Russian trolls spread pro- and anti-vaccine tweets, study says
Well this is disturbing.
Apparently not content to merely meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, Russian trolls now stand accused of spreading a type of misinformation that could have literal deadly effects: anti-vaccine propaganda.
So finds a new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, which found that Russian trolls pushed vaccine-related misinformation on Twitter in the run up to the 2016 election.
“Content polluters seem to use anti-vaccine messages as bait to entice their followers to click on advertisements and links to malicious websites,” explained Sandra Crouse Quinn, study co-author and University of Maryland professor, in a press release. “Ironically, content that promotes exposure to biological viruses may also promote exposure to computer viruses.”
According to researchers from George Washington University, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University, among the Twitter accounts studied were those “now known to belong to the same Russian trolls who interfered in the U.S. election.”
“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society”
While the specifics of this misinformation may be shocking, the playbook the trolls followed is not. Much like the Internet Research Agency pushed for race-based violence and posted both pro-Trump and pro-Black Lives Matter content, the tweets coming from Russian troll-operated Twitter accounts both cast doubts on the efficacy of vaccines and promoted them.
“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” study co-author Mark Dredze said in a press statement. “However, 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.”
And, according to the study, the trolls’ disinformation “was effective for propagating news articles through social media in the context of the 2015 Disneyland measles outbreak.”
In other words, those posting the anti-vaxx content were able to weaponize an outbreak that resulted in 125 confirmed measles cases for propaganda purposes.
It turns out that the accounts on Twitter arguing that vaccines cause autism may not all be operated by idiots — some may also be helmed by paid Russian trolls attempting to subvert democracy. Which, well, doesn’t make me feel any better.
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