Russia's meddling online went beyond the 2016 US presidential election and into public health,
The recent research project was intended to study people's decision-making process around vaccines.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health on Thursday, suggests that it appears to have been trolled by automated bots and Russian trolls masqueraded as legitimate users engaging in online vaccine debates.
The researchers started examining Russian troll accounts as part of their study after NBC's 200,000 tweets tied to Russian-linked accounts this year. They noticed vaccine-related tweets among the Russian troll accounts, and some tweets even used the hashtag #VaccinateUS.
These known Russian troll accounts were tied to the Internet Research Agency, a company backed by the Russian government that specializes in online influence operations.
"We are looking at those tweets, and immediately, we were like," said David Broniatowski, assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University who was lead author of the study.
"One of the things about them that weird they did try to ̵
For instance," one of the tweets we saw said something like 'only the elite get clean vaccines,' which on its own seemed strange, "he said. After all, the vaccine is safe, effective and important for public health.
, as they help reduce the spread of preventable disease and illness. A Pew Research Center study found that the vast majority of Americans support vaccine requirements.
Since the start of the new study, most of the tweets have been leaked as part of Twitter's efforts to suspend Russian troll accounts, but Broniatowski said
The researchers were stunned to find out that they would stoke the vaccine debate.
Why trolls tweet about vaccines
For the study, the researchers collected and analyzed nearly 1.8 million tweets from July 2014 through September 2017.
While examining those vaccine-related tweets, the researchers found many bot accounts, including "Content polluters," which are disseminate malware or unsolicited commercial content. The researchers also found that they had a lot of hidden agendas.
Tweets containing the #VaccinateUS hashtag among their sample. Among those tweets with the hashtag, 43% were pro-vaccine, 38% were anti-vaccine, and the remaining 19% were neutral.
By a variety of anti, pro- and neutral tweets and directly confronting vaccine skeptics , trolls and bots "legitimize" the vaccine debate, the researchers wrote in the study.
"This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics – a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Search strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead to the long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy, "they wrote."
Overall, the researchers found that Russian trolls, sophisticated bots and "content polluters" tweeted
The study remains limited. "The study remains limited." is certainly not only the set of trolls out there, "Broniatowski said.
Additionally, it's even more difficult to determine an account's true intent.
It may be a strategy to promote political discord, Broniatowski said, adding, "We can not say that with 100% certainty, because we 're not inside their head.'
"The Internet Research Agency has been known to engage in certain behaviors. There's one person, about which, which is the election. Broniatowski said.
So, considering that the agency has engaged in hot-button debates online before to promote discord, the new study suggests that the intent could be
Historically, the Russian government has not responded to CNN requests for comments on the use of social media.
Between 2014 and 2017, the Internet Research Agency trolls were running many social media experiments to build divisions among Americans, said Patrick Warren, an associate professor of economics at Clemson University.
The brief use of the #VaccinateUS hashtag among troll accounts has been experimentally, he said.
"Apparently, they tried to get this hashtag is going to get people to fight about vaccines, and said they did not have any more than 3 million tweets from Internet Research Agency-linked social media accounts.
Warren added that he was not surprised to learn about Russian trolls posting vaccine-related tweets.
"I do not know if it would seem strange once you understand their goal, which is basically divide both sides against the middle. They are going to grab all of those social issues. For example: black lives matter, all lives matter; Immigrants are destroying America, "Warren said.
" It's basically the hot-button political issues of the day. They're happy to grab whatever is salient, "he said.
"If most of our energies are focused internally with divisions within the United States – or divisions between the United States and,"
So it seems, looking at effort to spread divisive misinformation – including in the form of public health messaging – is nothing new.
In the 1980s, there is a Soviet campaign to spread false news about the AIDS epidemic in the US. The campaign began with placing an obscure newspaper in India, the Patriot, with the headline, "AIDS may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments," according to a published article in Intelligence, a journal published by The CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence.
Eventually, "[w] ith the end of the Cold War, former Soviet and East German intelligence officers confirmed their services' sponsorship of the AIDS disinformation campaign," according to the article.
Messages 'that are not scientifically sound'
Renee DiResta, who researches, said that trolls could have been amplified online for vaccine debates in other countries as well, but more research is needed to determine that disinformation online as the head of policy at Data For Democracy, a volunteer group of scientists and technologists, and who is not involved in the new study.
DiResta pointed to how Italy s Five Star movement and its coalition partner, the far-right League party, Both have voiced Their opposition to compulsory vaccinations. So you've seen some Twitter accounts linked to Russian trolls tweeting in Italian.
"We know that in Italy, the Five Star movement ran on an anti-vaccine platform. In the meantime, however, they said that the new
"Both real people and trolls are capitalizing on that mistrust to push conspiracy Theories out to vulnerable audiences, "DiResta said.
" This is not just happening on Twitter. This is happening on Facebook, and this is happening on YouTube, where searching for vaccine information on a large scale anti-vaccine propaganda, "she said.
Anti-vaccine sentiment has been taken root in some European countries. 12-month period this decade, the World Health Organization has reported this week, with more cases recorded in the first six months of 2018 than any other 12-month period this decade. In general, it remains unclear what influence online vaccine debates have on sentiment – if at all.
scientist at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, who conducted a separate research on social bots and trends.
"There are messages out there that are not scientifically sound." said.
"This health-related decision has been made," he said. "This is the best way to make a health-related decision," he said. "When people are looking at these messages, does it matter to them? Does it lead to an attitude change? And finally, does it lead to a behavior change? Does a person who sees a thread on Twitter discussing the pros and cons about vaccination, does that cause hesitancy for a parent? These are the sets of questions that need to be answered. "