A study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, has revealed that the Russian propaganda machine was not only responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, it was also behind the vaccine-related tweets that fuelled a raging vaccine debate on social media at the time, creating doubts about the efficacy of vaccines in people’s minds.
The main purpose of the researchers at the George Washington University, in Wash DC, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, and the University of Maryland, in College Park, MD, was to study the impact of social media on people’s thought processes when making vaccine-related decisions.
However, what they did find in their scrutiny of social media and survey data was that Twitter accounts run by Russian trolls, programmed bots, and, what the study authors call “content polluters,” masqueraded as genuine accounts on Twitter to influence public opinion on vaccination.
They systematically disseminated both pro- and anti-vaccine tweets, maliciously intended to cause discord and debates, their efforts not really going in vain as they did manage to “[erode] public consensus on vaccination.”
While content polluters (accounts that spread malware and unsolicited commercial content) disseminated 75 percent more anti-vaccine messages than the average Twitter user, Russian trolls were fanning the fire with supportive as well ant-vaccine tweets.
Meanwhile, unidentifiable accounts continued their polarization campaign, promoting anti-vaccine sentiments among users.
“The vast majority of Americans believe vaccines are safe and effective, but looking at Twitter gives the impression that there is a lot of debate,” said David Broniatowski – an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University and the lead author of the study.
“It turns out that many anti-vaccine tweets come from accounts whose provenance is unclear. These might be bots, human users or ‘cyborgs’—hacked accounts that are sometimes taken over by bots. Although it’s impossible to know exactly how many tweets were generated by bots and trolls, our findings suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas,” he added.
What became immediately apparent to the researchers was that the tweets seemed to be an attempt to “relate vaccines to issues in American discourse, like racial disparities or class disparities that are not traditionally associated with vaccination” – something which the researchers found “kind of weird,” says Broniatowski.
To emphasize his point, Broniatowski cited a particularly “weird” tweet, which, according to him said “something like ‘Only the elite get clean vaccines,’ which on its own seemed strange.”
And, weird it does sound, because anti-vaccine tweets should ideally portray vaccines as risky for everyone alike, rather than targeting a specific socioeconomic class, which the tweet seemed to be doing.
“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” says Mark Dredze, one of the study co-authors from the Department of Computer Science, Whiting School of Engineering, John Hopkins University.
The study comes at a time when Europe is faced with one of the largest measles outbreak in decades, with 41,000 cases reported across the continent in only the first half of 2018.
24,000 cases of measles with 1,500 serious complications and 10 related deaths were reported in France between 2008 and 2016 – easy availability of the vaccine notwithstanding.
Declining vaccination rates fuelled by anti-vaccine movements is one of the major reasons for the loss of faith in vaccination among people, resulting in low immunity against communicable diseases.
To give you an idea of the kind of distrust of vaccines that exist among the French people, a survey involving 65,819 individuals across 67 countries revealed that 41% of the French people surveyed did not agree that “vaccines are safe,” when the global average is only 13 percent.
We are astonished to see that 41 percent of the French say they are wary of vaccinations,” said Dr. François Chast – Head of Pharmacology at Paris Hospital.
“It is urgent to fight the speeches of anti-science and anti-vaccination lobbies that play on fear, they show nothing and rely on a few very rare side effects to discredit vaccines that save millions of lives,” he added.
Professor Alain Fischer – president of a body that advises on vaccinations – said that the moment the subject of “vaccination obligation” comes up, it triggers a massive debate.
“Unfortunately there are no other solutions to combat the upsurge in childhood diseases. It is a short-term evil for a long-term good,” Fischer said.
Another major contributor to the apprehensions about vaccine safety has been the fake study by the disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield who has been barred from practicing medicine in the UK.
His study, linking the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to autism and bowel disease, published in the journal “The Lancet,” in 1998, was officially struck off the journal in light of a “fatal conflict of interest.”
Subsequent scientific studies were successful in disproving the mythical theory of Wakefield the quack.
The January and February records of 2017 show that out of the 79 cases of measles reported in France during the period, 50 cases were reported in the north-eastern region of Lorraine only, as confirmed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Italian expert on infectious diseases Alberto Giubilini believes that there is justification in holding the parents liable for not vaccinating their children.
“The benefits of vaccination in terms of protection from infectious disease outweigh the costs and risks of vaccination,” he observed. “For instance, the World Health Organisation estimates that between 2000 and 2015, measles vaccination prevented more than 20 million deaths.”
Broniatowski and his study co-authors are of the opinion that “directly confronting vaccine skeptics enables bots to legitimize the vaccine debate” and that further research is imperative to “determine how best to combat bot-driven content.”