New Study Confirms a Russian Agency Spread Anti-Vaccination Propaganda Through Fake Twitter Accounts

Friday, 24 August 2018 - 12:37PM
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Friday, 24 August 2018 - 12:37PM
New Study Confirms a Russian Agency Spread Anti-Vaccination Propaganda Through Fake Twitter Accounts
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By now, it's generally accepted that the Russian Internet Research Agency meddled in the US' 2016 presidential election, but new research has revealed that the same agency was pursuing similar operations in a strangely niche corner of American society: the anti-vaccination movement. According to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, titled "Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate," the Internet Research Agency carried out an abortive campaign to sow discord in American society by playing both sides of the vaccination debate using fake Twitter accounts.

According to David Broniatowski, the lead author of the study: "One of the things about them that was weird was that they tried to—or they seemed to try to—relate vaccines to issues in American discourse, like racial disparities or class disparities that are not traditionally associated with vaccination." One of the tweets cited in the study, for example, claimed that only the "elites" in America get "clean" vaccines. For most anti-vaccination activists, the normal rhetoric is that all vaccinations are bad, and that no one should receive them. Most of these activists cite fallacious or debunked scientific findings, such as the work of Andrew Wakefield, which falsely linked vaccines to autism.

The short-term goal of the Russian campaign was to legitimize the vaccination debate by supplying roughly equal participants on both sides. However, the ultimate goal was apparently much more sinister—according to the study: "This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics—a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy."

Aside from breaking down faith in science and medicine, there's another potential goal for Russia, says Patrick Warren, an analyst who has studied Russia "troll" campaigns in the past: "I think that they want us focused on our own problems so that we don't focus on them. If most of our energies are focused internally with divisions inside of the United States—or divisions between the United States and, say, Europe—that leaves a window open for Russia to expand its sphere of influence."

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