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

Rather than having an anti-vaccination agenda, malware operators are apparently seeking messages that attract those who are both passionate and gullible enough to click on suspicious-looking links. Some anti-vaxxers fit that description, and may also lack (computer) virus protection. In the process, content polluters magnify the anti-vaccine message to undecided parents.

The accounts Broniatowski traced to Russian government influence are different, posting an even mix of pro- and anti-vaccination messages to #VaccinateUS. Despite exaggerating the anti-vaxxer side's size, this looks at first like wasted effort.

Although these accounts walk both sides of the street, the authors found they all favored aggressive and polarizing language. They also liked linking their positions to conspiracy theories about the American government and hot-button topics in US politics, such as racial divisions.

"These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society," said senior author Professor Mark Dredze of Johns Hopkins University. Apparently, the Russian government thinks online spaces discussing controversial issues aren't nasty enough on their own.

The cost is not just to civility and democracy. “By playing both sides, they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases. Viruses don't respect national boundaries," Dredze said

Russia probably isn't unhappy that their enemy Ukraine has had more measles cases this year than the rest of Europe combined. Nevertheless, with Russia experiencing 1,400 cases of the disease in six months, including some deaths, their meddling is not without cost to themselves.

Whether Twitterbots changed the outcome of the 2016 election may never be settled, but that they are harming us is now beyond doubt.

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