Do Antivaxxers Find Support in Certain Proclamations of the Russian Orthodox Church?

The support for antivaxers by this church is at least visible, unlike the strategy of an entire propaganda system that also comes from Moscow and tries to influence the social conflicts and disrupt the health of the nations

The support for anti-vaxxers by this church is at least visible, unlike the strategy of an entire propaganda system that also comes from Moscow and tries to influence the social conflicts and disrupt the health of the nations


Author: Ljubomir Kostovski


In the last few days, while I was searching for sources of public communication antivaxxers may rely on, I came across an article indicating that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) supports parents disallowing their children being touched by contemporary medicine, demanding to keep them away from immunization departments. Antivaxxers have woken up after realizing they cannot enrol their children in the schools without confirmation they received the necessary (prescribed) vaccines. The article, published by a Serbian portal, is entitled: “The storm in Serbia comes from Russia”, and has a cynical subheading: “Serbian believers can refer to the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church until their church makes a statement on this matter”.

In this article we come across provisions adopted by a separate body of this church – the Patriarchal Commission on Family Matters, which in four items determines what is right and what is wrong about children being touched by the needle of the people in charge of immunization.

Namely, this body considers the following:

  • parents should retain their right to make informed decisions about their children’s health, including preventive vaccines, without being subject to pressure; persecution of parents for exercising this right is unacceptable;
  • parents should not be compelled in any way to give reasons for refusing vaccination; the facts about that decision should be concealed as a medical secret;
  • children’s right for education should not be restricted on the grounds of their parents refusing vaccination, except in the event of a mass infectious disease or an immediate threat of an epidemic;
  • parents should be able to make their own decisions, to independently evaluate the received information, including critical information.

It is quite clear that the antivaxxers have strong support by ROC, and of course, the link between the ROC and the official Kremlin policy, that has always had strong contact with the religious circles, should be sought. Unlike domestic antivaxxers, to which these conclusions may be familiar, Moscow priests allow health and education authorities to be rigorous in applying immunization measures in times of epidemics!

The views of ROC were adopted on 19 April this year with a special publication entitled: On the rights of parents in the field of child health care and immunoprophylaxis.” An interesting fact is that the Patriarchal Commission on Family Matters is directly accountable to the Archbishop of ROC, Kiril.

Members of the committee also voiced the above mentioned views of ROC at a gathering of conservative rightists called the “World Congress of Families” held in Verona. The congress had previously been held in former Soviet republics, and this year was attended by populist politician and then Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. Russian priests are clearly encouraging antivaxers around the world, and at this gathering, they have gained great publicity.

Moreover, many other materials on this subject can be found on the website “Russian Faith”, published in several languages and allegedly funded by two apparently non-Russian families. They simply repeat that the Russian Orthodox Church is the “credible one” whose beliefs should be followed on a world scale.

However, other research is also interesting, especially as it finds a link between Kremlin propaganda that, among other things, uses the support of antivaxxers as a form of destruction of public health and introduction of problems in countries “on the other side”.

Namely, from the analysis published in the expert journal of the American Public Health Association (American Journal of Public Health – AJPH), it can be understood how bots and Russian trolls on Twitter promote health content online. Bots are profiles run by software that automatically distributes certain content, while trolls are marked user profiles managed by humans who use fake identities or are anonymous.


Spreading discord through social networks

There are many details in the article on how received or followed content is used (by deduction), which is, of course, useful for both students of journalism or beginner journalists. This research compares collected tweets posted by identified bots from July 2014 to September 2017. A team of scientists from George Washington University, the University of Maryland and Jones Hopkins University conducted a statistical analysis of content promoted via Twitter hashtags linked to the Russian troll activity, such as the polarizing #VaccinateUS.

The analysis of the hashtags used by Russian trolls shows that their messages were more political and aimed at causing divisions in American society. Part of such networks for distributing anti-vaccine messages are bots that have been found to spread malware and other unwanted content. It is considered that these activities are not done for ideological, but for commercial reasons – getting clicks. On the other hand, the primary purpose of Russian trolls is to promote discord. In other words – Russian trolls do not always strive to support antivaxxers, but they promote a logical fallacy called false equivalence and thus destroy the public consensus on vaccination.

False equivalence is a logical fallacy that imposes equality of importance on two positions that otherwise would not be comparable. For example, a position is taken on the basis of scientific research as opposed to a personal belief by an unskilled person. In the case of antivaxerism, the effect of this fallacy is a decline of the public trust in state institutions.


What are the implications for public health?

The authors of the above mentioned research also conclude that direct confrontation with vaccine sceptics allows bots to present the vaccine debate as a legitimate topic in the public. The authors suggest that more research is needed to determine how can health policy fight against content that is propagated by disinformation systems using bots and trolls.

DARPA, the US Defense Agency in charge of new technology-related challenges, in 2015 conducted research to identify the bots that spread harmful influences on Twitter (DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge). The Agency found that information through social media and groups (usually with false identities), deliberately create the illusion of having a public discussion, but with the aim to cause an alleged “tie” to make misinformation about vaccines more acceptable. DARPA concluded that public health did not pay as much attention to the fact that authorities have identified the disseminators of such misinformation and had practically allowed a “fair” debate i.e. they “played their role”. As if on the other side, the one on which the antivaxxers are, there really is some expertise!

The most common source of this propaganda activity is the Internet Research Agency, backed by the Russian government that supports Internet propaganda! As many as 93 percent of the messages sent by this Agency do not have a clear identity, but they do contain the Kremlin’s basic propaganda strategy – equal support for provaxxers and antivaxxers. However, the further spread of the messages in groups shows a far more active presence of antivaxxers!

Figure of the Week: 93

Photo: EUvsDisinfo

Behind the alleged “fair fight” of opinions, there is a dangerous plot of a force that seeks to influence the situations in a highly sensitive area via social networks. From this, of course, conclusions must be drawn about the propaganda on the side of the antivaxxers in our country as well, especially in those media that fall into the story of equivalence of attitudes of antivaxxers and public health.


This article has been re-posted from the project Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens- CriThink, implemented by the Metamorphosis Foundation and EUROTHINK. The project is funded by the European Union. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the EU. Articles from CriThink are free for re-posting by citing the source and without any changes or cuts.



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This article was created within the framework of the Project to increase the accountability of the politicians and political parties Truthmeter implemented by Metamorphosis. The article is made possible by the generous support of the US non-profit foundation National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The content is the responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, the National Endowment for Democracy or their partners.

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