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Russian trolls 'promoting discord' over vaccines

August 24, 2018

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that trolls' online activity is increasing the risk of global pandemics. Bots also use a false-grassroots technique known as "astroturfing."

A doctor prepares a yellow fever vaccine
Image: Reuters/P. Whitaker

A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health on Friday reported that "social media are frequently abused to spread harmful health content," most significantly, anti-vaccine material. The researchers with Johns Hopkins University found that Twitter bots and Russian trolls were to blame for the spread of the disinformation that "increases the risks of global pandemics."

"Anti-vaccine advocates have a significant presence in social media, with as many as 50 percent of tweets about vaccination containing anti-vaccine beliefs," the study found, after analyzing 900 tweets determined to belong to either bots or trolls.

According to the authors, while bots may share malware or false health information, human trolls based in Russia actively "promoted discord."

The  "Weaponized Health Communication" study reported that while "Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user," they also gave "equal attention to pro- and anti-vaccination arguments."

They also "seemed designed to provoke a response and prolong an argument."

"This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics — a known tactic employed by Russian troll account."

Trolls engage in 'astroturfing'

The scientists noted that the trolls were employed a technique called "astroturfing," a term used to identify organizations promoting themselves as grassroots movements but which are in fact funded by moneyed interest groups.

The report cautioned that anti-vaccine content poses significant public health risks, as it has been linked to decreased vaccine uptake rates.

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Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.