Russian trolls, bots influencing discord in immunization debate, study finds

FILE - This Feb. 6, 2015, file photo, shows a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine on a countertop at a pediatrics clinic in Greenbrae, Calif. A measles outbreak near Portland has sickened dozens of people in Oregon and Washington, with several more cases suspected, and public health officials scrambling to contain the virus say low vaccination rates are making the situation worse. Clark County Public Health said Sunday, Jan. 28, 2019, that the majority of the cases involve children younger than 10. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

A study finds that the same Russian troll accounts that attempted to influence the U.S. election are also tweeting about vaccines.

The study published by the American Public Health Association found that automated bot accounts, and trolls - who are human but have their own hidden agenda - are pushing false information about vaccines on social sites like Twitter.

The researchers studied tweets from 2014-2018. The study revealed a significant amount of the debates online were generated by these fake accounts.

David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University is one of the authors of the study. He says the bots and trolls are about 22 times more likely to tweet about vaccinations on both sides -- both pro and anti-vaccines.

The researchers found the fake accounts originated in Russia with a goal of creating distrust and discord with the vaccination debate.

In reality, they're making people hesitate to get their shots.

"That really vastly increases the likelihood of an outbreak. Uh, and, and in part that's because of the way epidemics work," said Broniatowski.

Broniatowski says these bots and trolls started using #VaccinateUS on Twitter. He adds, they may appear to be posting about health, but they have their own hidden agendas.

"They may simply be using it as a means to an end either to get followers or to get clicks or to get attention or the stir up discord," said Broniatowski. "This is not really about Russia versus the U.S.; this is about, this is about the present, preventing an epidemic that could really cause a lot of, a lot of illness really around the world."

The study also found a majority of Americans who thought vaccines were safe and effective turned to Twitter and thought differently.

Karen Dohman of Vancouver says all her children and grandchildren are vaccinated. She urges people to look past social media to get facts, especially regarding public health.

"I'm not surprised by anything on those sites," she said. "I think they take everything for hook, line, and sinker when they shouldn't."

Kathy Kenworthy of a Vancouver doesn't think the debate is black and white. She says she's not surprised, and says the fake accounts are turning Americans against one another.

"I'm confused, I don't know what's right," said Kenworthy. "We need to not fight, we need to focus on the kids, on what's important."

Broniatowski says it's hard to distinguish between real people or trolls and bots. Generally, he says they aren't usually verified accounts, but can trick celebrity or verified accounts to retweet them. He also says trolls have a history of posting malicious links and sketchy websites, and bots usually just retweet information.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off

Trending