Anti-vax groups in the Balkans find support with the Russian Orthodox Church

Sergeev Pasad, a Russian Orthodox monastery outside of Moscow.

Sergeev Pasad, a Russian Orthodox monastery near Moscow. Photo by Flikr user mutatdjellyfish, CC BY-NC.

This story by journalist Ljubomir Kostovski originally appeared in Macedonian on Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – CriThink, and was translated into English by Truthmeter, two projects of Metamorphosis Foundation. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

In April 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), through its Patriarchal Commission on Family Affairs, Protection of Motherhood and Childhood, adopted a resolution on the right of parents to refuse vaccination of their children. The resolution reverberated with anti-vaccine groups in the Balkans.

The resolution says that parents “retain the right to make decisions about their children's health, including [in regards to] preventive vaccines, without being subject to pressure” and that “persecution of parents for exercising this right is unacceptable,” among other similar provisions.

Materials echoing the ROC's view on the subject can be found on the website Russian Faith, published in several languages and allegedly funded by two apparently non-Russian families.

Even though historically the highest formal authority in the Eastern Orthodox Christianity is held by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church exerts huge political influence over some other national churches, especially in countries with large populations of Slavic origins.

The ROC's resolution has been picked up by Serbian media. News portal Intermagazin published an article titled “The storm in Serbia comes from Russia” on April 25, subheaded “Serbian Orthodox Christian believers can refer to the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church until their church makes a statement on this matter”.

In North Macedonia, anti-vaxxers have caused an uproar recently after they realized children can't enroll in public schools without proof of immunization. The country has been battling a measles epidemic for the past year, and the enrollment restrictions have been more strictly enforced recently.

ROC's views on immunization found a platform at a March 2019 conference in Verona, Italy, organized by the World Congress of Families, an evangelical conservative organization from the United States. Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, chairman of the Patriarchal Commission for Family Affairs, held a speech at the event.

In May 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit that monitors extremist groups in the United States, warned that this organization is an “American-run platform that advances Russian political interests in Europe while offering Russian Orthodox oligarchs an entry point into U.S.-based Christian evangelical networks.”

In past years, the conference was held in former Soviet republics. This year's edition was attended by Italy's then-Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

Researchers examining Kremlin propaganda campaigns have found that Russian troll armies frequently engage in anti-vax discourse. That kind of propaganda usually targets countries where Russia has geopolitical interests, research shows, with the objective of sowing division and undermining trust in local public institutions.

Coordinated spreading discord through social networks

A team of scientists from George Washington University, the University of Maryland and Jones Hopkins University conducted a study on bots and trolls originating from Russia that promote health content on Twitter. The research classifies as bots “profiles run by software that automatically distributes certain content”, while trolls are defined as “user profiles managed by humans who use fake identities or are anonymous.”

The research analyzed tweets from July 2014 to September 2017. The conclusions were published at the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), a publication of the American Public Health Association.

Anti-vax hashtags

Since Facebook and Instagram decided to ban hashtags that promote “verifiably false” information about vaccines in May 2019, anti-vaxxers have adopted new manipulation tactics, according to reporting by Coda Story.

Prior to Instagram’s announcement, anti-vaxxers used hashtags like #vaccineskill, whereas now, they are using disguised hashtags such as #learntherisk and #justasking, and “spelling [the word] ‘vaccines’ with a cedilla (vaççines), or using a bracket (va((ines) to try to avoid detection.”

Another way anti-vaxxers have tried to dupe Instagram’s controls is to co-opt the language used by abortion rights advocates, such as #righttochoose and #mybodymychoice

The analysis concluded that most bots have been found to spread malware and other unwanted content. They also operate primarily for commercial, rather than ideological, reasons — in summary, directing traffic to specific websites.

On the other hand, trolls’ messages were found to be mostly political and aimed at sowing divisions in the public of the United States. A common strategy, the AJPH research says, is to not directly support anti-vax discourse, but to present the idea of the anti-vaccination debate being a legitimate topic of public discourse, exploiting the logical fallacy of false equivalence.

The result is the disruption of public consensus on immunization and the decline in public trust in the state.

The authors suggest that more research is needed to determine how health policy can fight against content propagated by disinformation systems using bots and trolls.

The AJPH's findings are consistent with a 2015 research conducted by DARPA, the US Defense Agency in charge of new technology-related challenges, that identified bots spreading harmful influences on Twitter.

The Agency found that information spread through social media and messaging groups can create the illusion of healthy public discussion while its true aim is to “influence opinion” by making scientifically disproven claims acceptable, and in time normalizing them in mainstream discourse.

Vaccination against measles in North Macedonia has drastically dropped in recent years. Visualization by @reflektor_mk, used with permission.

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