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Global Health: Russian Trolls Used Vaccine Debate to Sow Discord, Study Finds

“Don’t get #vaccines. Illuminati are behind it.”

“Do you still treat your kids with leaves? No? And why don’t you #vaccinate them? It’s medicine!”

With messages like those, Russian internet trolls meddling in the 2016 presidential election also lashed out at Americans debating the safety of vaccines, a new study has found.

But instead of picking a side, researchers said, the trolls and bots they programmed hurled insults at both pro- and anti-vaccine advocates. Their only intent, the study concluded, seemed to be to raise the level of hostility.

“You see this pattern,” said David A. Broniatowski, a computer engineer at George Washington University and lead author of the study, which was published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health. “On guns, or race, these accounts take opposite sides in lots of debates. They’re about sowing discord.”

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With colleagues at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Broniatowski looked at 899 vaccine-related tweets sent from mid-2014 to late 2017.

Some came from accounts known to send out spam or link to malware; more came from accounts that Congressional investigators and NBC News have identified as belonging to Russian trolls.

While the spammer and malware accounts mostly disseminated anti-vaccine messages, the Russia-linked ones played both sides.

Most of the anti-vaccine tweets repeated well-known but long-discredited rumors, such as those that vaccines cause autism or contain dangerous amounts of mercury. Others accused pharmaceutical companies of caring only about profits, not children.

Pro-vaccine tweets from the same accounts argued that vaccines saved lives. Some said they should be mandatory. Some were insulting, such as “You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I’m for #vaccination.”

But the Russians sometimes misread their audience, Dr. Broniatowski said, sending tweets that “didn’t quite make sense, given the way Americans usually argue about vaccines.”

Some, for example, suggested that God opposed vaccination. “I don’t believe in #vaccines I believe in God’s will,” one read.

Divine will is very rarely cited in the American debate except when HPV vaccine is discussed, and then not over the notion that God ordains which children fall ill. HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer, which is sexually transmitted, and some Christian conservatives believe it encourages extramarital sex.

Other tweets promoted class hostility, saying the elite get “clean vaccines” while normal people did not.

Yet others appeared designed to appeal to the audience for conspiracy websites like Infowars. One claimed that vaccines were part of the world domination plan of the Illuminati secret sect.

More than 250 tweets had the unusual hashtag #VaccinateUS. Anti-vaccination activists tend to use tags like #Vaxxed, #b1less or #CDCWhistleblower, Dr. Broniatowski said, while pro-vaccine groups use #vaccineswork, for example.

Tweets carrying the hashtag #VaccinateUS, the study said, were “uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency,” a propaganda operation linked to the Kremlin.

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