Anti vaccination and divisive propaganda by Russian trolls and Twitter bots

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Anti-vaccine campaigners were bad enough, now Twitter bots and Russian trolls have joined in on the action and misinformation.

Worldwide there is a rise in vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, whooping cough etc. This rise has been attributed to campaigns against vaccines by a section of activitists that deter parents from vaccinating their children.

Public health experts now have two new major enemies to face in this aspect. The Russian trolls are have been found to stoke debates on vaccine use by tweeting both pro- and anti-vaccine messages. This simulates a real argument that seems to catch up.

Misinformation is spread thus among parents who are wary of immunizing their children. The Twitter bots then start sending anti-vaccine messages that stimulate both sides of the argument to message and keep the debates going. On investigation, this has been seen to occur quite a few times over the last three years.

The results of the investigation from researchers at George Washington University, in Washington DC, looking at these anti-vaccine malicious elements were published in the latest issue of the journal American Journal of Public Health.

Image Credit: Monster Ztudio / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Monster Ztudio / Shutterstock

For example one of the Russian troll accounts tweets, “Apparently only the elite get 'clean' #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?! #VaccinateUS.” This caused a line between people with unequal incomes and also promoted fear of inferior vaccines. Yet others said, “Did you know there was secret government database of #Vaccine-damaged child? #VaccinateUS,” or “#VaccinateUS You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I’m for #vaccination!”

David Broniatowski, an engineer at George Washington University who led the research explained that the tweet is typically not a line that an “anti-vaxxer” would drop. This was a unique approach by the Russian trolls – dividing people based on their incomes. The team of researchers found that these trolls came from a “troll farm” - Internet Research Agency, which is connected to a Russian propaganda. These trolls were identified from a list released by Twitter to the Congress. The team then found twitter robots that are “non-human” and are known as “content polluters” that spread malware, scam individuals and spread terror.

The team of researchers looked at Twitter data between 2014 and 2017 and found that Russian trolls have been 22 times more likely to use anti-vaccine statements than other users. Their tweets usually gave out statements debating the issue rather than just focussing on anti-vaccination propaganda. These tweets seemed to play on socioeconomic differences as well as racial differences.

According to one of the researchers Renee DiResta, who studies computational propaganda with the collective Data for Democracy, there are only one in 550 tweets from these trolls that are about vaccines. Their purpose is not to stop vaccinations but to propagate class and racial divides. For example in September 2017, several Russian trolls tweeted, “Diseases Expert Calls for White Genocide Since Most Vaccine Deniers are White.” DiResta said, “It's opportunism - opportunistically amplifying controversial topics.” She explained one of the Russian bots @WadeHarriot that went around stoking debates on anti-Obama or pro-Trump campaigns or anti-gay issues. In early 2017, it started on anti-vaccination topics. Still, out of the 6000 tweets, only 38 were against vaccination she added.

Until now the extent of influence this campaign has had on people’s behaviours have not been studied. They are unsure if this has increased or affected the anti-vaccination sentiments of the general population.


Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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