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How Russian trolls and bots are fuelling the US anti-vaccination movement

The anti-vaccination movement, whose proponents are known as 'anti-vaxxers', has emerged as a surprise threat in middle- and high-income countries.

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Bengaluru: Russian bots and trolls, including those backed by the Vladimir Putin government, are using social media debates to fuel the anti-vaccination movement in the US, an American study has claimed.

The anti-vaccination movement, whose proponents are known as “anti-vaxxers”, has emerged as a surprise threat in middle- and high-income countries. It’s founded on the myth that vaccination makes children vulnerable to disorders such as autism, and has already led to the resurgence of diseases believed to have been controlled years ago, for example, measles and mumps.

According to researchers from George Washington University, University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University, resorting to debates instead of mounting aggressive propaganda is helping the backers of malicious bots and trolls discredit long-held scientific consensus about vaccines by conveying that it was still debatable.

“Anti-vaccine advocates have a significant presence in social media, with as many as 50 per cent of tweets about vaccination containing anti-vaccine beliefs,” the authors said in the study.

Titled ‘Weaponized Health Communication’, the study was published in the journal American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) late last year.

The Russian hand

The team of researchers analysed a random sample of 17.9 lakh tweets from July 2014 to September 2017 to understand how health information is disseminated online.

They found that bots — automated accounts meant to peddle a certain message or boost follower counts — made more posts about vaccines than regular users.

Russian bots also tended to link their anti-vaccine sentiments to politics, religion and race, something that was not common among real users posting about vaccine apprehensions.

Many such tweets were made under the hashtag #VaccinateUS, which has been linked to trolls from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a group that has been reported to have ties with the Putin government and interfered in the 2016 US election.

These accounts posted tweets both for and against vaccines, tweeting false equivalencies and polarising the debate.

“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,” Mark Dredze, one of the authors involved in the study, told The Guardian.

Such polarisation is extremely dangerous. Diseases can spread rapidly even without a significant fall in vaccine rates — just a tiny dip is enough to lower herd immunity and infect not only the voluntarily unvaccinated but also elderly people and children.

Also readRules for online sale of medicines top new Modi govt’s 100-day agenda

Bots, trolls & cyborgs

According to the researchers, the anti-vaccination debate is being fuelled by a whole host of social media entities: Bots, trolls (human troublemakers), and cyborgs (people paid to run fake accounts to propagate a certain message).

These players present their opinions as “genuine concerns” of random internet users and grassroots participants, a tactic meant to mask the fact that they are planned attacks on the public. This phenomenon is called ‘astroturfing’.

“A full 93 per cent of tweets about vaccines are generated by accounts whose provenance can be verified as neither bots nor human users yet who exhibit malicious behaviors,” the authors said in the study. “These unidentified accounts preferentially tweet anti-vaccine misinformation.”

The researchers claim this trend suggests that “proportionally more anti-vaccine tweets may be generated by accounts using a somewhat sophisticated semiautomated approach to avoid detection”.

It is as yet unclear if this polarisation was done with the intention to increase disease outbreak or to reduce trust in the political process.

The researchers also sought to draw attention to accounts that were using the anti-vaccination movement to spread malware by enticing users to click on advertisements. These are called ‘content polluters’.

“Content polluters seem to use anti-vaccine messages as bait to entice their followers to click on advertisements and links to malicious websites,” study co-author Sandra Crouse Quinn was quoted as saying in a news release.

“Ironically, content that promotes exposure to biological viruses may also promote exposure to computer viruses,” she added.

Also read: European regulator finds cancer-causing element in diabetes medicines made in India


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