Russia's online interference went beyond the 2016 US presidential election and in public health, increasing online debates on vaccines, according to a new study.
The recent research project was intended to study how social media and research data can be used to better understand the decision-making process of people around vaccines. Eventually it exposed a number of unexpected protagonists in the vaccination debate: Russian trolls.
The study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that what appeared to be Twitter accounts managed by automated bots and Russian trolls presented itself as legitimate users involved in online vaccine debates. The bots and trolls spread both pro- and anti-vaccine messages between 2014 and 2017.
The researchers began studying Russian troll records as part of their study after NBC News published this year's database with more than 200,000 tweets linked to Russian-linked accounts. They noticed vaccine-related tweets among the Russian troll accounts, and some tweets even used the hashtag #VaccinateUS.
These well-known Russian Troll accounts were connected to the Internet Research Agency, a company supported by the Russian government specializing in online influence operations.
"We started looking at those tweets, and immediately we said:" This is a little weird ", said David Broniatowski, an assistant professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University, who lead author of the study.
"One of the things about them that was odd was that they tried to – or they seemed to try – relate vaccines to problems in American discourse, such as racial inequalities or class inequities that are not traditionally associated with vaccination," Broniatowski said.
For example, "one of the tweets we saw said something like" Only the elite get clean vaccines ", which in itself seemed a strange one," he said. "Finally, anti-vaccine messages tend to characterize vaccines as risky for all people, regardless of class or socio-economic status, the researchers wrote in the study.
The consensus among doctors is that vaccines are safe, effective and important for public health because they help to reduce the spread of preventable diseases and diseases. A Pew Research Center study that was found last year and that the vast majority of Americans support vaccine requirements.
Since the start of the review, most tweets have been removed as part of Twitter's attempts to suspend Russian troll accounts, but Broniatowski said he and his colleagues had several stored in their own archives .
The researchers were amazed when they discovered that Russian troll brothers twittered about vaccines, but it was also baffling why they would blow up the vaccine debate.
Why trolling tweet about vaccines
For the study, the researchers collected and analyzed nearly 1.8 million tweets from July 2014 to September 2017.
When investigating vaccine-related tweets, the researchers discovered many bone bills, including content polluters & # 39; accounts that spread malware or unsolicited commercial content. The researchers also discovered a wide range of hidden online agendas.
As regards the Russian troll reports, the researchers found 253 tweets with the hashtag #VaccinateUS in their sample. Of those tweets with the hashtag, 43% were pro-vaccines, 38% were anti-vaccine and the remaining 19% were neutral.
By placing a variety of anti -, pro and neutral tweets and directly confronting vaccine – skeptics, trolls and bots wrote the vaccine debate "legitimize", the researchers wrote in the study.
"This is in line with a strategy to promote disagreement over a range of controversial issues – a familiar tactic used by Russian troll accounts, which can undermine public health: normalizing these debates could lead to public doubts long standing scientific consensus on the effectiveness of vaccines, "they wrote.
Generally speaking, the researchers found that Russian trolls, advanced bots and content polluters & # 39; tweeted about vaccination at significantly higher rates compared with average users.
The study remains limited because it is difficult to determine with 100% accuracy who is behind a Twitter account, and "the Internet Research Agency is certainly not the only series of trolls out there, "Broniatowski said.
Moreover, it is even more difficult to determine the true meaning of an account. But the researchers and other experts have some ideas about why Russia would want to feed America's vaccination debate.
It may be a strategy to promote political discord, Broniatowski said, adding: "We can not say that with 100% certainty, because we are not in their heads."
"The Internet Research Agency is known for showing certain behaviors, everyone is familiar with the election, and they also tend to engage in other issues that promote discord in American society," said Broniatowski.
So, since the agency was already engaged in hot-button debates to promote disagreement, the new study suggests that the intention could be the same when it comes to fueling vaccine debates.
Historically, the Russian government has not responded to CNN requests for comments regarding accusations of using social media to influence public opinion in the United States.
Between 2014 and 2017, the Trolls of the Internet Research Agency conducted many experiments with social media to bring about divisions between Americans, said Patrick Warren, an associate professor of economics at Clemson University. Warren was not involved in the investigation, but has done extensive research into Russian trolls.
The short use of the hashtag #VaccinateUS under Trol accounts could have been an experiment, he said.
"Apparently they were trying to get this hashtag to get people to fight about vaccines, and it was never picked up," said Warren, who shares with his colleagues a database of more than 3 million tweets from Internet Research Agency-linked social media accounts.
"I would call that an experiment they gave up," he said about the hashtag.
Warren added that he was not surprised about Russian trolls who published vaccine related tweets.
"I do not know if it seems odd once you understand what their goal is, which is actually to divide both sides against the middle, they tackle all those social problems, so for example: black lives are important, all lives are important, immigrants destroy America, immigrants are great for America, "said Warren.
"They are actually the hot-button political issues of the day, and they are happy to grab what catches the eye," he said. "I think they want us to be focused on our own problems so that we do not focus on them.
"If most of our energies are internally focused on departments within the United States – or divisions between the United States and, say, Europe – leaving a window open for Russia to expand its sphere of influence."
So it seems that such an attempt to divide misinformation – also in the form of reports about public health – is nothing new.
In the 1980s there was a Soviet campaign to spread false reports about the AIDS epidemic in the US. The campaign began by placing an anonymous letter in an obscure newspaper in India, the Patriot, with the headline: "AIDS can invade India: Mystery disease caused by American experiments", according to a 2009 article in Studies in Intelligence, a journal published by the Center for the Study of Intelligence of the CIA.
Finally, "[w]At the end of the Cold War, the former Soviet and East German intelligence officers confirmed their sponsorship of the disinformation campaign against AIDS, "the article said.
Messages & # 39; that are not scientifically justified & # 39;
Russian trolls could have strengthened online vaccine debates in other countries, but more research is needed to determine this, said Renee DiResta, who is conducting online research on disinformation as head of the policy for Data For Democracy, a volunteer group of scientists and technologists, and who was not involved in the new study.
DiResta pointed out how the five-star movement of Italy and its coalition partner, the far-right party of the League, both voiced opposition to compulsory vaccinations. She has also seen some Twitter accounts linked to Russian trolls tweeting in Italian, but she does not speak the language to translate what those tweets say.
"We know that in Italy the Five Star movement was running on an anti-vaccine platform, I think it's worth looking at the social media conversation in Italy to see if non-authentic accounts use that division or are involved at that debate, "said DiResta.
In the meantime, however, she said that the new study on Russian trolls involved in online vaccination debate in the US is an example of the growing mistrust in scientific and public health initiatives, such as those underlying vaccinations.
"Both real people and trolls use that distrust to push conspiracy theories to vulnerable target groups," DiResta said.
"This does not just happen on Twitter, it happens on Facebook, and this happens on YouTube, where searching for information about vaccines on social media returns a large part of the anti-vaccine propaganda," she said. "The social platforms have a responsibility to investigate how this content spreads and what impact these stories have on a targeted audience."
The feeling of anti-vaccines has taken root in some European countries. Cases of measles have reached record highs this year in Europe, with more cases registered in the first six months of 2018 than any other 12-month period this decade, the World Health Organization reported this week. In general, it remains unclear what impact online vaccine debates on such a sentiment – or not at all.
More research is needed to determine how these actions by Twitter bots and trolls can affect public health, said Jon-Patrick Allem, a researcher at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study. but has separately conducted research into social bots and trends.
"There are reports that are not scientifically justified," Allem said.
"This has the potential to drown out scientifically sound messages from healthcare professionals, and from the community of public health in general, about the best way to make a health-related decision," he said. "When people look at these messages, does it matter to them? Does it lead to an attitude change? Then and eventually, does it lead to behavioral change? Is someone who sees a discussion on Twitter about the pros and cons of vaccination? To have his child vaccinated These are the next set of questions that need to be answered. "