Twitter Bots And Russian Government Trolls Are Stoking Vaccine Wars

The account tweeting anti-vaccination messages might not believe it, but a troll is deliberately promoting division. David Dixon CC by 2.0

Some Twitter accounts spreading vaccination myths are actually bots and others are trolls who don't believe their message, a new analysis has found. Malware operators and spammers have seized on anti-vaccination messages to promote links. Meanwhile, something even stranger is emerging from the famed Russian bot farms, who are pushing both sides of the vaccine conflict on social media.

The involvement of Twitter bots and other fake social media accounts in the 2016 election has been intensively discussed. George Washington University's Dr David Broniatowski studied 1.7 million tweets from July 2014 to September 2017 to see if there were similar attacks on science. He found those coming from accounts shown to be controlled by Russian government trolls were ardently promoting the hashtag #VaccinateUS. Others with illicit commercial agendas also used the issue.

"The vast majority of Americans believe vaccines are safe and effective, but looking at Twitter gives the impression that there is a lot of debate,” Broniatowski said in a statement. “It turns out that many anti-vaccine tweets come from accounts whose provenance is unclear... Although it's impossible to know exactly how many tweets were generated by bots and trolls, our findings suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas.”

Some bots, known as “content polluters”, exist to promote websites that spread computer viruses or spam advertising. Broiniatowski reports in the American Journal of Public Health that these accounts promote anti-vaccination myths 75 percent more than the Twitter average. Those that appear to be possible bots but are too sophisticated to identify definitively are even more anti-vaccine.

"Content polluters seem to use anti-vaccine messages as bait to entice their followers to click on advertisements and links to malicious websites,” said co-author Professor Sandra Quinn of the University of Maryland. “Ironically, content that promotes exposure to biological viruses may also promote exposure to computer viruses."

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