Russian Twitter bots spread false vaccine information - study

Hilversum, The Netherlands - April 03, 2014. Image of a touch screen Android phone with social media apps.

Social media bots and Russian trolls spread false information about vaccines on Twitter during the 2016 presidential election period, according to new research.

The research led by George Washington University (GW) said the twitter accounts entered into vaccine debates months before 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.

A team of researchers, also from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, examined thousands of tweets sent between July 2014 and September 2017.

Several accounts, now known to belong to Russian trolls who interfered in the US election, as well as marketing and malware bots, tweeted about vaccines, skewing online health communications.

Bots distributing malware and unsolicited commercial content shared anti-vaccination messages 75% more than average Twitter users.

The trolls and more sophisticated bot accounts used a different tactic, spreading division by posting equal amounts of pro- and anti- vaccination tweets.

[caption id="attachment_46211" align="alignleft" width="100"]David Broniatowski David Broniatowski[/caption]

A team led by David Broniatowski, an assistant professor in GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science reviewed more than 250 tweets about vaccination sent by accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency.

This Russian government-backed company was recently indicted by a US grand jury because of its attempts to interfere in the 2016 US elections. The researchers found the tweets used polarising language linking vaccination to controversial issues in American society, such as racial and economic disparities.

Researchers said these so-called ‘content polluter’ accounts used anti-vaccine messages as bait to entice their followers to click on advertisements and links to malicious websites

Sandra Crouse Quinn, research team member and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, said: “Ironically, content that promotes exposure to biological viruses may also promote exposure to computer viruses.”

Broniatowski added: “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."

“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.”