Russian intelligence used fake Twitter trolls to stir vaccination debate in 2016

PHILADELPHIA — Russian interference in the 2016 election has been a constant topic of conversation for four years. A report by researchers from multiple universities says politics isn’t the only issue foreign governments may be seeking to influence. The analysis reveals evidence of tweets by Russian troll accounts talking about vaccinations. These tweets, coming during the 2016 election cycle, include both pro- and anti-vaccination messaging targeting social media users with certain political beliefs.

Researchers claim the posts come from a variety of fake persona types and accounts under the control of the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The collaboration by experts from the University of Pennsylvania, Georgia State University, and SUNY Buffalo examined more than 2.8 million tweets from 2,689 accounts run by the IRA from 2015 to 2017. In all, the researchers found nine separate fake personas, including fake Black Lives Matter activists and fake supporters of President Donald Trump. The team also examines the extent to which these personas fed current ideas about vaccination in the United States and how.

Russian trolls spread misinformation about vaccines

The study demonstrates how these fake IRA accounts sow discord among Americans on the issue of vaccines. It also shows how they flesh out the personalities of their fake accounts in a way that enhances their credibility.

Overall, the deliberately polarizing vaccination tweets make up a small percentage of the messaging by Russian trolls over the three years of the study. However, by using pro and anti-vaccination tweets, the trolls could establish partisan identities that appear realistic. By tweeting in this way, they could affect attitudes, magnify healthcare disparities, and promote vaccination hesitancy — a particularly dangerous idea during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Russian trolls worked to polarize Americans on a health topic that is not supposed to be political,” says co-author Yotam Ophir, in a media release. “As our nation deals with the coronavirus pandemic, that type of politicization poisons the well of crisis communications for COVID-19 in ways that create tensions, mistrust and, potentially, a lack of intention to comply with government orders and health directives.”

The research team expands on past studies examining Russian attempts to disrupt the election season and on specific examinations of IRA tweets about vaccinations. Of the 2.8 million tweets by Russian bots during the study’s timeframe, 1,968 are polarizing vaccination tweets.

“We first used unsupervised machine learning to map the various topics IRA accounts were talking about,” lead author Dror Walter of Georgia State University adds. “We used network analysis to group together accounts that tended to discuss the same topics and used the same language. With this method we were able to identify nine different groups of users, which we call ‘thematic personas.’ We then analyzed computationally and manually how each group discussed the issue of vaccines.”

Impersonating Americans on social media

One persona the IRA uses is a “thematic community” that tweets links to hard news updates, with another tweeting links to soft news. There is also a persona that is obviously pro-Trump, and one clearly anti-Trump. Other personas include one that specializes in youth opinion and celebrities and one that imitates African American users in topics like police shootings and language. Others focus on international topics like Ukraine, as well as retweets and “hashtag games.”

The researchers find stark differences in the ways personas exchange discourse about vaccines. The largest differences fall along political lines. The team also says that trolls deliberately cater to audiences of different political ideologies. To do so, they use targeted messages based on their perceived stances on vaccines. Pro-Trump personas and African American personas are much more likely to express anti-vaccine opinions than anti-Trump or liberal personas.

Seventeen percent of the pro-Trump personas mention vaccines at least once. Over half of those tweets are against vaccinations. Only two percent of the liberal, anti-Trump personas mention vaccines. Half of those tweets are neutral on vaccinations, while over a third are pro-vaccine. Another 11 percent of the African American persona mention vaccines.

“Even if small in magnitude, the intentional Russian spread of antivaccine discourse targeted at specific subpopulations that are susceptible to it (i.e., pro-Trump users and African Americans on Twitter) could be the beginning of a new front in the ongoing informational cyberwar,” the study authors conclude.

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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