Nikos Smyrnaios, associate professor, University of Toulouse
Charis Papaevangelou, PhD candidate, University of Toulouse
Panos Tsimpoukis, PhD candidate, University of Toulouse
(This text is published in Greek on rosa.gr)
The coronavirus pandemic and its consequences are the subject of unprecedented media coverage and a source of intense international public debate. One of the characteristics of this period is the intensive use of the Internet. To a large extent, citizens are communicating, informing and expressing themselves en masse through digital channels.
Traditionally, the internet has been an open arena for the expression of conflicting ideas in which one can find rumours, organised attempts at misinformation, political propaganda, but also in-depth opinions and arguments that oppose the established order and the dominant ideology as expressed, for example, by the traditional media.
In other words, the internet and popular social media are predominantly arenas in which anti-hegemonic discourse is developed, whether or not it is inspired by ideals such as democracy and social justice.
Ultimately, the coronavirus crisis did nothing but exacerbate the above characteristics by raising successively different issues that dominated the public debate, such as the existence and nature of SARS-CoV-2, the mode of transmission, its real degree of danger, the usefulness of measures (mask, confinement, etc.), which was reinforced by the regressions and inconsistencies of government policy.
In this context, the last and perhaps most important issue that emerged from the end of 2020 onwards was that of vaccination. As expected, since the announcement of the creation of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and especially since the start of vaccinations in Greece at the end of December 2020, interest in the issue has soared, as shown in the graphs below, both in the journalistic media and on social media.
The key stake in the public debate on vaccination is whether it is safe and effective against SARS-CoV-2. A second issue is whether the government’s measures aimed at maximising the number of vaccinated people in the country – such as compulsory vaccination in certain occupational sectors or the separation of vaccinated and unvaccinated people in some contexts – are appropriate and legitimate.
There are therefore more than one line of demarcation, running through society as a whole in different directions: for or against government measures and policies; for or against the effectiveness and safety of SARS-CoV vaccines; for or against vaccines in general. For the sake of brevity, we will refer to all these aspects as “vaccination policy”, noting however that their causes and stakes are different.
Below, without going into the substance of the debate in relation to these questions, we will try to map the groups that publicly criticise vaccination policy on social media and analyse their discourse and their political and ideological beliefs (details of the methodology at the end of the article).
The vaccine debate on Twitter
From a socio-political point of view, the interest of Twitter, compared to other more popular social media such as Facebook or Instagram, lies not only in its open architecture, which makes it a predominantly political communication tool, but also in the sociological characteristics of its users among which there is an over-representation of highly educated and highly politicized strata.
As shown in the graph below, the majority of Greek Twitter users are generally in favour of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccination policy, regardless of their beliefs. Most of the scientists, experts, politicians and journalists expressing themselves on the issue belong to this majority.
Only three communities openly express themselves against the vaccination policy, either because they are anti-vaccine by conviction, or because they lack confidence in the vaccine, or because they disagree with the compulsory and segregation measures.
Users from these communities make up a quarter of the sample (25.52%), a significant minority. What these three communities have in common is the fact that their central nodes belong to the conservative and/or far-right in all its nuances (conservatives, nationalists, neo-Nazis, orthodox religionists, conspiracy theorists, etc.).
This does not mean that among users belonging to these communities there are not people with different political beliefs or different views on vaccines. But the vast majority are ideologically positioned on the nationalist and religious right and are harshly critical of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccination policy.
The discourse expressed by these communities is both right-wing and oppositional. In other words, the majority of these users are ideologically identified with the (far) right but at the same time they are harshly critical of the conservative government of the New Democracy party regarding its policy on the issue of embolism.
In the themes in which the three communities openly expressing themselves against the vaccination policy are over-represented, we find many common elements. In particular, we find strong protest against the government and the media, questioning the effectiveness of the vaccine, criticism of segregation and compulsory measures, racist and nationalist speech, conspiracy theories and many repostings from the pro-Nazi newspaper “Makeleio” by Stefanos Chios and from YouTube.
Indeed, YouTube and the pro-Nazi newspaper “Makeleio”, with 2,482 and 1,234 mentions respectively, are the most popular external sources in our sample. As we will see below, the same is the case on Facebook where YouTube videos are the main source of information shared by pages and groups dealing with the vaccine issue, with Zougla.gr being the second most popular source promoting junk news.
Popular content on vaccines on YouTube
As shown in the graph below, the channels suggested by YouTube’s algorithm, after a search using the keywords vaccine, vaccines, vaccination, are overwhelmingly of far-right ideology in all shades (ethno-populists, neo-Nazis, religious and conspiracy theorists), as are their affiliations.
With the exception of ERT (public TV), Open (privte nationwide TV) and Kriti TV (local TV), the most popular channel in terms of subscribers is that of Ilias Kasidiaris (101 thousand subscribers), convicted for directing the criminal nazi organisation Golden Dawn and imprisoned.
Second is the Zougla.gr channel (96.4 thousand subscribers) which publishes videos of people who dramatically report what happened to them and their relatives after the vaccine (“His life and his sports career were destroyed after the vaccine”, “I ended up in intensive care from Pfizer” etc.).
Other notable channels with frequent references to the vaccination policy are: the Rantar (76 thousand subscribers) with video titles such as, “gave up on compulsory vaccination”, “got the vaccine and thought they were saved”, etc. ); NOIAZOMAI (78.4 thousand subscribers) with religious and nationalistic content such as “Greek scientists found the medicine in Macedonia”, “The vaccine is made with chimpanzee adenovirus”, and many statements by the Cypriot orthodox Archbishop of Morphou Neophytos such as “homosexuals are coming back” – the channel of Vassilis Bandidis (62,2 thousand subscribers) with videos such as “Alien Found dead. .. being in Greece and hiding it?” or ” The banned show! Flat Earth: truth or lie? “.
The list is completed by several smaller-scale channels with nationalist and religious content.
Popular content about vaccines on Facebook
Facebook is the largest social networking platform on the planet and the most popular in Greece. It is therefore natural that a large part of the debate on vaccination policy takes place there.
However, despite its promises to address the phenomenon of misinformation, an empirical study among the 24,725 posts on the topic between 7/02/2020 and 3/10/2021 shows that the content with the most interactions (likes, shares, comments) and the most views contains conspiracy theories and misinformation.
For example, the related content with the most interactions is a video by Yannis Bitzarakis, an electronic technician and “researcher”, resident in Switzerland. In it are the false claims that the coronavirus vaccine contains nanobots that are activated by electricity, that the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not exist and there is no test to detect it, and that in many countries deaths from the virus are recorded as deaths from other causes.
Although the video has been checked by Hellenic Hoaxes, one of the two fast-checking groups of the Greek-speaking Facebook, and is clearly reported as misinformation, it remains available for viewing and sharing. As of early October 2021, it has nearly half a million views on its post alone from a group supporting the canonization of the elder Paisios. The same video has tens of thousands of views on YouTube and other platforms where it continues to be available.
Among the most popular content on Facebook about vaccination, we find videos from the US, dubbed into Greek, such as “A trustworthy vaccine”, the 13th episode of an American-produced series created by a conspiracy network, “The Mirror Project”. The video with Greek subtitles reached one million views just from being shared from the profile of a DJ from the town of Katerini in November 2020.
The third video also comes from the US and shows an osteopath from Atlanta, Carrie Madej, analysing with false evidence the alleged side effects of the mRNA vaccine. The video was shared by a user from Cyprus who posts mostly religious content and has reached 50,000 views.
The fourth video has been published by a page titled “Social Media ORM Group” with the following description in English: “Successful Killer Marketing Strategies no one else is talking about. We are dedicated to share, teach and demonstrate you the most amazing stuff!”.
The video, using montages of images taken from a conspiracy blog (https://alcyonpleiades-gr.blogspot.com/) and adopting pseudo-scientific language, links vaccination to alleged plans for a global new order. The site clearly supports far-right politicians such as Trump, and expresses racist ideas, even organising online discussions on immigration. The page has over 50 thousand followers and the video has 86 thousand views.
In a second phase, by performing a network analysis, we mapped all Facebook pages and groups dealing with vaccination policy from 7/02/2020 to 3/10/2021. The result, as reflected in the above map, shows that the vast majority of them are of far-right political positioning (orthodox, nationalists, followers of Artemis Sorras), from Greece and Cyprus, while they adopt from critical to negative and conspiratorial attitudes regarding vaccination policy.
Facebook still allows the existence of numerous pages and groups (e.g. the page “Friends of Gerontas. Paisios Athonite” has 163 thousand followers) that spread clearly anti-vaccine propaganda. The main external source mentioned in the sample is YouTube, thus confirming that these two platforms are the main pillars of misinformation on the Greek-speaking internet.
A small minority of groups that take a critical, negative stance on vaccination policy on Facebook are self-placed on the left of the political spectrum. The main nodes of this space consist of the pages “With Pavlos Polakis”, “Alexis Tsipras Leader” and “Free and Left”. There the main focus is on criticism of the New Democracy government.
The general political direction is characterised by a strongly anti-conservative discourse, with Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his government ministers as well as the mainstream media as the primary targets, while they are characterised by strong patriotism and – as far as the first two are concerned – a relative worshiping of the two politicians of SYRIZA. The page with reference to Alexis Tsipras, which is more concerned with vaccination policy, is full of posts related to social democracy (e.g. #socialistgr, a site friendly to PASOK).
These pages are interspersed with criticism of the compulsory measures and, more rarely, scepticism about the effectiveness and non-risk of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, along the same lines expressed by Pavlos Polakis in the past.
We should note here that users who self-identify themselves as supporters of SYRIZA and express criticism of the vaccination policy with reference to Pavlos Polakis have also been identified on Twitter. The Cretan politician therefore seems to be the main source of inspiration for the scepticism regarding the effectiveness and non-risk of the vaccine on the left of the political spectrum.
In any case, what we see here is an outreach to those hesitant about vaccine policy in an attempt to win them over. In addition, these groups often contain an opposing discourse, with criticism of the “psekasmenoi” (chemstrails believers), as the anti-vaccinators are described. The content of these groups is more closely linked to commentary on current affairs, with references to vaccination being more sporadic than the majority of far-right groups.
To a lesser extent, there also seem to be attempts to clarify the position of the wider left in relation to vaccination policy, such as here where reference is made to a ‘division of the left that must end’. Finally, the same groups touch on themes found less frequently in the others, such as the criticism of the pharmaceutical industry for its enrichment through vaccine patents and the debate on their removal.
The instrumentalisation of the critique of vaccine policy
Criticism of vaccine policy, as expressed in social media, is quite typical of contemporary debates that pit ‘the people’ against ‘elites’. In this narrative, on the one hand, there are ordinary citizens and, on the other, the ‘big interests’ of the pharmaceutical industry, politicians, big powers and the mainstream media.
Regardless of the weaknesses of this narrative when expressed through conspiracy theories and scapegoating, it is clearly an integral part of the critique of the political economy of neoliberal capitalism and its impasses.
In other words, for significant sections of society, resorting to oversimplified anti-hegemonic narratives expresses their opposition to widening inequalities, the opacity and weakening of democracy, the over-concentration of wealth, the lack of objectivity of the mainstream media.
Therefore, the primary and main cause of the problem of misinformation is not the alleged chemstrails believing of a part of the population – especially the popular strata – due to lack of education, rational thought and scientific culture, but the inability of the rulers – i.e. the political, economic and media power – to produce trusting relationships with the governed and thus the necessary social consensus on a public health issue such as that of vaccination policy.
As research internationally has shown, conspiracy theories thrive particularly in countries with a lack of democracy, high poverty and unemployment rates, and high levels of corruption, such as Greece.
A second reason is the nature of the dominant ideology in Greece. As can be seen through the examples we have examined, in the Greek case the suspicion stemming from a lack of trust in authority is grafted on to the nationalism, religiosity and historical semi-literacy that have characterised significant sections of society over time, the majority – but not all – of which are positioned on the right of the political spectrum.
Thus, in the most extreme cases, we have the emergence of ideologies characterised by an original mixture of intolerance, racism and religious denial of science.
On this substrate is built a social media grid that instrumentalizes these ideologies for its own benefit. This benefit can be political, as in the case of neonazi Ilias Kasidiaris, Artemis Sorras’ party, and Golden Dawn, which are leading the criticism of vaccinations in order to attract voters and followers.
It can also be ideological, as in the case of religious organisations and orthodox fundamentalists, who are massively and actively involved in misinformation around vaccines to promote their worldview.
But the benefit can also be economic, as in the case of well-known publishers with a strong presence in the broadcast media (Trangas, Triantafylopoulos, Chios), who through their ambiguous and ambivalent attitude towards vaccination policy increase their clientele and profits without caring about the consequences. This tendency is strengthened by the easy and fast circulation of similar content at international level as we have seen.
This phenomenon of the instrumentalisation of social reaction by the far right and by media with common ideological characteristics in the context of the pandemic is not a Greek phenomenon but has been observed internationally.
Finally, an important part of the responsibility is also borne by social media platforms, especially YouTube and Facebook, which in the Greek case are the main vehicles of misinformation and anti-vaccination propaganda.
The hypocritical attitude of the Silicon Valley giants lies in their contradictions: on the one hand, they publicly condemn such uses and take some superficial measures to control problematic content, but on the other hand, they continue to reap huge profits from the mass interactions that produce such content.
You can find some details on the methods used in this study in the following paper:
Smyrnaios N, Ratinaud P. The Charlie Hebdo Attacks on Twitter: A Comparative Analysis of a Political Controversy in English and French. Social Media + Society. January 2017. doi:10.1177/2056305117693647