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10 Sep 2018

The same Russians trolls who interfered with the US election are also spreading misinformation about vaccines, according to research from Washington DC.

Scientists at George Washington University have recently released a study in which they found Russian trolls and bots flooding Twitter and other social media outlets as part of the immunisation debate.

The discovery was made while the scientists were researching ways to improve communication methods for American health workers.

They were amazed to find extensive deliberate misleading content being spewed online in attempts to skew the debate and dissuade consensus over vaccinations.

Further digging uncovered that several false online accounts belong to the same Russian trolls who meddled with the 2016 US election. Malware bots were also being used.

But, in further evidence of deliberate efforts to confuse the situation, the trolls tweeted both pro- and anti-vaccine content, according to the researchers.

“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,” said Assistant Professor David Broniatowski of GWU.

“It turns out that many anti-vaccine tweets come from accounts whose provenance is unclear. These might be bots, human users or cyborgs – hacked accounts that are sometimes taken over by bots. 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.

“We started looking at the Russian trolls, because that data set became available in January. One of the first things that came out was they tweet about vaccines way more often than the average Twitter user.”

The research states that trolls tweeted on vaccines about 22 times more often than regular Twitter users.

A random sample of 1.7million tweets was collected between July 2014 and September 2017 was examined. Non-vaccination rates of children in the US is climbing.

Some of the misinformation – and deliberate lies – that are being tweeted talk of “vaccine damaged children” and a “secret government database”. Other tweets link the debate to God, race, and even animal welfare.

Click baits were also used, encouraging social media users to click on advertisements and other content, only to be diverted to malicious messaging about immunisation.

Earlier this year, Twitter deleted 3,800 accounts linked to the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency, which is the same group researchers at GWU examined.

The researchers didn’t examine Facebook, but in the face of damming criticisms this year of the social media giant’s operations, it removed 135 accounts in April linked to the Internet Research Agency.

More recently, Facebook removed another 650 fake accounts linked to Russia and Iran that appear to have be set up purely to spread misinformation.

The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.




Published: 10 Sep 2018