Russian trolls are attempting to create online debate around settled science on vaccines in the hope to form a political wedge-issue in the US, a new report has found. According to the American Journal of Public Health, a systematic campaign has been waged online to spread disinformation about vaccines and their utility that duped many Americans into believing that the science behind vaccines-for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella- was not sound and up for debate.
“From 2014-2017, Twitter bots & Russian trolls disseminated anti-vaccine messages in an attempt to erode public consensus on vaccinations in the US,” the American Journal of Public Health tweeted today.
How do anti-vaccine messages spread online? From 2014-2017, Twitter bots & Russian trolls disseminated anti-#vaccine messages in an attempt to erode public consensus on #vaccination in the US https://t.co/oR0FOze1A2 #antivaxxers pic.twitter.com/8Jsn7wY176
— AJPH (@AMJPublicHealth) 24 August 2018
In a paper entitled “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate”, the authors were able to analyse the messages of ‘bots’, ‘trolls’ and ‘content polluters’ that were tweeting on vaccines at higher rates than average users. The study concluded that “whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated anti-vaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord. Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.” The news comes at a time when Russian hackers are also looking to jeapordise the US mid-term elections using infiltration tactics.
Interestingly, the strategy behind the online troll campaign wasn’t just to use negative messages but vaccine-positive messages as well (that could occasionally be insulting to parents) that gave the appearance that there was robust debate on a matter that is not debated upon within scientific circles.
Misinformation about vaccines isn’t isolated to the US, however, as studies have shown that there remain unsubstantiated beliefs about vaccines and their links to autism in Britain, France and Italy, where half the people believe in a connection between the two. Falsely spreading information has also been seen as a likely factor in the increased spread of measles in Europe and the US. The World Health Organisation (WHO) for example recorded 37 deaths in 2018 alone with over 41,000 infected within the year’s first six months.
Nearly 20 years ago, Andrew Wakefield published what is now a widely-discredited paper on the link between autism and vaccines. Wakefield was since found guilty of professional misconduct for his dubious research methods and struck off the medical register. Two decades later, however, the spirit behind his disinformation lives on in the internet and it’s unclear how the online infection of disinformation can stop its spread.