Anti-vaccine debate 'fuelled by Russian Twitter bots and trolls'

Twitter bots and Russian trolls are fueling heated online debates over vaccination as rates of shots fall and cases of once-eradicated diseases like measles rise a new study reveals

Social media bots and Russian trolls spread false information and promoted discord about vaccines on Twitter, according to a study.

It turns out that the accounts on Twitter arguing that vaccines cause autism may not all be operated by idiots - some may also be helmed by paid Russian trolls attempting to subvert democracy. "They're about sowing discord".

They were identified by the researchers through a list released by Twitter to Congress that was further refined by NBC.

For now, he says addressing the problem requires moving beyond automated approaches and helping users respond to bot- and troll-based messages in a way that takes context into account.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and the University of Maryland also took part in the study.

The study found that Russian trolls and Twitter bots post content about vaccinations, both positive and negative, at significantly higher rates than the average user, indicating the aim was not to promote either side of the debate - but t raise the prominence of the debate itself.

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The results of the investigation from researchers at George Washington University, in Washington DC, looking at these anti-vaccine malicious elements were published in the latest issue of the journal American Journal of Public Health.

Apparently not content to merely meddle in the 2016 US election, Russian trolls now stand accused of spreading a type of misinformation that could have literal deadly effects: anti-vaccine propaganda. "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", David Broniatowski, an assistant professor in GW's School of Engineering and Applied Science, said.

They found the tweets used polarising language linking vaccination to controversial issues in American society, such as racial and economic disparities.

'Viruses don't respect national boundaries'.

"I would call that an experiment that they abandoned", he said. Some were insulting, such as "You can't fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and Im for vaccination!".

Researchers at George Washington University led the study, with academics from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University chipping in as well. But they also say that responses might include highlighting that a significant share of anti-vaccine messages are “organised ‘astroturf – not grassroots responses”. "Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination". "Ironically, content that promotes exposure to biological viruses may also promote exposure to computer viruses".

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