Fake Russian Twitter accounts politicized discourse about vaccines

March 31, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Activity from phony Twitter accounts established by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) between 2015 and 2017 may have contributed to politicizing Americans' position on the nature and efficacy of vaccines, a health care topic which has not historically fallen along party lines, according to new research published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The findings, based on machine learning analysis of nearly 3 million tweets from fake accounts, expose a general threat made startlingly more relevant in the face of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, according to Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communication in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, who co-authored the study.

"There is a real danger of health topics being politicized and used as propaganda tools. If that happens for topics such as coronavirus, people would be inclined to evaluate the importance and veracity of health messages - from either health experts, politicians, or trusted media outlets -- based on how it reflects their political leanings," says Ophir, an expert in computational modeling, media effects and persuasion.

"If people perceive health topics as being aligned with a political agenda, whether it's left or right, then they will consequently begin to lose trust in health organizations and question their objectivity."

To understand why this might only be the beginning of more intense polarization is to understand that the threat posed by polarizing health care topics may be an unintended side effect of Russian attempts to influence other political discussions, including topics tied closely to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"I don't believe the Russians wanted to sow discord around vaccines specifically, but rather chose to harness social tensions around vaccines in order to make the Republican characters they created appear more Republican and the Democratic characters they created to appear more Democratic. This intensifies a recently emerging divide where one previously did not exist."

The Russians' intentions in this particular case, however, don't matter when considering the implications for public health, according to Ophir. What is pertinent is that the IRA used a public health topic to serve its own strategic and political needs that targeted Republicans and Democrats with different messages. If that proves effective, the Russians will ramp up their misinformation campaign, moving from what might be an unplanned outcome to a more persistent and focused effort.

"In recent years, we see the change already with Republicans starting to lose trust in vaccines while Democrats seem unmoved," Ophir says. "Again, I don't think the Russians care about vaccines, but along the way they created and intensified this emerging divide.

"Now they can target each party with different messages, spreading misinformation unequally, targeting susceptible groups with lower trust in government and science."

Ophir's paper with Dror Walter, an assistant professor of communication at Georgia State University, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, began as a conversation at a 2018 conference, after it was first discovered that Twitter troll accounts were discussing non-political topics such as vaccines.

At around the same time, Jamieson published "Cyber-War," a book about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election that identified thematic personas among Twitter trolls. These personas are designated topical and linguistic roles played by each fake account.

Inspired by Jamieson's work, previous research and Ophir's focus on connecting health misinformation and politics, the team used computational methods to identify nine personas among nearly 2,700 accounts.

The pro-Trump personas were more likely to express anti-vaccine sentiment, while anti-Trump personas expressed support for vaccines. Accounts falling under the persona type mimicking African Americans and Black Lives Matter activists also expressed more anti-vaccine messages.

The researchers used their own method, the Analysis of Topic Model Networks, to identify patterns among the nearly 3 million tweets and network analysis that treats each topic as a node in a semantic network.

This form of unsupervised machine learning finds associations and clusters that are beyond human reach.

"I have reason to strongly believe, though we don't have the data, that Russia and other countries who try to interfere in our political discourse will use coronavirus to spread misinformation and rumors to solidify the relationships they're building with new troll accounts that replace the ones removed by Twitter," says Ophir.

"The virus is not political, but when any health topic becomes a political matter at the expense of fact, the result is to base conclusions and make decisions, such as whether to social distance or not, on party loyalty, not science.

"That's extremely dangerous," Ophir says.
-end-


University at Buffalo

Related Public Health Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health
Indigenous self-determination, leadership and knowledge have helped protect Indigenous communities in Canada during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and these principles should be incorporated into public health in future, argue the authors of a commentary in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) http://www.cmaj.ca/lookup/doi/10.1503/cmaj.200852.

Public health consequences of policing homelessness
In a new study examining homelessness, researchers find that policy such a lifestyle has massive public health implications, making sleeping on the street even MORE unhealthy.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic likely to cause long-term health problems, Yale School of Public Health finds
The coronavirus pandemic's life-altering effects are likely to result in lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people--particularly those from vulnerable populations--a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds.

The Lancet Public Health: US modelling study estimates impact of school closures for COVID-19 on US health-care workforce and associated mortality
US policymakers considering physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult trade-off between closing schools to reduce transmission and new cases, and potential health-care worker absenteeism due to additional childcare needs that could ultimately increase mortality from COVID-19, according to new modelling research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain
The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009-2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.

BU researchers: Pornography is not a 'public health crisis'
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have written an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health special February issue arguing against the claim that pornography is a public health crisis, and explaining why such a claim actually endangers the health of the public.

The Lancet Public Health: Ageism linked to poorer health in older people in England
Ageism may be linked with poorer health in older people in England, according to an observational study of over 7,500 people aged over 50 published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Study: Public transportation use linked to better public health
Promoting robust public transportation systems may come with a bonus for public health -- lower obesity rates.

Read More: Public Health News and Public Health Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.