Russia's interference with the Internet has gone beyond the 2016 US presidential election and into public health, and has boosted online debate about vaccines, according to a new study.
The recent research project aimed to examine how social media and survey data can be used to better understand people's decision making about vaccines. It uncovered some unexpected key players in the vaccination debate: Russian trolls.
The study published on Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that these were Twitter accounts disguised by automated bots and Russian trolls were legitimate users participating in online vaccination debates. The bots and trolls distributed both pro and anti-vaccine messages between 201
Researchers began investigating Russian troll accounts as part of their study after NBC News released their database of more than 200,000 tweets this year. They noticed vaccinated tweets in connection with Russian troll accounts and some tweets even used the hashtag #VaccinateUS.
These well-known Russian troll accounts were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-backed firm specializing in online influence
"We started to look at these tweets and immediately said :, These are kind of weird, "said David Broniatowski, an assistant professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University (19659002)" One of the weird things about them was that they were trying to get vaccines to address issues in American discourse Refer to how breed differences or class differences that are not traditionally associated with vaccination, "Broniatowski said.
For example, one of the tweets we've seen said something like" Only the elite gets clean vaccines, "which seemed alone weird, "he said," Anti-vaccine news tends to characterize vaccines as risky for all people, regardless of class. " he socioeconomic status, the researchers said in the study.
The consensus among physicians is that vaccines are safe, effective and important to public health as they help reduce the spread of preventable diseases and diseases. A Pew Research Center study found out last year that the vast majority of Americans support vaccine requirements.
Since the start of the new study, most tweets have been deleted as part of Twitter to suspend Russian troll accounts, but Broniatowski said he and his colleagues kept several in their own archives.
The researchers were amazed that Russian troll accounts tweeted about vaccines, but figuring out why they would fuel the vaccination debate was also overwhelming.
Why trolls tweet about vaccines
For the study, researchers collected and analyzed nearly 1.8 million tweets between July 2014 and September 2017.
Researchers discovered many bot reports in the study of these vaccine-related tweets, including "content creators" are accounts that distribute malware or unsolicited commercial content. The researchers also uncovered a wide range of hidden online agendas.
In the Russian troll accounts, the researchers found 253 tweets with the hashtag #VaccinateUS in their sample. Of these tweets with the hashtag, 43% were pro-vaccines, 38% were anti-vaccines, and the remaining 19% were neutral.
Trolls and bots "legitimize" the vaccine debate by posting a variety of anti, pro and neutral tweets and direct confrontation with vaccine-skeptics, the researchers write in the study.
"This is in line with a strategy of promoting discord on a number of controversial issues – a well-known tactic used by Russian troll accounts – such strategies could undermine public health: normalizing these debates could the public question the long-term scientific consensus on vaccine efficacy, "they wrote.
Overall, the researchers found that Russian trolls, sophisticated bots and "content polluters" tweeted about the vaccine significantly more frequently than average users.
The study remains limited as it is difficult to pinpoint who is behind a Twitter account, and "the Internet Research Agency is certainly not the only group of trolls out there," Broniatowski said.
It's also harder to determine the true intent of an account. But the researchers and other experts have some ideas as to why Russia could fuel America's vaccine debate.
It could be a strategy to promote political disharmony, Broniatowski said, adding, "We can not say that with 100% certainty because we're not in their heads."
"The Internet Research Agency was known for engaging in certain behaviors – there is one that everyone knows about what the choice is, and they also tend to have other issues that promote disharmony in American society, "Broniatowski said.
So, given the fact that the agency is in hot-button debates on the Internet to promote discord, the new study suggests that the intention could be the same when it comes to spurring vaccine discussions.
Historically, the Russian government has not responded to CNN requests for comments regarding the accusation of using social media to influence public opinion in the United States.
Between 2014 and 2017 The Internet Research Agency trolls conducted many social media experiments to break up the separation between the Americans, said Patrick Warren, associate professor of economics at Clemson University. Warren was not involved in the study, but has conducted extensive research on Russian trolls.
The brief use of the #VaccinateUS hashtag under troll accounts could have been an experiment, he said.
"Obviously, they tried to get it. Hashtags will make people argue about vaccines, and it's never been recorded," said Warren, who and his colleagues have a database of more than 3 million tweets from Internet Research Agency shared social media accounts.
"I would call that an experiment they gave up," he said of the hashtag.
Warren added that he was not surprised that Russian trolls posted vaccine-related tweets.
"I do not know if it seems strange once you understand their goal, which is basically to divide both sides against the middle, they will pick up on all these social issues, for example, black lives are important, all lives are important, immigrants are destroying America, immigrants are great for America, "Warren said.
"It's basically the hottest political issues of the day, and they're happy to grab anything that stands out," he said. "I think they want us to focus on our own problems so that we do not focus on them."
"When most of our energies internally focus on divisions within the United States – or divisions between the United States and, say, Europe – that opens a window for Russia to expand its sphere of influence."
Es So it seems that such an attempt to spread misinformation – also in the form of public health messaging – is nothing new.
In the 1980s, there was a Soviet campaign to spread false news about the AIDS epidemic in the US. The campaign began with an anonymous letter in an obscure newspaper in India, the Patriot, headlined: "AIDS can invade India: Mysterious disease through US experiments," says an article in the CIA Center for the Study of the Intelligence.
Finally, [w] after the end of the Cold War, former Soviet and East German intelligence agents confirmed their services as "sponsor of the AIDS Disinformations Campaign," according to the article.
Messages "that are not science-based"
Russian trolls could have boosted online vaccination debates in other countries as well, but more research is needed to determine that, said Renee DiResta, who researches disinformation online as Head of Policy at Data For Democracy, a volunteer group of scientists and technologists, who was not involved in the new study.
DiResta pointed out how Italy's Five Star Movement and its coalition partners, the right-wing league party, both have voiced their opposition to vaccination. She has also seen some Twitter accounts related to Russian trolls tweeting in Italian – but she does not speak the language to translate what these tweets say.
"We know that the Five Star Movement in Italy was running an anti-vaccination platform, and I think it's worth looking at the conversation in social media in Italy to see if nonauthentic accounts are splitting those divisions or participate in this debate, "said DiResta.
In the meantime, however, she said that the new A study on Russian trolls interfering in American online vaccine discussions is an example of growing distrust in science and public health initiatives, such as vaccinations.
"Both real people and trolls take advantage of this mistrust" DiResta said
"This is not just happening on Twitter, it's happening on Facebook, and this is happening on YouTube, where the search for vaccination information on social media is the majority the anti-vaccine propaganda returns, "she said. "The social platforms have the responsibility to investigate how this content spreads and what impact these stories have on the audiences."
In some European countries, anti-vaccine sentiment has prevailed. Measles cases have reached a record high in Europe this year, with more cases registered in the first six months of 2018 than in any other 12-month period of this decade, the World Health Organization reported this week. In general, it remains unclear what influence online vaccination debates have on such a mood – if at all.
More research is needed to determine how these actions by Twitter bots and trolls could affect public health, said Jon-Patrick Allem Scientist at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, who was not joining the study but has conducted a separate study on social bots and trends
"Messages are being distributed that are not scientifically sound", Allem
"This has the potential to deliver science-based messages from healthcare providers and from the public health in general about the best way to make a health-related decision, "he said. "If people see these messages, is it important to them, does that lead to a change of attitude, does that lead to a behavior change later and ultimately?" "Has a person watching a thread on Twitter discussing the pros and cons of vaccination "Concerns for a parent who decides to get their child vaccinated?" These are the next questions that need to be answered. "