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Study looks at how Russian troll farms are politicizing vaccines, Ars Technica

Study looks at how Russian troll farms are politicizing vaccines, Ars Technica

      Tracking the trolls –


A possible preview of what’s to come for public health issue number one.




One divisive area they’ve latched on to is vaccination, which has been the subject of (numerous) (public) controversies of late. But, while it was clear Russian trolls were talking about vaccines on social media, it was not clear what they hoped to accomplish. A new study suggests their goals are twofold and create the risk of politicizing an issue that has largely been free of partisan politics.

The results provide a preview of where we might be going with coronavirus misinformation and why things might get worse once a vaccine becomes available.

A non-political controversy

Vaccines are an unusual issue for the US public. As the stories we linked above make clear, vaccine safety has become a major controversy, and there is regular legislative action that pushes that controversy to the forefront. Yet the issue has managed to avoid association with any particular ideology or policy. The vast majority of the US public accepts the medical community’s conclusions that vaccines are generally safe and effective as well as a critical component of disease control.

The rare individuals who reject this conclusion tend to be at the extremes. On the left, some people distrust any effort that involves businesses like the pharmaceutical companies, while on the right, the opposition focuses on the government role in vaccination programs.

Nevertheless, the public controversy makes vaccine safety an obvious target for Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), with its goal of stoking divisions within the US public. And indeed, social media posts about vaccine safety from IRA accounts started appearing as early as . But it was not clear whether the posts were part of a strategic effort or just an incidental byproduct of the trolls’ attempts to create the illusion that their accounts belonged to real humans. So, a team of three researchers (Dror Walter, Yotam Ophir, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson) decided to look more closely at the IRA’s activities.

To do so, the researchers took advantage of a large collection of accounts that Twitter had identified as being run by the IRA and shut down. Nearly 3 million of the tweets from those accounts have been preserved from a three-year period, allowing for a detailed analysis of the bots’ behavior.

What bots mention vaccines?

While the bots were involved in the vaccine controversy, that was a relatively minor part of their content, accounting for just under 2, 01 tweets, or less than 0.1 percent of the total. But vaccine tweets weren’t evenly distributed among the accounts. To find out more, the researchers used a machine-learning tool to categorize the accounts based on their word use and the subjects they discussed.

The algorithm determined there were nine clusters of accounts, several of which never mentioned vaccines. For example, a number of the bot accounts were involved in attempts to manipulate the popularity of hashtags and did not discuss vaccines. Similarly, a set of anti-Ukraine accounts that focused on supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea were, not surprisingly, devoid of vaccine content.

But a number of other categories of accounts did make vaccine-focused posts. Some of those, however, weren’t especially informative. Three types of accounts focused on news and events, which sporadically mentioned vaccine stories, but their content was rare and either neutral or contained a balanced mix of pro- and anti-vaccine items.

One unexpected group that did mention vaccines was a set of accounts that pretended to be African Americans. Vaccines were a small component of their posts (0. (percent), but over percent of the accounts in this group mentioned them at least once. The posts were roughly evenly mixed between pro-and anti-vaccine statements, with the anti-vaccination ones largely focusing on an anti-corporate message.

Two other groups that were involved with vaccine messaging were collections of pro- and anti-Trump accounts. The anti-Trump / liberal group had a rate of posting (0.5 percent) that was relatively high and was the most pro-vaccine, with percent of the post promoting them and another 90 percent being neutral. The pro-Trump group, in contrast had a much lower rate of tweeting about vaccines (0. (percent), but 25 percent of the accounts in this group mentioned the topic at least once. Unfortunately, over half their tweets were anti-vaccination.

Accidental or intentional?

So do Russian trolls view vaccines as a possible political wedge issue? It’s a bit difficult to tell. Many of the accounts analyzed by the authors tried to maintain a diverse mix of topics in their posts, in part to avoid the automated systems Twitter uses to identify bot accounts. As such, at least some of this might have simply been an attempt to try to make an account look like it belonged to an actual human with diverse interests. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why there’s a difference between how the two types of accounts approached vaccines or why the trolls decided anti-pharma agitation was something consistent with African American behavior.

The researchers note that there is Some evidence

that vaccine safety is becoming politically polarized. And it is consistent with some of the response to the coronavirus outbreak, with medical experts

being targeted by pro-Trump groups.

What do you think?

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