Measles outbreak: How Russian bots and trolls are stirring confusion in US vaccine debate

With the US already seeing its second-greatest number of cases in nearly two decades, there is an alarming factor contributing to the surge in the cases — Twitter bots and Russian trolls.


                            Measles outbreak: How Russian bots and trolls are stirring confusion in US vaccine debate

The world is in the middle of a measles crisis, with multiple regions across the globe facing a surge in the number of cases, including the ones where the highly-contagious infection had previously been eliminated, including the United States. The world, so far,  has witnessed a 300 percent increase in the number of measles cases this year when compared to the same period in 2018. 

With the US already seeing its second-greatest number of cases in nearly two decades, there is an alarming factor contributing to the surge  — Twitter bots and Russian trolls. Researchers have concluded that the presence of a Russian disinformation campaign across the world, particularly in America, could be causing Americans to be hesitant about vaccinating their children. 

Pedestrians walk near the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov School in the South Williamsburg neighborhood, April 9, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, which has declared an emergency over measles outbreak. (Getty Images)

 

According to a recent study conducted by a professor at George Washington University, David Broniatowski,  and his co-authors, thousands of Russian accounts online, particularly on Twitter -- generally used to spread disinformation -- have a new agenda of disseminating an anti-vaccine message.

The researchers combed through almost two million tweets recorded between 2014 and 2017 and found out that Russian troll accounts were more likely to tweet about vaccination than general users on Twitter. The study states that they spread misinformation about vaccines in an attempt to increase social discord, exacerbate fear and erode the trust of civilians in public health institutions in the US.

"One strategy used by bots and trolls is to generate several tweets about the same topics, with the intention of flooding the discourse. Thus, to better understand the behavior of each type of account, we examined the total proportion of tweets that were generated by unique users—a possible indicator of bot- or troll-like behavior—to assess whether accounts with higher bot scores exhibited such behavior," the study stated.

Graph showing the likelihood of Russian bots tweeting about vaccine compared with average Twitter users. (Source: AJPH)

 

Federal health officials on Monday said that the number of confirmed cases of measles in America this year jumped by almost 20 percent last week. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recorded 555 cases of the infection so far since the beginning of the year. The numbers sharply increased from the 465 cases confirmed by the CDC on April 4. Reports state that measles cases have been found in 20 states across the US.

One of the prime reasons for measles cases spreading rapidly across the country is vaccine hesitancy, and as per Broniatowski's study, the Russian accounts have been working their way into spreading disinformation about vaccines through social media over the past few years.

The study also states examples of the tweets coming from these accounts with some tweeted: "#vaccines are a parent’s choice. Choice of a color of a little coffin  #VaccinateUS.” While another stated: “Did you know there was a secret government database of #vaccine-damaged children? #VaccinateUS.”

Graph showing the likelihood of Russian bots tweeting about vaccine compared with average Twitter users. (Source: AJPH)

 

“Apparently only the elite get ‘clean’ #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?! #VaccinateUS," another Russian account tweeted.

The research stated that the Russian bots appear to provide an illusion of a grassroots debate by pushing for content both for and against vaccination. One Russian account provided the polar opposite of their anti-vaccination debate by tweeting: "Do you still treat your kids with leaves? No? And why don’t you #vaccinate them? Its medicine! #VaccinateUS.”

The researchers noted that the contemporary messages churned about by Russian trolls contained distinct terms like "freedom" and "constitutional rights," these were often found missing from other anti-vaccination tweets written by civilians. The study concluded that such phrasing and words were used in an attempt to tap into the fears and divisions among American citizens and eventually exploiting them.

In this photo illustration, vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are displayed on a counter at a Walgreens Pharmacy on January 26, 2015 in Mill Valley, California. (Getty Images)

 

The study concluded that: "Whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated antivaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord. Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination."

Russia's goal, it appears, was never to advantage Republicans or Democrats in the political arena, but to spread misinformation among citizens, erode their confidence in the society and the US government and to inflame their distrust of one another.