In the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election, Russian bots and trolls took to Twitter and other social media platforms to try to turn Americans against one another. But in addition to spreading false information and interfering in the election, a new study reports, a significant number of these malevolent actors tried to sow discord over vaccines.
An analysis of Twitter accounts previously identified as having been operated by Russian bots and trolls found they dove into the vaccine debate as early as January 2015, the researchers reported. They did not take one side or the other, but seemed to tweet pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine messages in roughly equal measure.
On a variety of issues, the overall aim of the Russian campaign appeared to be to erode social cohesion and generate confusion by amplifying the number of voices taking part in these debates on social media. But in the case of vaccines, that could have increased the misperception that the science on their safety and effectiveness isn’t settled — as is the case — but rather that it is still subject to debate.
“We do have a very strong suspicion that these accounts were attempting to generate discord,” said David Broniatowski, assistant professor in George Washington University’s department of engineering management and systems engineering and lead author of the study.
In the study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, Broniatowski and his co-authors focused on Twitter, analyzing tweets from accounts that had been identified as having been operated by Russian trolls, bots, and so-called content polluters whose aim is to disseminate spam and malware. The article is titled “Weaponized Health Communications: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate.”And, of course, Trump notoriously reinforced the bogus idea that vaccines cause autism.