The following story is from the journalist Ljubomir Kostovski and was originally published in Macedonian on the Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – CriThink website, and was translated into English by Truthmeter. Both projects belong to the Metamorphosis Foundation. An edited version is published below as part of the content exchange agreement.
In April 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church, through the Patriarchal Commission on Family Affairs, Protection of Maternity and Children, adopted the resolution that entitles parents not to vaccinate their children. The resolution had repercussions on anti-vaccine movements in the Balkan peninsula.
This indicates that parents “have the right to make decisions regarding the health of their children, including (with respect to) preventive vaccines, without being pressured” and that “the persecution of parents who exercise their rights is unacceptable ”, Among other provisions.
Documents that take the view of the Russian Orthodox Church on this matter can be found on the Russian Faith website, which presents its page in different languages and which was allegedly founded by two families that are apparently not Russian.
Although the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is historically the largest formal authority of the Orthodox Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church has great political influence over other national churches, particularly in countries with large population of Slavic origin.
The resolution of the Russian Orthodox Church has been news in the media of Serbia. On April 25, the Intermagazin news portal published an article called “The storm in Serbia comes from Russia” whose caption reads “Believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church can refer to the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church until their church pronounce on this matter ”.
In North Macedonia, anti-vaccines recently protested after learning that children cannot be enrolled in schools if there is no proof that they are vaccinated. The country has been fighting a measles epidemic since 2018 and enrollment restrictions have become more stringent lately.
The position of the Orthodox Church of Russia found its place in Verona, Italy, at a conference organized in March 2019 by the World Congress of Families, a conservative evangelical organization in the United States. Dimitry Smirnov, church minister and president of the Patriarchal Commission on Family Affairs, gave a speech at the event.
In May 2018, the Southern Law and Poverty Center, a nonprofit organization that monitors extremist groups in the United States, warned that the organization is a “US platform that fosters Russian interests in Europe while offering the Orthodox oligarchs of Russia joined evangelical Christian networks located in the United States. ”
In previous years the conference had been held in former Soviet republics. The 2019 edition was chaired by the former prime minister of Italy and current deputy Matteo Salvini.
Researchers examining Kremlin campaign propaganda discovered that Russian trolley armies often get involved in anti-vaccine speech. This type of propaganda is usually intended for countries where Russia has geopolitical interests, according to studies, in order to sow division and destroy trust in local public institutions.
Coordinated dissemination of 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 trolleys of Russian origin that provide health content on Twitter. The research classifies bots as “software-driven profiles that automatically spread specific content” while defining trolls as “human-managed user profiles that use false or anonymous identities.”
Tweets from July 2014 to September 2017 were analyzed during the investigation. The conclusions were published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), a journal of the American Public Health Association.
Since Facebook and Instagram decided to ban labels that promote “verifiably false” information about vaccines in May 2019, anti-vaccines have acquired new handling techniques, according to the Coda Story report.
Before the Instagram announcement, the vaccines used tags like #VaccinesKill (vaccines kill), while now using undercover tags like #LearnTheRisk (know the risk) and #JustAsking (just ask), and “write (the word) ‘vaccines’ using the cedilla (vaççines) (vaçunas), or with parentheses (va ((ines) (va (some) to avoid being detected ”).
Another way that anti-vaccines have tried to evade Instagram controls is with the language of defenders of the right to abortion, such as #RightToChoose (right to choose) and #MyBodyMyChoice (my body, my decision).
The analysis resulted in the majority of bots spreading malicious software and unwanted content. They also work in the first place for business reasons rather than language reasons – in short, they send traffic to some web pages.
On the other hand, it was determined that the trolley messages were mostly political in nature and were intended to propagate the division of the population of the United States. A common strategy, according to AJPH research, is not to support the anti-vaccine discourse directly, but to present the idea of the anti-vaccine debate as a legitimate topic of public debate, making use of the logical fallacy of false equivalence.
This results in the alteration of the public consensus on vaccination and the deterioration of citizens' confidence in the state.
The author suggests that more extensive research is needed to determine how health policies can cope with the content disseminated by disinformation systems through bots and trolleys.
The results of the AJPH are consistent with the research carried out by DARPA, the United States Defense Agency in charge of new technology-related challenges, which identified bots that spread dangerous information on Twitter.
The Agency found that the information that is disseminated through social networks and messages in groups creates the illusion of a healthy public debate but its true objective is to “influence opinions” by making scientifically refuted statements accepted and standardized in conventional discourse .