Russian bots turned to Twitter to divide Americans on vaccines, study finds

In addition to spreading false information and reputedly interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russian bots and trolls also tried to heighten skepticism over vaccines on Twitter, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

A team of researchers compared vaccine-related tweets from bots to those from average users between July 2014 and September 2017. To determine which Twitter accounts were likely bots, the researchers conducted a content analysis based on hashtags commonly tied to Russian trolls and compared proportions of polarized and antivaccine tweets across user types.

Although Russian-linked tweets only represented a small percentage of vaccine-related content on Twitter, the researchers noted Russian accounts showed particular interest in sowing divisions on the topic. Moreover, some of the tweets were sent from the Internet Research Agency, the Russian-backed company indicted by the special counsel for interfering in the election.

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

Public health officials were surprised that Russia sought to disseminate false information about vaccines, according to the Politico Morning eHealth newsletter.

"I was surprised to see that the Russians felt we needed help stoking antivaccine fears," Paul Offit, MD, a vaccine developer and pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told Politico. "I thought we were doing that well enough on our own."

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