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Social media conversations supporting herd immunity driven by bots, says study

The investigation, conducted by the Federation of American Scientists, found a 'high-level of bot-like behaviour' in support of the Great Barrington Declaration on social media.

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New Delhi: An open-source investigation has revealed that at least half of the profiles on social media advocating herd immunity are artificial accounts.

The investigation, conducted by the Federation of American Scientists, performed social network analysis on 1,80,578 tweets and found a “high-level of bot-like behaviour” in support of the Great Barrington Declaration on social media.

An account was characterised as a bot if it was engaging in more numbers of retweets but not generating enough content itself.

Great Barrington Declaration is an eight-paragraph manifesto which is advocating the concept of herd immunity as an effective way to combat the novel coronavirus. It is shaping the White House’s policy on Covid-19 and has over 9,000 signatories so far. The declaration suggests that high-risk groups must be protected from the virus while everyone else can be granted freedom from Covid-related restrictions.

However, the Federation of American Scientists has a different opinion on herd immunity. It says, “This strategy has been dismissed by many scientists for several ethical and practical reasons, such as large size of vulnerable populations in countries like the US, and a lack of full understanding of long-term impacts of SARS-CoV-2 on lower risk groups.”

In comparison to conversations that opposed herd immunity, it was found that discussions supporting the Declaration were “inorganic” and “manipulated”.

“A consequence of high frequency of inorganic activity is the creation of a majority illusion (when certain members within a social network give the appearance that an idea or opinion is more popular than it is),” the blog said.

How the analysis was conducted

The study used a technique called topic modelling for this analysis. It is a “text-mining approach” which uses statistical analysis of words in discussions. This analysis is used to draw out common trends that emerge from the discussion.

The researchers searched for words such as Barrington, Barrington Declaration and focused protection.

“When conducting bot-detection analysis, we discovered an estimated 45% of messages surrounding the Great Barrington Declaration are likely bot-driven,” it said. This number is unusually high considering that studies have found that bots account for an average of 9%-15% of active users on Twitter.

It was also found that discussions opposing the strategy of herd immunity were more “diverse” and “organic”.

“Artificial promotion of the Great Barrington Declaration suggests that sponsors of the herd immunity strategy are seeking to foster non-expert support over the support of scientists, doctors and public health officials,” they said.

Conflicting notions on herd immunity

The investigation comes amid growing conflicting notions on the effectiveness of herd immunity as a strategy in combatting the coronavirus.

Herd immunity occurs when a high percentage of a population is immune to a disease, leading to the disease beginning to “die away”. However, the bone of contention remains that herd immunity opposes strategies of keeping fatalities and infection rates due to Covid-19 at the bare minimum.

Scott Atlas, senior advisor on Covid-19 to President Donald Trump, suggested that the US try this strategy. Atlas also promoted the Great Barrington Declaration.

However, US’ top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has said that herd immunity will cause many unnecessary deaths and that the idea is “nonsense” and “dangerous”.

Also read: Why White House-backed Great Barrington Declaration is dangerously wrong on herd immunity


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