Bots and trolls are fueling the antivaxx discussion, a new study has revealed. The Russian-based fake accounts are spreading discord and disinformation on Twitter.

Antivaxx bots.

If you’ve followed the debate on vaccination on social media, you’ve probably seen just how polarizing it is — and how heated the discussions can get. But what if I told you that it might not be real people involved in many of those discussions, but fake accounts meant to spread doubt?

Scientists at George Washington University were trying to find ways to improve social media communications for public health workers when they found something rather strange: some accounts seemed rather unnatural. When they looked deeper, they found trolls and bots skewing online debate and upending consensus about vaccine safety — the same Russian bots that that interfered in the most recent US election.

The bots played both sides, tweeting pro and anti-vaccines in a highly charged political context, using content that references God, race, and even animal welfare — all polarizing issues.

“Did you know there was secret government database of #Vaccine-damaged child? #VaccinateUS,” read one Russian troll tweet. Another said: “#VaccinateUS You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles, and I’m for #vaccination!”

While for some savvy users this may raise a few flags, most people on social media will simply see it as someone with strong opinions. Also, these aren’t isolated cases — researchers analyzed 1.7 million tweets collected between July 2014 and September 2017, comparing how often the fake accounts tweeted about vaccines, compared to real people. They found that trolls tweeted about vaccines about 22 times more often than regular users, giving an indication of their agenda.

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Furthermore, there was different behavior between troll and bot accounts.

“Whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated antivaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord. Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination,” the researchers write.

Researchers aren’t sure what the best approach is when it comes to internet bots, but the one thing you shouldn’t do is engage in the debate.

“Directly confronting vaccine skeptics enables bots to legitimize the vaccine debate. More research is needed to determine how best to combat bot-driven content.”

Naturally, this is concerning — particularly considering the current measles outbreak, which is largely fueled by antivaxx fears — but there is some good news. The good news, researchers say, is that most people have not fallen into the trap set by the bots and trolls. But, to an extent, the fake accounts are already winning: it’s not just that vaccinations have saved millions of lives, and continue to do so every year — but anti-vaxxing is essentially based on a single, fraudulent and long-discredited study, yet it’s a movement that continues to pick up steam, putting lives at risk. This year alone, measles has claimed 37 lives in Europe, which would just not happen if people would simply get vaccines.

The study was published in AJPH.

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