September 5, 2018  |  Updated September 13, 2018

#PackOfLies: Twitter as a biological weapon

By Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis

A research paper was published on the 23rd of August in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), showing that Russian bots and Twitter troll accounts linked to the notorious Internet Research Agency tried to spin the issue of an alleged vaccine threat in the USA and spread related conspiracy theories in the years 2014-2017. The paper is an analysis of more than two hundred thousand Twitter posts from accounts likely controlled by Russia that have since been deleted by Twitter. Among the tweets scrutinized in this research, messages concerning vaccines (both positive and negative) were more frequent than average. Moreover, the posts also tried to link vaccines with race and social inequality, even though vaccines are not usually linked in such ways in American vaccine discourse. For example, one message stated that “Apparently only the elite get ‘clean’ #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?! #VaccinateUS”.

It is worth noticing that Twitter accounts linked with the Russian government conveyed not only negative messages about vaccines: of the 253 messages containing #VaccinateUS in the database of the aforementioned paper 43% were positive, 38% were negative, and 19% were neutral. According to the AJPH paper, these messages sent by trolls and bots were aimed at “legitimizing” the whole vaccine debate and to radicalize both sides as much as possible, increasing social tensions in the country. In addition, such operations also undermine scientific authority, which makes it easier for trolls to spread conspiracy theories, since an overall atmosphere of relativism and cynicism is ideal for spreading them. By creating an impression that there is no consensus regarding vaccination or that the existing consensus is unsound, Russian-controlled Twitter accounts sought to involve people in this controversy and increase the number of anti-vaxers, thus causing palpable danger to public health. According to an investigation published in 2018, twelve American states are at risk to suffer epidemics of diseases which can be prevented by vaccines. More and more parents refuse to vaccinate their children, which increases the risk of epidemics.

This is not the only Russian troll and bot campaign directed at inciting and radicalizing of the American society. It has been reported that fake pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts were inciting the conflict between movements like Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, and also were spreading anti-immigrant and anti-refugee messages. According to the Russian troll analyst Patrick Warren from the Clemson University, “[the goal] is basically to divide both sides against the middle. They’re going to grab onto all of those social issues. So for example: black lives matter, all lives matter; immigrants are destroying America, immigrants are great for America”. Warren suggests that the rationale behind stoking polarization in American society is that “they want us focused on our own problems so that we don’t focus on them. If most of our energies are focused internally with divisions inside of the United States — or divisions between the United States and, say, Europe — that leaves a window open for Russia to expand its sphere of influence.”

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