Russian meddling in United States relations is not surprising but a new study found particular Twitter bots coming from the country were stoking the fire of the vaccination debate amongst Americans.
It is not unknown at this point that Russia involved itself via technological advances into the public sphere with the 2016 presidential election. The country was not only sparking debate and propaganda amongst political rivals, but vaccination rivals as well.
The debate, unrelated to any ties with Russia, comes from the mindset that some parents believe there is a link between vaccinations and Autism, or other brain disorders. Those who opt not to have their children vaccinated have colloquially become known as “anti-vaxxers.”
This has stemmed controversy amongst Americans for nearly a decade. Celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy, have been vocal about not vaccinating their children. The risks associated with not following vaccination protocol is that it puts children and adults at risk of contracting illnesses that have mostly been eradicated from the public.
A research project intending to study social media and survey data turned up an unlikely pathway to Russian trolls fanning the fire between the different schools of thought.
NBC News published a database of over 200,000 tweets that were linked to Russian trolls. That’s where the researchers came across clues to indicate the antagonists were inserting themselves in a contentious debate.
The American Journal of Public Health published a study that suggests Russian trolls, under the guise of automated bots on Twitter, incited debate amongst those on the internet concerning vaccinations between 2014 and 2017.
The troll accounts were tied to a Russian-backed governmental agency that specializes in online influencing, Internet Research Agency.
A couple hundred of the tweets analyzed used the hashtag #VaccinateUS. Among tweets with that hashtag, 43% were pro-vaccine, 38% were anti-vaccine, and 19% were neutral.
Researchers found that when posting a variety of tweets on both sides of the spectrum, the result appears to become a “legitimized” debate in the internet sphere.
“Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy,” the researchers wrote.
The bots also tweeted about vaccination more than average users. This is known as “content polluting.”
Internet Research Agency is known to promote content that creates discord amongst Americans, so researchers aren’t necessarily surprised they would jump in on a polarizing topic.
In an interview with CNN, Patrick Warren, associate professor of economics at Clemson University, said Internet Research Agency has run experiments like this on Americans via social media in the past.
He believes the #VaccinateUS hashtag could have been one such experiment. “Apparently, they tried to get this hashtag going to get people to fight about vaccines, and it never got picked up,” he said.
Russian trolls and sophisticated bots have been found to chime in on other hot topics such as Black Lives Matter and immigration. “I think that they want us focused on our own problems so that we don’t focus on them,” he said.
The World Health Organization reported that measles reached a record high in Europe this year. More cases were recorded in the first half of 2018 than any other 12-month period this decade.
It is unclear whether or not social media debates online have an influence on the rise in people unwilling to vaccinate their children against such cases.