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Thursday, August 23, 2018

Russian Trolls Spread Antivax Messages

In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism.

A release from George Washington University:
Social media bots and Russian trolls promoted discord and spread false information about vaccines on Twitter, according to new research led by the George Washington University. Using tactics similar to those at work during the 2016 United States presidential election, these Twitter accounts entered into vaccine debates months before election season was underway. The study, "Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate" was published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

The team, which also includes researchers from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, examined thousands of tweets sent between July 2014 and September 2017. It discovered several accounts, now known to belong to the same Russian trolls who interfered in the U.S. election, as well as marketing and malware bots, tweeted about vaccines and skewed online health communications.

"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. 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," David Broniatowski, an assistant professor in GW's School of Engineering and Applied Science, said.
 Ben Popken and Maggie Fox  at NBC:
An NBC News analysis of over a million tweets sent by identified Russian trolls published by the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight and Clemson University researchers found over 500 examples of tweets that mention vaccines, often spreading misinformation and discredited theories.
“The Vaccine Hoax is Over — Secret Documents Reveal Shocking Truth,” wrote Russian troll _NICKLUNA_ in February 2017. “Autism Rates in California Have Skyrocketed Following Mandatory Vaccination Bill,” tweeted Amelie Baldwin, a prolific Russian troll, in December of 2016.
Jessica Glenza at The Guardian:
“To me it’s actually impressive how well-organized and sophisticated the anti-vax movement has become,” said Dr Peter Hotez, the director of the Texas children’s hospital center for vaccine development at Baylor College of Medicine, and the father of an autistic child. Hotez, who maintains an active Twitter presence, said he struggled to identify whether Twitter accounts were human or bots.
“There are clearly some well-known anti-vax activists that I know to look out for and I know to block or to mute, but that’s a minority,” said Hotez. “A lot of it just seems to come out of nowhere, and I’m always surprised by that.” 
One of the most striking findings, Broniatowski said, was an apparent attempt by Russian trolls to Astroturf a vaccine debate using the hashtag #VaccinateUS. Accounts identified as controlled by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm backed by the Russian government, were almost exclusively responsible for content emerging under #VaccinateUS.
Some of the Russian trolls even specifically used a hashtag associated with Andrew Wakefield, the discredited former physician who published fraudulent papers linking vaccines with autism, such as #Vaxxed and #CDCWhistleblower.