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 the researchers which are mainly from the top world universities such as that of: from the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, and from George Washington 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’, this research was first seen in the journal of American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) late last year.
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 told the Guardian who is another author who conducted the study.