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Monday, April 13, 2020

Russia and Vaccine Discourse on Twitter

Objectives. To understand how Twitter accounts operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) discussed vaccines to increase the credibility of their manufactured personas.
Methods. We analyzed 2.82 million tweets published by 2689 IRA accounts between 2015 and 2017. Combining unsupervised machine learning and network analysis to identify “thematic personas” (i.e., accounts that consistently share the same topics), we analyzed the ways in which each discussed vaccines.
Results. We found differences in volume and valence of vaccine-related tweets among 9 thematic personas. Pro-Trump personas were more likely to express antivaccine sentiment. Anti-Trump personas expressed support for vaccination. Others offered a balanced valence, talked about vaccines neutrally, or did not tweet about vaccines.
Conclusions. IRA-operated accounts discussed vaccines in manners consistent with fabricated US identities.
Public Health Implications. IRA accounts discussed vaccines online in ways that evoked political identities. This could exacerbate recently emerging partisan gaps relating to vaccine misinformation, as differently valenced messages were targeted at different segments of the US public. These sophisticated targeting efforts, if repeated and increased in reach, could reduce vaccination rates and magnify health disparities.
From the article:
Importantly, in line with our argument that different accounts disguised themselves as different personas with different opinions and interests, some personas tweeted about vaccines, while others did not. Among those who did, we identified persona-tied differences in intensity and centrality of the vaccine issue, as well as differences in the valence of opinions about vaccines. This finding contextualizes previous findings offered by Broniatowski et al.1 Of particular importance for public health, the pro-Trump personas tended to oppose vaccines, while the anti-Trump ones did not. For example, an account associated with the pro-Trump persona, the supposed conservative Christian @ameliebaldwin, wrote on November 12, 2016, that “Holistic doctors found #autism-causing carcinogens in #vaccines before being murdered.” On the contrary, the allegedly African American user @imissobama wrote on January 13, 2017, that “The anti-vax movement can only exist bc few living Americans can recall what polio actually did to ppl. I fear the same is true of fascism.”