Enlarge /. Did Russian trolls drive past with vaccines?
At this point, it is old news that Russia intervenes in US society in part through the use of troll farms organized by its Internet Research Agency. While the best-known farm activity supported Donald Trump during the 2016 elections, the trolls were active both before and after, mainly to strengthen existing divisions in US society.
One area they have become used to is vaccination, which has been the subject of much public controversy recently. Although it was clear that Russian trolls were talking about vaccines on social media, it was not clear what they wanted to achieve. A new study suggests that their goals are twofold and there is a risk of politicizing an issue that was largely devoid of partisan politics.
The results provide a preview of where we could go with coronavirus misinformation and why the situation could worsen once a vaccine is available.
An apolitical controversy
Vaccines are an unusual topic for the US public. As the stories linked above show, vaccine safety has become a major controversy, and there are regular legislative measures that highlight this controversy. However, the problem has managed to avoid association with a particular ideology or policy. The vast majority of the U.S. public accepts the medical community's conclusions that vaccines are generally safe, effective, and an important component of disease control.
The rare individuals who disagree with this conclusion are usually extreme. On the left, some people mistrust any efforts involving companies like pharmaceutical companies, while the opposition focuses on the role of the government in vaccination programs.
Even so, the public controversy has made vaccine safety an obvious target for the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) to fuel divisions within the US public. Indeed, social media posts on vaccine safety from IRA accounts appeared in 2015. However, it was not clear whether the posts were part of a strategic effort or just an accidental byproduct of the trolls' attempts to create the illusion that their accounts belonged to real people. A team of three researchers (Dror Walter, Yotam Ophir and Kathleen Hall Jamieson) therefore decided to investigate the activities of the IRA in more detail.
To this end, the researchers used a large collection of accounts that Twitter had identified and closed as operated by the IRA. Almost 3 million of the tweets from these accounts were kept over a three-year period, which enables a detailed analysis of the behavior of the bots.
Which bots mention vaccines?
While the bots were involved in the vaccine controversy, this was a relatively small part of their content, accounting for just under 2,000 tweets, or less than 0.1 percent of the total. But vaccine tweets weren't evenly spread across the accounts. To learn more, the researchers used a machine learning tool to categorize the accounts based on their word usage and the topics they discussed.
The algorithm found that there were nine clusters of accounts, some of which never mentioned vaccines. For example, some of the bot accounts were involved in attempts to manipulate the popularity of hashtags and did not discuss vaccines. Likewise, it was not surprising that a number of reports against Ukraine that focused on support for Russia's annexation of Crimea had no vaccine content.
But a number of other categories of accounts have written vaccine-related posts. However, some of them were not particularly informative. Three types of reports focused on news and events that occasionally mentioned vaccination stories, but the content was rare and either neutral or containing a balanced mix of pro-vaccines and anti-vaccines.
An unexpected group that mentioned vaccines was a series of reports pretending to be African American. Vaccines were a small part of their posts (0.03 percent), but over 10 percent of the accounts in this group mentioned them at least once. The contributions were roughly evenly mixed between pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine statements, with the anti-vaccine statements largely focusing on an anti-corporate message.
Two other groups dealing with vaccine news were collections of pro-trump and anti-trump accounts. The anti-Trump / Liberal group had a relatively high posting rate (0.5 percent), which was most for the vaccine, with 38 percent of the mail promoting it and another 52 percent neutral. In contrast, the Pro Trump group had a much lower rate of tweets about vaccines (0.04 percent), but 17 percent of the accounts in this group mentioned the topic at least once. Unfortunately, more than half of her tweets were against vaccinations.
Accidental or deliberate?
Do Russian trolls see vaccines as a possible political wedge problem? It's a little hard to tell. Many of the accounts analyzed by the authors tried to maintain a diverse mix of topics in their posts, partly to avoid the automated systems that Twitter uses to identify bot accounts. At least part of it might just have been an attempt to make an account look like it belonged to an actual person with different interests. However, this doesn't necessarily explain why there is a difference, how the two types of accounts dealt with vaccines, or why the trolls decided that anti-pharmaceutical agitation was compatible with African-American behavior.
The researchers note that there is evidence that vaccine safety is politically polarized. And it is in line with some reactions to the coronavirus outbreak that target medical experts from pro-Trump groups.
The real concern here, however, is that the trolls' activities will pick up on a marginal controversy and help transform them into one that is important to the partisan's identity. Even if their initial messaging was random, their effective counterfeiting of identities can cause people with similar identities to adopt the same stance, which leads to reinforcement.
This is now dangerous during a public health emergency. But it can have lasting consequences. To achieve coronavirus herd immunity without far-reaching death and disorders, a large-scale vaccine must first be used as soon as it becomes available. And vaccines will remain central to public health long after this pandemic ends.
However, it is also optimistic that the problems that have already been caused by the pandemic may lead to widespread acceptance of the vaccine as soon as it is available and may help to keep vaccine attitudes marginalized.
American Journal of Public Health, 2020. DOI: 10.2105 / AJPH.2019.305564 (About DOIs).