MEDDLING IN American democracy by outsiders — Russians and perhaps others — has triggered substantial public awareness and debate. But what if the damage was not only to elections? What if the bots, trolls and malicious hackers also undermined public health and well-being?
That is the question raised by an important new study in the American Journal of Public Health reporting on the results of a research team led by David Broniatowsky of George Washington University. The researchers examined 1,793,690 tweets, collected from July 14, 2014, through Sept. 26, 2017, to explore how polarizing anti-vaccine messages were broadcast and amplified by bots and trolls. They found that in some cases, Russian trolls linked to the Internet Research Agency, a group known to have been involved in 2016 election interference, used a Twitter hashtag designed to exploit vaccination as a political wedge issue. They also found that Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots posted content about vaccination “at a significantly higher rate than did nonbots.” Although not conclusive, the evidence suggests that an attempt was made to promote discord.
At a time when diseases such as measles that can be prevented by vaccines are spreading to unvaccinated people around the globe, the consequences of such misinformation are real. Vaccines work by causing the body’s immune system to create antibodies and cells that can recognize a disease pathogen and fight it. In many cases vaccines are highly effective and save lives, but in recent years they have been subject to suspicion and fears, further exacerbated by a fraudulent study, since withdrawn, that linked vaccines to autism. Because vaccines are preventive and must be given before disease strikes, it is essential that people trust vaccines and the people administering them. Public trust is an essential pillar of public health. Break the fragile trust and more people get sick.
The study found that trolls and bots did not always spread a one-sided anti-vaccination message. Rather, the strategy was more ingenious and insidious: They spread information both pro- and anti-vaccine, raising the volume. This strategy subtly normalized a “debate” where there wasn’t one before. The method is stealthy and designed to fuel confusion. The researchers concluded that information about public health has been weaponized in “attempts to spread misinformation and disinformation by foreign powers.” Just as it was in the 2016 election.
The researchers discovered that a large swath of the tweets came from indeterminate sources, yet in this gray zone they found content that was both more polarized and more opposed to vaccination than the average non-bot account. Digital bad actors are probably concealing their true identity and making it hard to tell if they are computer bots or human users. At the very least, when malicious forces attempt to weaken public trust, they must be exposed for who they are and what they represent.