Cross-platform republishing and amplification took place on YouTube, Facebook, and websites affiliated with the Kremlin
By Sopo Gelava and Eto Buziashvili
A video featuring priests from the Georgian Orthodox Church pushing anti-vaccination sentiment spread online via Facebook, YouTube, and online news outlets. On Facebook, users were encouraged to download the video and republish it, making the complete removal of the video more difficult.
The Georgian Orthodox Church holds significant influence over many in Georgia, so any narrative from church officials — regardless of topic or veracity — has the power to change public behavior. The Georgian Orthodox Church has also demonstrated significant hostility toward COVID-19 vaccines, which — combined with its power to influence — is likely to be reflected in public attitudes toward vaccination. In this case, the video of Georgian Orthodox priests pushing anti-vax messaging may not have gained significant traction, but the methods by which it was promoted point toward an intention to make it difficult to control its spread and, therefore, a drive for potential inculcation of anti-vax sentiment.
As a percentage of population, Georgia has a low number of vaccinated people — only 0.19 percent of Georgian citizens had been fully vaccinated as of mid-August 2021. According to Statista’s manually calculated listing (which is based off of Johns Hopkins’s COVID-19 data and the “latest available population numbers”), as of August 12, Georgia was in first place of deaths per million residents in the previous seven days. The latest International Republican Institute (IRI) public opinion poll, released in June 2021, suggested that 45 percent of Georgians will refuse vaccination no matter the circumstance, while an additional 7 percent will get vaccinated only if required by the law or by their employer, indicating that a majority of Georgians are disinclined toward vaccination generally.
As mentioned, some of this reluctance is fueled by the Georgian Orthodox Church: Georgian society is strongly conservative, and religion plays a significant role in shaping societal attitudes. The DFRLab previously reported on how Georgian far-right actors have spread anti-Western and anti-LGBT narratives under the banner of religious conservatism. According to IRI’s June 2021 public opinion poll, of the different Georgian figures mentioned, 88 percent of Georgians held a favorable opinion of Georgia’s Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, while the Georgian Orthodox Church had the second highest percentage of favorable opinions on the list of trusted institutions (80 percent favorability), just behind the country’s army (85 percent).
In this environment, anti-vax statements from Georgian Orthodox priests have the potential to instill or entrench anti-vax sentiment, as evidenced by the current low rate of vaccination.
The anti-vax video
On July 25, 2021, a 33-minute-long video appeared on YouTube in which four Georgian Orthodox priests address the public and several others standing in the background. Despite having no evidence to back their assertions, the priests claimed that COVID-19 vaccines are supposedly dangerous; that thousands of people had allegedly died after the shots; and that vaccines are ineffective against the virus. The priests also amplified conspiracy theories that the vaccines were designed with nefarious goals in mind, particularly decreasing the population by 15 percent or inserting chips for surveillance, utilizing well-known conspiracy tropes such as the “new world order,” “genocide against the population,” and “COVID fascism.”
In partnership with Facebook, Myth Detector, a local fact-checking project, debunked the conspiracies voiced by the priests, leading to Facebook labeling their remarks as false information. That did not stop the video from being amplified across the platform, as well as on YouTube and websites, in the days that followed.
The DFRLab identified the four priests talking in the video: Archpriests Davit Isakadze and Davit Lasurashvili, and Priests Archil Kituashvili and Irakli Nemsadze, all of whom have supported far-right positions, especially in regard to LGBTQ rights.
Isakadze is the head of the Orthodox Parents’ Union (OPU). OPU was behind several organized violent attacks, including an assault on young Georgians celebrating Halloween in 2008, bursting into Kavkasia TV and interrupting its broadcast in 2010, during a program in which guests were discussing OPU’s radicalism and violence, and participating in raids against LGBT activists in 2013, among others. Though the Church denies its connections with OPU, it has also never criticized Isakadze nor his organization. On the contrary, Partirach Ilia II presented Isakadze with two awards — a pectoral cross and a right to use a mitre — soon after he broke into Kavkasia TV, though the awards were presented without any acknowledgment of the break-in. According to an investigation by local media outlet Tabula, Isakadze has been convicted of robbery and theft in the past.
Meanwhile, in a video uploaded to YouTube, Archpriest Lasurashvili can be seen mobilizing his supporters ahead of the planned July 5 LGBTQ March for Dignity, calling on them to gather on the main avenue of the capital Tbilisi, which resulted in violence and forced the cancellation of the March. In the same video, he accused the US ambassador to Georgia of “violence” and meddling in the country’s domestic affairs. Another priest, Archil Kituashvili, has given sermons against LGBTQ rights; opposed the Law of Georgia on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, which would in concept eliminate all forms of discrimination and ensure equal rights; and described the West as depraved that fights against Georgian traditions and values.
The anti-vax video gets its start on YouTube
The Georgian Orthodox priests’ anti-vax appeal first appeared on YouTube in an upload to the channel “bavshvta uflebebi” (“children’s rights” in Georgian) on July 25, 2021. The channel, created in 2017, states that “our children are in danger” in its About description.
The channel has uploaded 40 videos, which frequently — but not always — include priests or Guram Palavandishvili, a high-profile leader in the far-right, Kremlin-aligned Georgian Idea political party. In the videos, both the priests and Palavandishvili use the West, democratic values, LGBTQ groups, and George Soros as favorite targets.
Georgian Idea also adheres to the values of the Georgian Orthodox Church — indeed, priests from the Church campaigned for the party’s candidates during the 2020 parliamentary elections. Palavandishvili also heads the hate group the Society for the Protection of Children’s Rights, the name for which belies the fact that Palavandishvili has organized violence against the Georgian LGBTQ community and pro-democracy activists. He was one of the organizers of the July 5 violence, when dozens of journalists were attacked and activist groups’ offices were ransacked.
A query using YouTube Dataviewer, an online tool developed by Amnesty International for extracting metadata from YouTube videos, revealed that “Children’s Rights” was the first channel to upload the video, which happened at 13:22:27 UTC on July 25, 2021.
The same video was uploaded as original content to two other YouTube channels — თვალსაზრისი (“point of view”) and giorgi mezvrishvili — but separate queries also using YouTube DataViewer showed that they followed the upload to Children’s Rights. These two channels uploaded the video at 21:36:24 and 21:50:04 UTC, respectively, on July 25, 2021, over eight hours after the initial upload.
თვალსაზრისი (“point of view”) is a Georgian online news outlet that local fact-checkers have previously exposed for spreading pro-Kremlin and anti-Western disinformation. The outlet also shared the anti-vax video on its external website, tvalsazrisi.ge, as discussed below.
The anti-vax video moves to Facebook
Using a CrowdTangle query, the DFRLab identified six Facebook pages that republished the video’s YouTube link directly — ბავშვთა უფლებების დაცვის საზოგადოება (“Society for the Protection of Children’s Rights”), † დიდ ხარ შენ უფალო † (“You are almighty, God”), ლიბერალიზმი კლავს (“Liberalism Kills”), მართლმადიდებელ მშობელთა კავშირი (“Orthodox Parents’ Union”), პოლიტიკური ნაკვალევი (“Political Footprint”), and მართალი საქმე (“True Affair”). The first page to republish the video was that of Palavandishvili’s Society for the Protection of Children’s Rights, though all of the six pages published the link within a period of just over three hours on the same day it was first published to YouTube.
The total interaction with the Facebook posts republishing the original YouTube link was close to zero. All of the six pages republished video with a nearly identical caption, each of which called on users to download the video using getvid.com, a Facebook video downloader, and upload it anew to their own accounts as an original content. According to the captions, the aim of this strategy was to bypass “Facebook censorship,” a likely reference to the platform’s fact-checking program that labels false information and decreases reaches of the labelled content.
The DFRLab found an additional seven uploads of the video to Facebook user accounts, all of which received at least 100 shares each. In total, they received nearly 10,000 shares. The user account with the highest interaction (6,300 shares) was that of former journalist Khatia Sitchinava, who is known for anti-vax statements and has frequently been labelled by local fact-checkers as a source of covid-related disinformation and conspiracy theories. Another user account to upload the video as new, with 1,100 shares, was that of Lasha Modebadze, which Georgian media accountability nonprofit Media Development Foundation (MDF) exposed as a fake account. According to MDF, Lasha Modebadze’s profile has amplified pro-Kremlin disinformation targeting the Richard Lugar Research Center, a biological lab in Tbilisi, and disseminated conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines to protect against it.
Another user account, Mamuka Kowowashvili, uploaded the video as original content and reshared his own post to seven groups within the same hour-long period. Three out of seven are groups for supporters of Levan Vasadze, a Kremlin-affiliated far-right businessman and politician. The groups in question appeared to be lifestyle and online marketing groups with names such as Buy and Sell, Hunting in Georgia, and We Love Georgia.
The DFRLab also identified a user account, Maia Maisuradze, that reposted the anti-vax video into four Facebook groups within a three-minute period between 6:06–6:09 a.m. Tbilisi time on July 26. Two of the groups, დევი ჭანკოტაძის მხარდამჭერები (“Supporters of Devi Chankotadze”) and Mikheil Saakashvili, are related to opposition party United National Movement (UNM). Another group, მთავარი არხი — საქართველო (Mtavari Arkhi — Georgia), is related to Mtavari, a popular TV channel, though none of the groups appeared to be officially linked with either UNM or Mtavari. The fourth group was ავტომობილების/ავტონაწილების ყიდვა-გაყიდვა (“Buy and sell of automobiles/auto parts”). Though the interaction on all of these posts was zero, the potential reach was substantial as the total number of group members was 38,300.
The anti-vax video on disinformation websites
In addition to YouTube and Facebook, the video was published at least on three websites known for disinformation — tvalsazrisi.ge, ge.news-front.info, and lifenews.ge.
News Front is a Kremlin propaganda outlet that operates in multiple languages, including Georgian, and has a history of spreading propaganda and misleading information across Europe. Tvalsazrisi.ge, as mentioned above, has a long history of spreading anti-Western and pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. The two websites share one author– Irakli Jankarashvili — who publishes to both websites. The DFRLab has previously written about Jankarashvili and his use of Twitter to spread anti-Western and anti-liberal content and how the same Twitter accounts were connected to user accounts on Facebook.
Using a WHOIS query, the DFRLab found that the third Georgian website, lifenews.ge to amplify the anti-vax video had a dedicated IP server in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The webpage was created on January 30, 2021, and aggregates news articles on various topics related to Georgia and the world. It also reshares the articles from Kremlin-owned RT.
The Georgian Orthodox Church holds significant power in Georgia, so statements from its officials can affect public behavior. It also frequently operates with this in mind, knowing it can bring people to the street to protest an LBGTQ Pride March or discourage vaccine uptake to control a pandemic. In this light, a video of church representatives making anti-vax claims around the COVID-19 vaccines being spread in a way that is deliberately meant to skirt social media platform regulations indicates an intent by those posting it to entrench similar sentiments in its viewers. Ultimately, this may prolong the pandemic in the country, which is already among the countries with the highest number of deaths per million population, as people continue to refuse to vaccinate.
Sopo Gelava is a Research Associate, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Eto Buziashvili is a Research Associate, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this case study:
Sopo Gelava and Eto Buziashvili, “Video of Georgian Orthodox priests pushing anti-vax disinfo spread through republishing,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), August 31, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/video-of-georgian-orthodox-priests-pushing-anti-vax-disinfo-spread-through-republishing-2b0dcf8907c5.
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