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Russian twitter accounts used both Pro and Anti-vaccine messaging during the 2016 election.

A new study published this month in the American Journal of Public Health has revealed that twitter accounts operated by the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) consistently targeted users with both pro and anti-vaccine messages between 2015 and 2017. According to researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and SUNY Buffalo, the intent was twofold: sow discord in the USA by amplifying inflammatory news, and create believable posting histories for the fake twitter accounts. To study the effect of these fake accounts, 2.8 million tweets by 2,689 separate accounts were analyzed using network analysis and grouped according to behavioral patterns such as language and common themes. Due to the size and density of the data in use, machine learning was utilized to identify what topics a specific tweet contained. By identifying the most common topics discussed by a particular account, it could be grouped with other accounts that employed the same strategies. Using this method, nine different thematic communities were identified:

1. Hard news
2. Anti-Trump,
3. Pro-Trump,
4. Youth talk and celebrities,
5. African Americans and Black Lives Matter
6. Mixed international topics
7. Ukraine,
8. Soft news
9. Retweets of various topics and hashtag games

These groups were organized into a network, with nodes representing twitter accounts (and size of nodes indicating account’s reach in terms of retweets) and edges representing topical similarity between accounts.

In part B of the above graph, only the red colored nodes are accounts which discussed vaccines. The Pro-trump group and the “soft news” group had the highest amount of vaccine related discourse, while Anti-trump accounts mentioned vaccines very little and Ukraine oriented accounts did not mention the subject at all. Furthermore, pro-trump accounts generally shared anti-vaccine views while other groups were neutral or pro-vaccine. Researchers believe that this strategy of duel messaging was an attempt to build credible and realistic personas for later employment. However the amplification of anti-vaccine discussion by these accounts was and is incredibly damaging to public health in America, and has likely exacerbated the coronavirus situation. Vaccine messaging was also tentatively correlated with real-world events related to vaccines, such as a vote on mandatory school vaccinations in california. The health implications of an organized effort to target specific communities with anti-vaccine messaging are striking, and may represent an entire new dimension of cyber-warfare and propaganda. Increasing polarization has already been a worrying trend throughout the United States, and public trust in a non-partisan medical establishment has been a cornerstone of public health initiatives for decades. The effects of efforts by state-backed actors like the IRA has already been considerable and in the future may become even more damaging.



Polarizing Tweets by Russian Trolls on Vaccination Targeted Groups in 2016


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