to the fact that Chinese media does not have a dedicated page or website for Moldova, we looked at its embassy webpageand at the Romanian Service – China Radio International page, for news or information on Moldova.
It is also important to mention that Moldovans headed to the polls in July for particularly important early parliamentary elections that cemented the rule of Maia Sandu’s pro-European party, Partidul Acțiune și Solidaritate (PAS), an optimistic development for the European prospects of the country. This election certainly added another layer of polarization to an already highly polarized society and most probably impacted all other social topics, such as the vaccination process.
We limited ourselves to 20 pages to have a manageable volume of data. Thanks to the versatility of CrowdTangle, we were able to see granular information regarding post volumes, post types, network maps, interactions and reactions, etc. We used this information and coupled it with our understanding of the narratives that are being peddled in Moldova’s Facebook space.
The top three keywords with the most mentions per day in July (fig. 1) were “pfizer”(267), “J&J” (173) and “astrazeneca”(136) followed by “sputnik” and the two Chinese vaccine related keywords, “sinovac” + sinopharm (together 93). This marked a change from the previous first six months of 2021, as presented in our first report on this topic. While in the first six months, the top three keywords with the most mentions were “astrazeneca”, “pfizer”, “sputnik”, we see J&J breaking into this group.
This uptick in J&J mentions is most certainly connected to the U.S. donation of 500,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (through COVAX) to Moldova. The day that the first batch of 150,000 doses arrived in Moldova (July 13), we can see the most mentions in figure 1 (30 mentions). Another important development that happened in July was the donation of 100,620 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Romania, which was announced on July 8. On this day, as we can see on the graph above, “pfizer” had the most mentions from all the keywords(18).
In figure 2 we see just the “sputnik” mentions in July. There was a clear spike on July 17, with 18 posts containing this keyword. This coincides with a vaccine marathon held in the capital Chișinău, where people could get the second dose of Sputnik V vaccine. As seen above, the Facebook page with the most mentions of the “sputnik” keyword is Sputnik Moldova, followed by Primul in Moldova and realitatea.md. While Sputnik Moldova is a state-controlled media entity from Russia and it is not a surprise that it had the most posts containing this keyword, the second name on this list, in terms of number of posts is a major Moldovan tv channel, which was owned by Igor Ceaika, the son of Russia’s ex-Chief Prosecutor, Iurii Ceaika (very recently it became public information that Mr. Ceaika sold his stake in the company that owned Primul in Moldova to another company owned by two Russian citizens). It is not a credible news source due to a clear bias towards Moscow and its agenda.
Finally, realitatea.md is owned by Dumitru Ţîra, who has had previous experience in the media industry with other tv channels and news sites. He is politically active running as the European People’s Party of Moldova (PPEM)’s candidate for the mayor’s office in Chișinău in 2019. He gathered just 0.36% of the total votes. Due to the fact that the head of the party is Iurie Leancă, a former Prime Minister of Moldova, and the latter’s association with Vlad Plahotniuc, a former MP in Moldova from the Democratic Party and political ‘gray cardinal’, it is possible that PPEM is just a political project.
Vlad Plahotniuc is currently a fugitive, wanted by the Moldovan authorities for fraud, money laundering and corruption. He was designated by the US Department of State in January 2020 due to his involvement “in corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Moldova”, referring to his role in the theft of 1 billion dollars from the Moldovan banking system.
The distribution of keywords associated with Chinese vaccines – “sinovac” and “sinopharm” (fig. 3) – tends to gather in the second half of the month. We can see a peak on July 25, with a total of 18 posts containing these keywords. This did not coincide with specific news regarding Chinese vaccines or Chinese actions, but rather several vaccine marathons that occurred across the country where the two Chinese brands were available.
The top three Facebook pages that had posts with these keywords are ORHEI TV, TV6.MD and TV8.MD. As mentioned in our previous report on the Facebook vaccine conversation in Moldova for the first six months of 2021, the first two pages mentioned above are of questionable credibility, due to their association with politician Ilan Șor. However, TV8 is a balanced, fact-based news source.
Figure 4 represents a good overview of the distribution of links and domains in the vaccine conversation on Facebook and in the media ecosystem in July 2021. As previously reported, this ecosystem is quite balanced in Moldova, with no particular source dominating by number of links posted. Also, in most of the cases, Facebook pages almost exclusively share links from their eponymous domains, so this ecosystem might also reflect the tendency to form media bubbles, with little to no communication between them, which in turn encourages political and social polarization.
In figure 5 below there is another view of the same ecosystem. Here we can see the domains shared in July sorted by total interactions. Again, unsurprisingly, ProTV news channels dominate this table but with content posted also on Facebook (shares with facebook.com domain). Ro.sputnik.md had more interactions (2729) than protv.md (1529) and agora.md (1015), both credible news sources.
Chinese narratives: examples and overview
The Chinese Communist Party has been a notable vaccine diplomacy player in Moldova, which is significant, taking into consideration that the small Eastern European nation is traditionally caught in a tug of war between the E.U. and Russia. Outside of the U.S. donation through COVAX, Romania led the way in donations, with just over 300,000 doses (by the end of July), Russia came second with just over 200,000 doses and China third with 150,000 doses of Sinopharm-made vaccine donated. The Chinese donation is significant and may indicate a growing interest in the region, especially in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative.
There was also a direct purchase of 100,000 Sinovac-made vaccine doses by the Moldovan authorities. The purchase has been controversial as there was no bid and the price of one dose of the vaccine was significantly higher than its Western counterparts, according to one health media source that said that it wants to keep its own source anonymous. The authorities claimed that the price is under a confidentiality clause (even though it refers to public money) but the above-mentioned media source says that the price was 13.50EUR per dose. An AstraZeneca dose is generally priced between 2 and 5 EUR (taking into account the higher price that some poorer countries paid for this vaccine). Also, the Moldovan authorities said, prior to the auctions and direct discussions, that it had set a ceiling of 8 EUR per dose in its bidding documents and purchasing strategy.
The lack of transparency of this purchase is further cemented by Sinovac’s own history with bribery and corruption. According to this article from the Washington Post, the company’s leading man, Mr. Yin Weidong admitted in court in China to bribing a regulatory official and his family, on multiple occasions, between 2002 to 2011, in order to expedite approval documents for his company’s vaccines. Mr. Weidong was not convicted and still runs the company today.
With regards to specific narratives, in the 20 Facebook pages that we have analyzed, there is no state controlled Chinese page, or a page controlled by a private Chinese company, for that matter. Moldova is too small for Beijing to allocate targeted resources, especially since Moldovan citizens can access the Romanian language service of China Radio International. Because there aren’t so many Romanian language news or analyses from China directed for the Moldovan audience, a good place to start is the website of the Chinese embassy in Moldova. The news published here in Romanian is quite scarce, nothing in July, but there is a noteworthy article in August, called “Let’s get the traceability of the virus in a scientific manner and let’s stay united in battling the epidemic”. This is a message also published on the Moldovan Infotag’s press agency website by the acting ambassador, Mr. Zhang Yinghong, in which he condemns attempts by other countries (referring to the U.S. but not naming it in the article) to manipulate the process of finding out the origin of the virus for political goals, rather than looking at this topic through a scientific lens. The lengthy and rather poorly written article (at least the Romanian version of it) is most probably a direct message from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in its bid to counter the lab leak theory for the coronavirus, a theory that has gained more traction in these last months.
While Mr. Yinghong’s article cites reputable sources, like the medical Journal The Lancet, as well as the first WHO report regarding the origins of the coronavirus, in which the possibility of a lab leak is deemed “extremely unlikely,” it fails to acknowledge that the WHO called for a second phase of the investigation in July and asked Beijing in August to hand over raw data regarding the samples of the first coronavirus cases detected in China, a request that the Chinese government refused, condemning the “political tracing” of the virus in very similar wording to that of the ambassador. Furthermore, the chief scientist that headed the first WHO investigation in Wuhan, Mr. Peter Ben Embarek, said in an interview with Science Magazine that “politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table. We had anywhere between 30 and 60 Chinese colleagues, and a large number of them were not scientists, not from the public health sector”.
The topic of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is complex and not the subject of this report but in terms of Chinese narratives, this article by the Chinese ambassador is just part of the broader communication strategy of the Chinese Communist Party, with little to no specifics regarding Moldova, which was subjected, via this channel, to the official party dogma on this topic.
Another interesting article regarding the ambassador is a March 15 interview at “Diplomatic Dimension” tv show on Moldova 1 channel (public television channel). Mr. Yinghong repetead much of the Communist Party’s main narratives during the interview. What stands out is the ambassador’s insistence on China’s successful handling of the epidemic and the need of “good social governance” which is a narrative used by China in every medium it can, in order to highlight the supposed superiority of the Chinese way of handling the epidemic, opposed to how the Western world, and especially the U.S., handled it.
This narrative is supported by the fact that the ambassador uses this interview to praise China’s “complete eradication of poverty”, a topic which is important to Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. While China did lift millions out of extreme poverty, the way China is evaluating this process is misleading. In this excellent analysis by Indermit Gill, for Brookings, he states that China uses a poverty line of 2.25 USD per day in 2011 prices and adjusting for purchasing power. Beijing compares this to the World Bank’s 1.90 USD per day poverty line but fails to acknowledge that the 1.90 figure is applied to countries with per capita incomes of less than $1,000, while China is ten times wealthier. With this logic, China should consider a poverty line of 5.50 USD per day, which it is not.
China’s Romanian CRI (China Radio International) website has some entries in July with regards to Moldova (8 posts in total). Three of them are audio interviews by CRI correspondent (and radio host for Radio Moldova – the main public radio station in Moldova) Anatol Caciuc, one is Mr. Caciuc’s recollection of a 2008 trip to China and the other four are Romanian media articles cited in full on the CRI website.
With regards to the interviews, the first is with Mr. Boris Foca, the president of the Moldova-China Chamber of Commerce. The article is titled “Moldova and Ukraine intensify cooperation with China”. In the interview, Mr. Foca speaks about his mission to correlate efforts between Ukraine and Moldova concerning trade with China and about meeting three associations from Ukraine that gave him feedback on their activities. There are no overt narratives in this interview, but the interviewee mentions China’s global Belt and Road investment project, also known as the New Silk Road.
The second interview, titled “Chinese tourists interested in Republic of Moldova”, is with Mr. Sergiu Manea, president of the Tourism Business Owners Association from Moldova, who shared his experience after an online international tourism presentation he held at the China European Marketplace, an event designed to open Chinese tourism operators and travelers to Europe. The article is again without overt narratives and generally strikes a benign tone.
The final interview posted in July is with the Moldovan ambassador to China, Mr. Dumitru Braghiș, is titled “Republic of Moldova’s cooperation with China is very important” and while it is 80% focused on trade related issues, it does start with the ambassador praising China for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and says nothing about its crackdown on free speech and whistleblowers in the early days of the epidemic, and its lack of transparency towards the rest of the world.
Next we have a rather peculiar article posted by the same Anatol Caciuc, titled “China, the country that you want to see again” where Mr. Caciuc recollects his 2008 Chinese state organized trip to Beijing, ahead of the city hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics. The author praises China’s foreign policy as one of “equality and peace” and says that Beijing in 2008 was not at all polluted (read here a study by Oregon State University regarding pollution levels during the 2008 Olympics – “articulate air pollution during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing constantly exceeded levels considered excessive by the World Health Organization, was far worse than other recent Olympic Games, and was about 30 percent higher than has been reported by Chinese environmental experts”).
The four articles cited in full, from Romanian media, are related to politics and COVID-19 (here, here, here and here), do not have any annotations or comments and do not refer to sensitive topics for China. Also, the publications that are being cited are mainstream and generally trustworthy (news.ro, Newsweek, Agerpres).
On China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website we see the contact information for the Chinese embassy in Moldova, but if you click on the first link (https://chinaembassy.md/) it is the website of a private bus operator in London, probably of Chinese origin, called “China Minibus Hire”.
Russian narratives: examples and overview
When it comes to assessing Russian narratives, it is more straightforward because we have the two active Facebook Sputnik pages where we can see their posts recorded in Crowdtangle. The post in July with the most interactions (1,164, while the second post with most interactions had 183) is titled “Senator Zamfir exposes Cîțu: the doses donated to Moldova were set to expire”. In this post, Sputnik quotes a Romanian socialist (Social Democratic Party – PSD) senator, Mr. Daniel Zamfir, accusing the current Prime Minister of Romania of trying to get political points in Romania by donating vaccine doses to Moldova that were set to expire. This is not something new or out of the ordinary in the EU. Because the desire of the Romanian public to vaccinate stagnated, the purchased Pfizer batch was donated to Moldova, in the hopes they would be used.
Another Sputnik Moldova-Romania post worth mentioning is titled “The efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine against the Delta variant has fallen to 39%”. The article is referring to a study from Israel, where the health authorities said that in their latest study, the Pfizer vaccine had a 39% efficacy against the Delta variant. The article is misleading because the title suggests or implies that all degrees of COVID-19 illness fall under this percentage, which is not true. In the text of the article this is mentioned. Also, the article fails to address the small scale of the study, something that Israeli scientist and government consultant, Eran Segal, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, warned about. He said“I think that data should be taken very cautiously because of small numbers,”, according to the New York Times. Sputnik uses this type of truncated information in order to push one of its basic narratives regarding vaccines: Western vaccines are either dangerous, not efficient or both.
This post, titled “A Romanian woman died seven hours after getting vaccinated with AstraZeneca, in Italy” also uses truncated information and unproven causality to push the narratives mentioned above. The article is citing news initially posted by the Italian newspaper la Repubblica, without including what the initial article said about the 62-year old woman, namely that she had several pre-existing pathologies, including hypertension that could have contributed or could have been the sole reasons for her death. Of course, the reason for this omission is that the narrative that Sputnik is trying to push is that AstraZeneca, a Western competitor to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, might be dangerous and could lead to death.
Another type of common narrative employed by Russia through Sputnik is sowing discord by exploiting existing social tensions. In this post, titled “The news of the night: “The free word” starts to ban access to UNvaccinated tourists”, Sputnik is specifically targeting social tensions regarding the restrictions imposed to individuals who are not vaccinated, in different countries (Canada in this case). The article uses words such as “dictatorship”, as a label that the author says “a big part of the world population” attributes to Western democracies. The author says that Canada’s argument (protecting its progress in handling Covid-19) is “stupid” because people who are vaccinated can get COVID-19 and transmit it. It fails to say that vaccinated people have a lower viral load than unvaccinated people, if they become infected with COVID-19, which in turn means a less chance of transmission.
The article also says that “the discrimination is clear because in a «free word» there can’t be a difference between «foreigners» and its own citizens” a statement that is somewhat incoherent with the general speech coming from Moscow when it comes to migrants. A counter-example for this statement is a statement from Russia’s Interior Ministry who said in April that over 1.1 million migrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have been asked to leave the country by the end of June, despite major labor shortages in the country. Of these 56,000 are from Moldova.
Russian narratives also try to demonize or cast a doubt on Romanian-Moldovan relations. In an article titled “In Chișinău, Aurescu announces money for Maia Sandu’s supporters”, Sputnik implies that bilateral funds put forth by Romania for the independent press in Moldova, represents money for “Maia Sandu’s supporters”. Mr. Bogdan Aurescu’s (Romania’s Foreign Minister) visit to Moldova to announce this financial support was painted as politically and ideologically motivated. The article fails to mention that the funds, indeed coming from Romania were paid through the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), an EU founded institution that aims to foster democracy in the bloc’s neighborhood.