LivingRussian trolls influence Twitter vaccine debates

Russian trolls influence Twitter vaccine debates

Trolls are mythological creatures from ancient Scandinavian mythologies . They are magical beings related to the Nordic ice giants (jotun) and very similar to the goblins or goblins of the Anglo-Saxon and Central European tradition. It is said that, although they are often described as cruel beings and enemies of men, they could be very generous and share the great treasures they kept. In today’s Internet landscape, a troll is a person who participates in social networks, chats or forums with the sole objective of creating controversy and discussions . One of the most notorious cases in which this practice has been carried out was during the 2016 US elections , when the so-called Russian ‘troll farms’ tried to change public opinion in favor of the Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Now, a new study led by George Washington University notes that social media bots and Russian trolls have been engaged in sparking discussions and spreading false information about vaccines on Twitter . The study, published by the American Journal of Public Health , states that these bots and trolls used techniques similar to those of the 2016 election campaign and intervened with their accounts in debates about the benefits or harms of vaccines months before the start of the campaign. election season. The research, in addition to the Washington team, involved members of the University of Maryland and John Hopkins University .

Don’t feed the trolls

Researchers analyzed thousands of tweets posted between July 2014 and September 2017 , and found numerous accounts that have been linked to the same Russian trolls that interfered in the presidential elections. Numerous commercial and malware-related bots were also identified that were tweeting about vaccines and spreading biased information about their health effects. According to David Broniatowski, Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at George Washington University , “The vast majority of Americans believe that vaccines are safe and effective,” but looking on Twitter gives the impression that there is much debate.

“It turns out that many anti-vaccine tweets come from accounts whose provenance is unclear . They could be bots, human users or ‘cyborgs’, real accounts that are hacked by bots. Although it is impossible to know how many tweets come from trolls or bots with certainty, our research indicates that a significant percentage of online discussions about vaccines may have been generated by malicious agents with hidden agendas and purposes , ”says Broniatowski. The results obtained reveal that content polluters, bots that distribute malware, unsolicited commercial advertising and disruptive materials, share 75% more anti-vaccine content than most Twitter users.

“Content polluters use anti-vaccine messages as bait for their followers to enter links and ads redirected to malicious websites. It’s ironic, but content that promotes exposure to biological viruses also promotes exposure to computer viruses , ”says Sandra Crouse Quinn , a researcher at the University of Maryland.

While these techniques are very common in almost any controversial topic that generates discussion on the networks, Russian trolls and certain more sophisticated bots use somewhat different tactics: they post both for and against vaccines . The team led by Dr. Broniatowski revealed that more than 250 tweets about vaccines were posted by accounts related to the Internet Research Agency , a Russian government-backed company indicted by a United States Grand Jury for attempting to interfere in the 2016 elections. Vaccine tweets were found to use controversial and polarizing language that was linked to controversial issues in American society, such as racial differences or economic problems.

These trolls, as pointed out in their study, use vaccination as a “wedge” to promote discord in American society and extend the conflict to other issues . In addition, by posting both for and against, they seriously harm public confidence in vaccines and increase the risk of exposure to infectious diseases.

Reference: David A. Broniatowski, Amelia M. Jamison, Sandra C. Quinn & team. ‘Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls amplify the vaccine debate’. American Journal of Public Health (2018). DOI: 10.2105 / AJPH.2018.304567

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