Vaccine Debate Discord Stoked by Russian Bots on Social Media during 2016 Election

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An Aug. 23, 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health has found that the same Russian trolls, bots, and content polluters that influenced the 2016 US presidential election used Twitter to stoke both sides of the vaccines debate to promote “political discord” during the election.

The trolls, bots, and content polluters (bots that distribute malware) stirred animosity with tweets such as “At first our government creates diseases then it creates #vaccines.what’s next?! #VaccinateUS” and “You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I’m for #vaccination.”

Because both the pro- and anti-vaccine movements were impersonated, the study concluded that the goal was to increase hostility. Mark Dredze, PhD, one of the study’s authors, stated, “These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society.” He also stated, “Whether they’re specifically trying to make us distrust the medical system or just get us to fight more is unclear. But certainly they’ve identified this issue as a contentious one, and they’re promoting that contention.”

The study, “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate,” examined almost 1.8 million tweets about vaccines sent between July 14, 2014 and Sep. 26, 2017 and found that, while some came from malware or spam accounts, more were sent from identified Russian troll accounts and many were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked propaganda group. The trolls tweeted about vaccines roughly 22 times more often than human users. The Russian troll accounts tweeted both pro and con vaccine messages and used the hashtag #VaccinateUS for both sides of the debate.

Renee DiResta, Head of Policy at Data for Democracy, stated, “This isn’t just happening on Twitter. This is happening on Facebook, and this is happening on YouTube, where searching for vaccine information on social media returns a majority of anti-vaccine propaganda. The social platforms have a responsibility to start investigating how this content is spreading and the impact these narratives are having on targeted audiences.” In Feb. 2018, Twitter removed 3,800 Internet Research Agency Accounts. In Apr., Facebook deleted 135 Russian accounts and another 650 in Aug. 2018.

Almost 100% of Russian children are fully vaccinated, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), compared to 72.2% of American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


Sources:

David A. Broniatowski, et al., “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate,” ajph.aphapublications.org, Aug. 23, 2018

CDC, “Immunization,” cdc.gov, May 3, 2017

George Washington University, “Research Finds Bots and Russian Trolls Influenced Vaccine Discussion on Twitter,” gwu.edu, Aug. 23, 2018

Jessica Glenza, “Russian Trolls ‘Spreading Discord’ over Vaccine Safety Online,” theguardian.com, Aug. 23, 2018

Michael Hiltzik, “In Another Attack on Western Society, Russian Trolls Sow Doubt about Vaccines,” latimes.com, Aug. 27, 2018

Jacqueline Howard, “Why Russian Trolls Stoked the US Vaccine Debates,” cnn.com, Aug. 24, 2018

Donald G. McNeil, Jr., “Russian Trolls Used Vaccine Debate to Sow Discord,” nytimes.com, Aug. 23, 2018