That Anti-Vaccination Message May Be From A Russian Bot Or Troll


Twitter has said it found well over a thousand accounts linked to the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency accused of trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Photo by Richard James Mendoza/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Don’t ever say that no one cares about your health. Apparently Russian bots and trolls do care a lot.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that Russian bots and trolls seem to be quite active in sending both anti-vaccination and pro-vaccination messages through Twitter. A team researchers from George Washington University (David A. Broniatowski PhD, Amelia M. Jamison MAA, MPH, SiHua Qi SM, and Lulwah AlKulaib SM), the University of Maryland (Sandra C. Quinn PhD), and Johns Hopkins University (Tao Chen PhD, Adrian Benton MS, , and Mark Dredze PhD) collected tweets from July 2014 through September 2017 and reviewed over 250 vaccination-related tweets sent by accounts connected to the Internet Research Agency. The Internet research Agency ain’t just about research because it is backed by the Russian government and been indicted by a U.S. grand jury for attempting to meddle with the 2016 U.S. elections. My fellow Forbes contributor Arlene Weintraub covered this study nicely so you can read her article for more details.

So why would Russian bots and trolls send both anti-vaccination and pro-vaccination messages? Because they are indecisive, wishy-washy, or wondering to bot or not to bot? Nah, there’s a good chance that they realize that we are stupid. Routine childhood vaccination was a settled issue two decades ago. Vaccines have been among the greatest of public health triumphs. Without vaccines, many people would not be surviving long enough to get on Twitter or Facebook. Vaccines helped effectively eliminate measles from the U.S. back in 2000.

But now there is a “vaccination debate” when there shouldn’t even be a debate. The “vaccination debate” would be like a “toilet debate”: should you poop in the toilet or on your roommate’s pillow? Or a “clothes debate”: should you wear clothes to work or not? Until someone comes up with a clear, scientifically-supported alternative to vaccines to prevent and control diseases such as measles, mumps, pertussis, hepatitis, etc., arguing against vaccinating kids is plain irresponsible. Sure, everyone should keep tabs on safety. Expecting vaccines to be 100% safe is unrealistic. Heck, there are more ways and times  a toilet can hurt you than a vaccine. But opting out of vaccinations has helped disease such as measles return to the U.S.

Further stoking what shouldn’t be a debate creates further uncertainty and chaos, as well as suspicion of everything, including well-established scientific principles . As one of the study authors Dr. Quinn, who is Professor and Chair of Family Science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, warned:

This study is really a call to action for multiple groups: for the social media platforms themselves, Twitter and Facebook, to determine how they can manage this onslaught of content that is meant to divide us, not just on vaccination but as a society; for public health agencies, to explore both innovative and traditional avenues to communicate about the value and critical importance of vaccines; to health care providers, who have the opportunity to bypass social media to be a powerful influence on vaccine behavior; and finally, those agencies who fund research.

This study shows that a lot of other people may care about your health, but not necessarily in a good way. Health is the most important thing, because without it you would be dead and not be able to do anything such as go to parties, wear wool knit sweaters, and watch YouTube videos. Thus, be very, very careful when getting a health message. There may be ulterior motives behind the message. Make sure you check the following:

  • Are they trying to sell you something like a “health”-related product or service? Is an anti-vaccination campaign trying to push you away from known medical practices and towards alternatives that they happen to be selling? For example, twisting your body in different ways will not prevent you from catching an infectious disease and does not replace vaccination.
  • Do they have an axe to grind? Not a real axe, because that would be scary. But some type of resentment towards the health professions or scientists and are using an anti-vaccination stance as an outlet?
  • Are they just trying to get attention? Believe it or not, people sometimes just do things or take contrary opinions just to get noticed.
  • Are they bored? You know what they say about idle minds and idle hands.
  • Are they trying to create chaos or distraction? Chaos and uncertainty can create distractions, making it easier for others to take over.

A BMJ publication indicated that Dr. Andrew Wakefield, pictured here, “had extensive financial ties to lawyers and families who were pursuing the manufacturers of the vaccine in the courts and that most of his research participants were litigants.”  This raised questions of The Lancet paper that he published that supposedly linked the MMR vaccine to a risk of autism. The Lancet “later repudiated the paper.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogas, File)

The first part of the study’s title, “Weaponized Health Communication,” offers an important warning. Health communications can serve as very powerful weapons in many ways. Like any weapon, you have to learn how health communications can and shouldn’t be used, what precautions to employ, and how to recognize when certain health communications become a threat. Many schools, colleges, universities, and work settings don’t routinely teach health communications and how to digest messages and information, when they probably should. As Quinn emphasized, “We will continue to need interdisciplinary teams to understand how social media affects attitudes and behaviors. I believe that literally, both the health of our democracy and our ability to prevent disease and death depend on it.” Fortunately, there are people who do care about your health and not in the way that Russian bots and trolls and others with ulterior motives do.

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