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Those anti-vaxxers you've been arguing with on Twitter were probably Russian trolls

Researchers also found automated bot accounts peddling anti-vaccine messages to inflame Twitter users.

by David Gilbert
Aug 24 2018, 11:17am

Getty Images

That infuriating anti-vaxxer on Twitter making spurious claims about the dangers of traditional medicine may have been a Kremlin-backed troll.

Fresh research from George Washington University published Thursday found that troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency — the same group that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — contributed “a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines” and referenced the controversy more often than the average Twitter account over a three-year period.

However, the accounts spread both pro- and anti-vaccine screeds, as part of their modus operandi of stoking dissent and discord among internet users.

The research highlighted a number of tweets as typical of the content spread by the troll accounts:

  • "#VaccinateUS You can't fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I'm for #vaccination!"
  • “Apparently only the elite get ‘clean’ #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?! #VaccinateUS.”
  • “Did you know there was secret government database of #Vaccine-damaged child? #VaccinateUS.”

Russian trolls were not the only group using the issue of vaccines to whip up discontent. Researchers also found automated bot accounts peddling anti-vaccine messages to inflame Twitter users with the intent of pushing them to click on malicious links that downloaded malware.

Automated accounts were found to have shared anti-vaccination messages 75 percent more than average Twitter users.

The researchers, who were joined by scientists from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, examined thousands of tweets sent over a three-year period, from July 2014 to September 2017.

READ: Italy's new government is pandering to anti-vaxxers

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” Mark Dredze, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, said. “However, by playing both sides, they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases. Viruses don't respect national boundaries.”

The World Health Organization earlier this week said cases of measles in Europe had hit a record high, with many experts putting the surge in infections down to a drop in the number of people being vaccinated.

Earlier this year research showed the number of U.S. children not being vaccinated for religious or philosophical reasons was one the rise.

Cover image: Trolls used the issue of vaccines to whip up discontent. (Getty Images)