News and Commentary

INSIDIOUS: Study Says Russian Bots Are Stirring Up Anti-Vaccination Online

A new study reveals that Russian trolls are trying to increase anti-vaccination conversations online.

The study from George Washington University found anonymous spam bots and Russian trolls have been pushing hard against vaccination.

Dr. Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine development, who has an autistic child, stated, “Social media has had a very important amplifying effect. Both Twitter and Facebook put on a lot of misinformation about these implausible scenarios in which vaccines cause autism.”

Dr. David Broniatowski, lead author of the new study, added, “If you look at social media you see a lot of anti-vaxxers, and that means that either the survey researchers aren’t doing their jobs very well, or the other possibility is that the discourse on social media is being amplified.” Broniatowski and his team examined tweets from July 2014 through September 2017, and discovered that bots, content polluters, and Russian trolls were tweeting about vaccination with far greater frequency than the average Twitter account-holder.

Broniatowski continued, “So there is a large number of accounts out there that are not representative of real people … Bots and trolls mean that a small number of people can operate a large number of accounts and make it look like fringe opinions are actually mainstream.”

Hotez and Broniatowski believe the primary goal of the Russian trolls is simply to manufacture discord. Broniatowski concluded, “We have solid research that when you expose people to the vaccine debate, even though they may not necessarily agree, it does promote uncertainty and less trust in healthcare providers.” He added that when people started hearing the false information, they “say they intend to get vaccinated, but they may delay, and once you have delays, it’s in that period that the population is still susceptible to disease, and that could lead to epidemics. And those epidemics don’t necessarily respect national boundaries.”