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Infecting the Vaccine Debate

Research Finds Bots, Russian Trolls Influenced Vaccine Discussion on Twitter

By Kelly Blake


Photo by iStock

Photo by iStock

Russian interference on Twitter extended beyond the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to the anti-vaccination debate, with social media bots and trolls promoting discord and spreading false information, according to a new study by a School of Public Health researcher and colleagues at two other institutions.

The research, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, examined thousands of tweets sent between July 2014 and September 2017. They discovered that several accounts belonging to the same Russian trolls who interfered in the U.S. election tweeted both pro-and anti-vaccine messages, intending to breed rancor.  

“Don’t get #vaccines. Illuminati are behind it,” read one tweet. “Do you still treat your kids with leaves? No? And why don’t you #vaccinate them? It’s medicine!” read another.

“Content polluters”—bot accounts that distribute malware, unsolicited commercial content and disruptive materials—used a different strategy, sharing anti-vaccination messages 75 percent more than average Twitter users.

“Public health practitioners and researchers need to understand this complex and evolving world of bots and trolls, and we need to work together on research that examines how exposure to these social media messages may impact attitudes about vaccines and vaccine uptake,” said study co-author Sandra Quinn, chair of the Department of Family Science and senior associate director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity. Amelia Jamison, a faculty research assistant in the School of Public Health, was another co-author.

Unfounded fears about vaccinations have led to suppressed rates of immunizations, resulting in a spike in measles cases in the United States in 2014–15 and an outbreak in Europe this year as well as a recent resurgence of whooping cough cases in the U.S.

Lead author of the new research, David Broniatowski of George Washington University’s Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, said the findings “suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas.”

Researchers reviewed at least 900 tweets associated with known bots and trolls, including 253 tweets about vaccinations sent using the hashtag #vaccinateUS, which is linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government-backed company recently indicted by a U.S. grand jury because of its attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. The researchers found the tweets used polarizing language linking vaccination to controversial issues in American society, such as racial and economic disparities.

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” said Mark Dredze, a team member and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University. “However, 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.”



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School of Public Health

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