BioPharma, Policy

Russian trolls waded into, sought to amplify vaccine debate, study finds

The purpose and effects of the trolls’ effort are unclear, but studies indicate exposure to debate creates uncertainty around vaccine safety and efficacy.

Twitter trolls and bots employed by Russian intelligence may be best known for sowing discord about politics in the US, but a new study shows they have looked to cause trouble in a very different arena: vaccines.

The study, published last week in the American Journal of Public Health, found that Twitter accounts of known Russian trolls working through the Internet Research Agency sought to promote discord about vaccines, using the #VaccinateUS hashtag. In particular, the Russian trolls were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccines than average Twitter users, along with sophisticated bots and content polluters.

While the bots and polluters tended to tweet anti-vaccine content, the trolls amplified arguments from both sides of the debate. However to what end the trolls were seeking to sow discord remains unknown, and researchers cannot discern intent from the analysis, said David Broniatowski, an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and lead author of the study, in a phone interview. On the one hand, he said, they could simply trying to start fights about vaccines given the strong feelings people have about them and trying to erode the consensus that they are safe and effective. On the other hand, they could have some other agenda that is not widely known.

Broniatowski cautioned that the study was not designed to look at what effect the tweets had on vaccinations. “However, we do know that exposure to the vaccine debate leads people to delay vaccination and distrust their healthcare providers,” he wrote in an email. “Therefore, these efforts could indeed have an effect.”

In the study, Russian troll accounts were identified through an NBC News story that published more than 200,000 tweets from known Russian trolls that Twitter had deleted. Accounts were also identified through a Recode article that listed 2,752 of them. Meanwhile, bots were found in an academic paper.

Examining tweets from the period between July 14, 2014 and Sept. 26, 2017, the researchers found 253 tweets with the #VaccinateUS hashtag, pointing out that while non-neutral hashtags about vaccines are easily identifiable as pro- or anti-vaccine, #VaccinateUS appeared with very polarized messages on both sides.

The tweets’ authors tended to tie both pro- and anti-vaccine messages under the hashtag to US politics and frequently used emotional appeals to “freedom,” “democracy” and “constitutional rights,” whereas other vaccine-related tweets tend to focus more on parental rights and specific legislation, according to the study. For example, “VaccinateUS mandatory #vaccines infringe on constitutionally protected religious freedoms,” read one tweet. On the pro-vaccine side, one tweet read “#VaccinateUS You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I’m for #vaccination!”

The paper stated that directly confronting vaccine skeptics enables bots to legitimize the vaccine debate. Beyond attempting to prevent them from spreading messages over social media, public health practitioners should focus on combatting the messages themselves while not “feeding the trolls,” the study concluded, adding that this is an area that calls for further research. “The key is that it doesn’t make sense to engage in debate because engagement may end up amplifying the messages,” Broniatowski said in the phone interview.

Photo: Esben_H, Getty Images