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Parents beware: Russian trolls tried to force vaccination



A respected medical journal has just released a disturbing warning to parents and physicians. Russian trolls are pushing for conflicting vaccination information in social media.

"Weaponized Health Communication" – so the authors of the new American Journal of Public Health analysis summarize the online efforts to cast doubt on the vaccinations against measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and other serious teething problems. "Weaponized" is no exaggeration.

Researchers found that Twitter users connected to a Russian "troll farm" were on the social media platform from 201

4 to 2017, the period under review. "Accounts that masquerade as legitimate users create false equivalence and erode public consensus about the vaccine," the authors said.

The mission was not necessarily to get fewer Americans to vaccinate their children. Instead, the Russians identified vaccines as an issue that they could use to further divide this nation.

Other Russian social media propaganda has attempted to use class or race – online trolls tried to exploit the death of Philando Kastile in 2016 through the hands of a Minnesota cop for example – for the same reason. A nation is weakened when its citizens turn against each other instead of standing together against external enemies.

Researchers also found that Twitter bots that spread malicious software that used anti-inflammatory messages as "click baits" may have allowed malware on their computers when they opened a hyperlink.

As alarming as that is, public health collateral damage is the more immediate risk. This propaganda builds on disinformation that has already been disseminated by vaccine conspiracy theorists. The intensification of this harmful horror could have induced more parents to forego child vaccinations. This, in turn, opens the door for these diseases to make a comeback and endanger others – such as those with weakened immune systems or babies who have not had the whole series of shots yet.

The threat is real. It was over a year ago that measles swept through a Minnesota immigrant community targeted by vaccine conspiracy theorists. In Europe, measles cases are at a record high. "More than 41,000 people were infected in the first six months of 2018, resulting in 37 deaths," the BBC said on August 20. "Last year, there were 23,927 cases and 5,273 cases the year before, and experts argue that this increase in infections causes a decline in the number of people vaccinated."

The authors of the American Journal of Public Health study are understandably asking for additional research better understand how medical providers can combat vaccination myths. But parents also need to get stronger, especially when the health of their children is at stake.

Not all information sources are the same. Medical providers and organizations such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are credible sources of vaccines. Untried Twitter users such as @EllaWonderGirl or @GayleHappyMom – two accounts recently identified as Russian trolls on a list published by the US Congress – are not.

This basic truth about vaccines and other issues is more important than ever. The verification of information has become an important vaccine in itself and protects against people who want to endanger public health.

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