Russian trolls accused of spreading anti-vaccine propaganda online

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Social media bots and Russian trolls promoted discord and spread false information about vaccines on Twitter to sow division and distribute malicious content, 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 U.S. election season was underway. 

The study, “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate” was published in the American Journal of Public Health available on CKN.

The research 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. Researchers examined a random sample of 1.7m tweets collected between July 2014 and September 2017 – the height of the American presidential campaign that led to Donald Trump’s victory. To identify bots, researchers compared the rate at which normal users tweeted about vaccines with the rate at which bots and trolls did so.

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.

 “We started looking at the Russian trolls, because that data set became available in January,” said researcher David Broniatowski, an assistant professor in GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “One of the first things that came out was they tweet about vaccines way more often than the average Twitter user.”

Broniatowski said trolls tweeted about vaccines about 22 times more often than regular Twitter users, or about once every 550 tweets, versus every 12,000 tweets for human accounts.

Researchers found different kinds of bots spread different kinds of misinformation. “Content polluters seem to use anti-vaccine messages as bait to entice their followers to click on advertisements and links to malicious websites. Ironically, content that promotes exposure to biological viruses may also promote exposure to computer viruses,” Sandra Crouse Quinn, a research team member and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, said.

The study comes as social media companies struggle to clean their houses of misinformation. In February, Twitter deleted 3,800 accounts linked to the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency, the same group researchers at George Washington examined. In April, Facebook removed 135 accounts linked to the same organisation, and this week removed another 650 fake accounts linked to Russia and Iran meant to spread misinformation. 

“To me it’s actually impressive how well-organised 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. 

Trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord

Russian trolls and more sophisticated bot accounts used a different tactic, posting equal amounts of pro- and anti-vaccination tweets. Dr. Broniatowski’s team reviewed more than 250 tweets about vaccination sent by accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government-backed company recently indicted by a U.S. grand jury because of its attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. The researchers found the tweets used polarising language linking vaccination to controversial issues in American society, making appeals to God, or arguing about race, class and animal welfare. Often, the tweets targeted the legitimacy of the US government.

“Did you know there was secret government database of #Vaccine-damaged child? #VaccinateUS,” read one Russian troll tweet. Another said: “#VaccinateUS You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I’m for #vaccination!”

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” Mark Dredze, a team member and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, said. “However, 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.”

“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,” Broniatowski said.

For example, the researchers found that “content polluters” — bot accounts that distribute malware, unsolicited commercial content and disruptive materials — shared anti-vaccination messages 75% more than average Twitter users.

93.5% of Australian 5 year olds were fully immunised in 2016–17

In Australia, more children are fully immunised by the time they are 5 years old than in the past; however, variations are still seen across local areas, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). The data shows that 93.5% of Australian 5 year olds were fully immunised in 2016–17. This is up from 92.9% in 2015–16 and 90.0% in 2011–12, but still below the national target of 95%.

The proportion of fully immunised 5 year olds was highest in Western NSW at 96.0%, while North Coast (NSW), and  Perth North have the lowest rates at 90.6%.

"The greatest improvement was seen in the Central Queensland, Wide Bay and Sunshine Coast PHN area, which rose from 91.6% in 2015–16 to 93.3% in 2016–17," said AHW spokesperson Tracy Dixon.

‘Despite the majority of Australian children being immunised, it’s important that we don’t become complacent. We need to maintain high immunisation rates to protect the vulnerable groups in our community,’ said Ms Dixon.