Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate

The following is an abstract to an article published yesterday in the American Journal of Public Health.  The lead and corresponding author is David A. Broniatowski PhD. The same was a collaborative effort between multiple computer engineers from The George Washington University and Johns Hopkins.  Many Americans are familiar with the Russian meddling during the 2016 election of Donald Trump not many are aware of their use of social media to destabilize American society, in part by driving a wedge in our autism community.

Objectives. To understand how Twitter bots and trolls (“bots”) promote online health content.

Methods. We compared bots’ to average users’ rates of vaccine-relevant messages, which we collected online from July 2014 through September 2017. We estimated the likelihood that users were bots, comparing proportions of polarized and antivaccine tweets across user types. We conducted a content analysis of a Twitter hashtag associated with Russian troll activity.

Results. Compared with average users, Russian trolls (χ2(1) = 102.0; P < .001), sophisticated bots (χ2(1) = 28.6; P < .001), and “content polluters” (χ2(1) = 7.0; P < .001) tweeted about vaccination at higher rates. Whereas content polluters posted more antivaccine content (χ2(1) = 11.18; P < .001), Russian trolls amplified both sides. Unidentifiable accounts were more polarized (χ2(1) = 12.1; P < .001) and antivaccine (χ2(1) = 35.9; P < .001). Analysis of the Russian troll hashtag showed that its messages were more political and divisive.

Conclusions. 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.

Public Health Implications. Directly confronting vaccine skeptics enables bots to legitimize the vaccine debate. More research is needed to determine how best to combat bot-driven content. (Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print August 23, 2018: e1–e7. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304567)

 

One response to “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate

  1. I’m struggling to see what “content polluters” means and why people would doubt that there is widespread doubt about the safety and efficiency of vaccines and about the competence and integrity of medical researchers.

    Like

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