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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Anti-vaxxers like Justin Price, Elaine Morgan were played by the Russians

Russian Twitter trolls weaponized the vaccine debate
Rep. Justin Price (R-Richmond), Blake "Flip" Filippi (R-Charlestown) and Sen. Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton) - were these anti-vaxxers duped by the Russians?

A new study reveals that Russians weren’t only focused causing division in U.S. politics, they also sought to sow discord by pushing divisive speech and misinformation about vaccines.

The study, published by George Washington University, showed that Russian Twitter trolls linked to the Kremlin promoted divisive content of misinformation on both sides of the heated debate. The research was conducted between July 2014 and September 2017.

One of the authors of the study said, “These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society.”

Researchers studied the database of Russian troll accounts and found they were “significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than average Twitter users.”

The troll accounts posted information in equal amounts both for and against vaccinations.

The study illustrates that propaganda pushed by Russians on social media hasn’t been limited to politics. Trolls used health and race related topics to divide Americans.

“Thus, health communications have become ‘weaponized,'” researchers noted. “Public health issues, such as vaccination, are included in attempts to spread misinformation and misinformation by foreign powers.”

From NBC:

An NBC News analysis of over a million tweets sent by identified Russian trolls published by the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight and Clemson University researchers found over 1,000 examples of tweets that mention vaccines, often spreading divisive misinformation and discredited theories. 

“’The Vaccine Hoax is Over — Secret Documents Reveal Shocking Truth,’ wrote Russian troll _NICKLUNA_ in February 2017. ‘Autism Rates in California Have Skyrocketed Following Mandatory Vaccination Bill,’ tweeted Amelie Baldwin, a prolific Russian troll, in December of 2016.”

In February 2015, researches noticed Russian trolls created divisive anti-vaccine hashtags. For example, one troll account tweeted, “The production of a #vaccine is disgusting #VaccinateUS.”
“#VaccinateUS #vaccines can cause mental disorders!,” another Russian troll account tweeted. That same troll tweeted eight more times using the same anti-vaccine hashtag.

While the research found that posts relating to vaccinations represented a small proportion of the total tweets sent out by the accounts, the study provides an insight that the Russian disinformation campaign did not focus strictly on political issues.

Here is an abstract of the report from its authors:

Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate

Published Online: August 23, 2018

Objectives. To understand how Twitter bots and trolls (“bots”) promote online health content.
Methods. We compared bots’ to average users’ rates of vaccine-relevant messages, which we collected online from July 2014 through September 2017. 

We estimated the likelihood that users were bots, comparing proportions of polarized and antivaccine tweets across user types. We conducted a content analysis of a Twitter hashtag associated with Russian troll activity.

Results. Compared with average users, Russian trolls (χ2(1) = 102.0; P < .001), sophisticated bots (χ2(1) = 28.6; P < .001), and “content polluters” (χ2(1) = 7.0; P < .001) tweeted about vaccination at higher rates. 

Whereas content polluters posted more antivaccine content (χ2(1) = 11.18; P < .001), Russian trolls amplified both sides. Unidentifiable accounts were more polarized (χ2(1) = 12.1; P < .001) and antivaccine (χ2(1) = 35.9; P < .001). Analysis of the Russian troll hashtag showed that its messages were more political and divisive.

Conclusions. Whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated antivaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord. Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.

Public Health Implications. Directly confronting vaccine skeptics enables bots to legitimize the vaccine debate. More research is needed to determine how best to combat bot-driven content. 

(Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print August 23, 2018: e1–e7. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304567)