Measles cases have risen sharply in Europe, with experts blaming the increase in infections for a decline in the number of people vaccinated. In Minnesota, there was a measles outbreak last year. Now, an article in a medical journal reports that trolls published information about the safety of vaccines on social media within three years of study by the authors. The goal was not necessarily to get fewer US parents to vaccinate their children, but to sow the separation between Americans.
"Weaponized Health Communication," said the authors of the new American Journal of Public Health Analysis's online efforts together to cast doubt on vaccinations that prevent measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and other serious childhood illnesses. "Weaponized" is no exaggeration.
Researchers found that Twitter users connected to a Russian "troll farm" on the social media platform from January 201
The mission was not necessarily to get fewer Americans to vaccinate their children, instead they identified vaccines as a topic they could use to further divide this nation.
Other Russian social media propaganda has tried to use class or race – online trolls tried to exploit the death of Philando Kastile in 2016 by the hands of a Minnesota policeman for example – for the same reason – a nation is weakened when its Turn citizens against each other instead of agreeing with external enemies.
Researchers also found that Twitter bots that spread malicious software were a source of irritation anti-inflammatory statements used as "Clickbait". Those attracted to these reckless claims 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 danger. 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 to these diseases to make a comeback and endanger others – such as individuals with compromised immune systems or babies who have not yet had the full series of shots.
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 a year earlier." Experts attribute this increase in infections to a decline in the number of vaccinated individuals. "
The authors of the American Journal of Public Health study understandably require additional research to better understand How Medical Providers Can Fight 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. Checking information has become a vital vaccine and protects against those who want to endanger public health.