Russian trolls fan flames in U.S. vaccine debate, study says


Posted at Sep 01 2018 12:02 AM | Updated as of Sep 01 2018 01:22 AM

Russian trolls fan flames in U.S. vaccine debate, study says 1
A doctor prepares a syringe in a municipal vaccination center in Nice, southeastern France. Eric Gaillard, Reuters/file

Some of the same Twitter accounts that tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election have sent messages to amplify strong views - both pro and con - about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, a U.S. study suggests.

The biggest problem with this is that there shouldn’t be a debate at all, said lead study author David Broniatowski, a professor of engineering management and systems engineering at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“There is widespread consensus in favor of vaccines, yet that is not the impression you would get from looking at Twitter,” Broniatowski said by email.

“Exposure to the ‘vaccine debate’ erodes public trust in healthcare providers and leads people to delay vaccination, exposing us to the risk of epidemics,” Broniatowski added. “Just ‘amplifying’ debate can therefore have real consequences.”

In the study, researchers compared how much average users tweeted about vaccines compared to the volume of posts by bots and trolls from July 2014 to September 2017. They estimated the likelihood that users were bots and compared the proportions of polarizing and anti-vaccine content across user types.

Ordinary twitter users posted much less often about vaccines, and tended to have much less inflammatory #vaccinateUS messages to share than automated bots and Russian trolls, researchers report in the American Journal of Public Health.

The bots and trolls were much busier, and shared more extreme views.

In the antivaccine camp, there were #vaccinateUS tweets like this one: “Dont get #vaccines. Illuminati are behind it.”

And, like this: “At first our government creates diseases then it creates #vaccines. what’s next?!”

Or this one designed to target socioeconomic tensions: “Apparently only the elite get ‘clean’ #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl get?!”

Pro-vaccine tweets were also extreme, like this example: “#vaccines are a parents choice. Choice of a color of a little coffin.”

Or this one: “Do you still treat your kids with leaves? No? And why don’t you #vaccinate them? It’s medicine!”

Russian trolls appeared to promote discord rather than favor one side of the vaccine debate, while bots that spread malware appeared to be more solidly anti-vaccine, the study found.

Researchers have real reason to be concerned about any social media activity that intensifies debate about vaccines because any resulting decline in vaccination rates may mean children’s’ lives are at stake, said Dr. Matthew Davis of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“As a primary care physician, I know that social media, on many platforms, affects how many parents think about vaccinating their children,” Davis, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“The deliberate attempts of bots and trolls to misinform, mislead, and otherwise discourage parents from vaccinating their children are undermining one of the strongest, most positive medical and public health tools that parents and healthcare providers can use to protect children,” Davis added.

A growing number of U.S. children are missing out on recommended vaccinations in states that permit parents to skip inoculations due to their personal beliefs even when there’s no medical reason their child can’t be vaccinated, previous research has found.

Waning vaccine use has contributed to measles outbreaks in several U.S. communities in recent years, including a 2015 outbreak in California that began at Disneyland.

Messages on twitter, other social media platforms and the internet may have played a role, said Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“The antivaccine lobby has made effective use of the internet and social media in amplifying their messages,” Hotez, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “Twitter is certainly one of their vehicles but there are others.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online August 23, 2018.