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.