Russian trolls are weaponizing the vaccine "debate" to divide Americans

A new study shows how bots and Russian trolls have been spreading misinformation and confusion on Twitter about vaccination in an apparent attempt to sow discord among Americans.


Bots and Russian trolls have been spreading misinformation and confusion on Twitter about vaccination in an apparent attempt to sow discord among Americans, according to a new study from researchers at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

It’s not what they expected to find when they began a study designed to identify ways to improve online conversations about vaccination. But after analyzing a random sample of about 1.7 million tweets, they found a clear pattern of malicious accounts that seemed bent on eroding consensus on the safety of vaccines.

The findings are published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers couldn’t be exactly sure which accounts were human trolls and which were bots, but they did identify two general motives between the groups.

“Whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated anti-vaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord,” researchers concluded. “Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.”


FIGURE 2: Number of Tweets per Unique Account, Separated by Sentiment and Bot Score Category: July 14, 2014–September 26, 2017.

 

The claim that Russian trolls are primarily interested in sowing discord is bolstered by the finding that their accounts played both sides. The trolls also often colored their vaccination tweets with messages concerning other hot-button issues, like religion, race relations and politics. 

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” Mark Dredze, who participated in the study and is a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, told The Guardian. “By playing both sides, they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases. Viruses don’t respect national boundaries.”

Although it’s more likely the trolls intended to spread division than actual viruses, the anti-vaccination movement does seem to be contributing to disease outbreaks around the world.

In Europe, for instance, the number of measles cases hit a record-breaking 41,000 in the first six months of 2018, leading to the deaths of 37 people.

“With a vaccine preventable disease, one case is one too many, and the numbers of measles cases so far this year is astounding,” Dr. Pauline Paterson from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the BBC.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

10 books to check out from Jordan Peterson's 'Great Books' list

The Canadian professor has an extensive collection posted on his site.

Jordan Peterson with Carl Jung and the cover art of Jaak Panksepp's 'Affective Neuroscience' (Image: Chris Williamson/Getty Images/Big Think)
Personal Growth
  • Peterson's Great Books list features classics by Orwell, Jung, Huxley, and Dostoevsky.
  • Categories include literature, neuroscience, religion, and systems analysis.
  • Having recently left Patreon for "freedom of speech" reasons, Peterson is taking direct donations through Paypal (and Bitcoin).
Keep reading Show less

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less

Should you invest in China's stock market? Know this one thing first.

Despite incredible economic growth, it is not necessarily an investor's paradise.

Videos
  • China's stock market is just 27 years old. It's economy has grown 30x over that time.
  • Imagine if you had invested early and gotten in on the ground floor.
  • Actually, you would have lost money. Here's how that's possible.