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Russian trolls spread vaccine misinformation on Twitter

Published on 28/08/18 at 10:37am

Twitter bots and Russian trolls post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than normal users, a new study has shown.

However the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health claims that content posted by Russian trolls “gives equal attention to both pro and anti-vaccine arguments”.

The study goes on to explain that “This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy.”

Meanwhile spambots and malware distributors were shown to post significantly more ant-vaccine content. The authors suggest that anti-vaccine content may be used as ‘clickbait’ in order to garner attention.

Significantly both pro and anti-vaccine messages were linked to divisive societal issues specific to American culture. For example one tweet played on socio-economic tensions in the US in suggesting that: “Apparently only the elite get ‘clean’ #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?! #VaccinateUS”. Notably these themes were not observed in the wider vaccine discourse.

Similarly the Russian antivaccine tweets often propagated conspiracy theories. However the messages were almost singularly focused on the US government. One tweet read “At first our government creates diseases then it creates #vaccines. what’s next?! #VaccinateUS”

The revelations are cause for concern as exposure to anti-vaccine content is associated with vaccine hesitancy and delay. Meanwhile recent resurgences of preventable diseases such as measles, mumps and pertussis have spread across the United States and Europe.

The study also highlighted the fact that as much as 50% of content relating to vaccines on social media may contain anti-vaccine beliefs and narratives.

Louis Goss

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