How Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls are Compromising Online Health Content

Mankind’s Most Powerful Invention—the Internet—is a Double Edged Sword

The advent of the Internet has arguably been one of mankind’s most innovative and powerful creations. The ability to share information has truly never been easier, and information is powerful. However, the truth is, misinformation is just as powerful and can systematically cripple the integrity of this great invention of ours. The fact of the matter is that there are constantly forces at play working to deceive and destroy the very virtues that we hold dear: democracy, freedom of speech and the freedom to share and access accurate and truthful information. In the modern day, this phenomenon can be astutely observed in the vaccine debate and the social discourse that pertains to it.

Social Media & The Vaccine Debate: New Study Shows Concerning Findings

When it comes to vaccines, perhaps the one thing all of society can agree on is that it’s an extremely contentious issue. Indeed, when it comes to public health and safety—especially that of children—emotions run high. However, a recent 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed far more insidious forces at play that have been amplifying the debate: Twitter Bots & Russian Trolls [1]. The experiment compared rates of vaccine related messages sent by actual human Internet users versus that of Internet bots. An analysis of a Twitter hashtag associated with Russian troll activity was also conducted. The results are disturbing to say the least and warrant an equally, if not more effective crusade against this type of misinformation and public manipulation.

How The Study Was Conducted

Using a total of 1,793,690 tweets collected from July 14, 2014, through September 26, 2017, researchers “quantified the impact of known and suspected Twitter bots and trolls on amplifying polarizing and anti-vaccine messages” [1]. This analysis was supplemented by a qualitative study of the hashtag “#VaccinateUS”, known to be associated with content aimed at creating discord and using the vaccination issue as a political wedge. It was discovered that bots often spread malware and disseminated anti-vaccine messages while Russian trolls promoted discord and fueled the debate for the sole purpose of amplifying controversy and unrest. Various accounts masquerading as legitimate users “create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination” [1]. These findings pose serious concerns about the very real public health threat that such type of misinformation, better termed “information warfare”, presents [2].

Why is this Misinformation So Effective In the Vaccine Debate?

The sources people use to access and consume information largely makes up the answer to why such misinformation about vaccines on social media is so effective. There is evidence that a vast majority of the online commentary about vaccines on social media is made up of the “anti-vaxxer” or “anti-vaccination” community [3,4]. In fact, it has been shown that as many as 50% of vaccine related tweets are comprised of the anti-vaccination viewpoint [3]. As social media continues to become an integral part of our lives, it’s important for both social media giants and its users to be skeptical and think critically of the information presented to them. Bringing these new realities to the attention of the public at large is important for people to develop wariness regarding the information they consume.

Why does it Matter? The Very Real Impact of Misinformation Campaigns

Misinformation and the business of spreading it are always meant to benefit the few, not the many. The greatest good is dealt in truth, facts and science. When this information concerns public health, the impact of misinformation and public discord is much more severe and can have disastrous consequences. It has been shown that the proliferation of this misinformation has led to vaccine delay and hesitancy by parents considering vaccinating their children [5]. Putting aside the actual issue about the safety and efficacy of vaccines themselves, one thing is certain, regardless of where one may stand on this issue: the fact that foreign powers and automated “bots” are playing a deceptive role in society's decision making is problematic and downright dangerous.

How Can We Battle Misinformation—Especially as it Pertains to Public Health?

We live in a time where thinking critically and questioning the content we consume, especially as it relates to public health, is more important than ever. What sort of tools can the public utilize to arm themselves against the torrent of deception and lies? Now that the research has identified social media, as a large source of deceptive health related content online, users should be extra wary of the information they consume on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. When it comes to matters of science and medicine, consumers of information should demand adequate citations of scientific studies. Arguably, most online content in this sphere is all too used to making claims, even bold ones, without providing citations and references for their claims. As a clinical biologist myself, I was taught the axiom: “If you weren’t born with that knowledge, cite it!” Indeed, acquiring knowledge straight from the source (such as scientific and medical journals on Pubmed) is no easy task, especially for those not scientifically savvy. Thus, there is a need for media outlets to rise to the occasion by accurately and objectively reporting on matters of science, medicine and public health in an effort to empower humanity. In fact, it is for these exact reasons that this media platform, Intelligent Speculation, was created.

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Intelligent Speculation: Fighting The Good Fight By Empowering Mankind

Intelligent Speculation is a platform that provides individuals with the tools necessary to better understand science and think critically. It is without question that society is quickly growing increasingly inundated with a constant barrage of information. While some of it is useful, resourceful and valuable, the issues raised in this article point to the obvious fact that not all information is created equal and some of it, in fact, is meant to do the opposite of empowering it’s consumers—but deceiving them instead.

Science Media Created By Real Scientists for the Everyday Human

As scientists, we are trained to think critically and skeptically so we stand the best chance of discerning fact from fiction. At Intelligent Speculation, we believe it is our responsibility and duty to help impart these lessons to the world at large so, as a collective whole, we can evolve a healthy sense of skepticism and not fall victim to the deceptive information warfare being waged by, in this instance, Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls. As we have seen, there are real world implications to the dissemination of false information, propaganda and the amplification of controversial issues in every day life. In the case of the vaccine debate, false reporting and manipulative social media content is certainly doing more harm than good by obscuring the facts and igniting emotional tensions surrounding the issue at hand.

Concluding Thoughts

We live in the age of information overload and being able to discern high quality, factual evidence and truth is more important than ever. When considering the debate over vaccinations, it is important to understand that there are lives are at stake—often those of children, society’s most vulnerable population. To that effect, it is the responsibility of scientists, reporters, media outlets and social media organizations to make the commitment towards providing better information while helping society filter out content that is intrinsically deceptive, destructive and harmful. It is the belief of this biologist and science writer that society can be trusted to make the best overall decisions if they are provided with the best, most accurate and unbiased information possible. In the end, our goal is to help cultivate an informed society with the power to drive positive change. Better critical thinking skills lead to better decisions for the individual and ultimately, for the world at large.

Referenes

[1] Broniatowski, D. A. et al. Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. Am J Public Health 108, 1378–1384 (2018).

[2] Kata, A. Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm – An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine 30, 3778–3789 (2012).

[3] Tomeny, T. S., Vargo, C. J. & El-Toukhy, S. Geographic and demographic correlates of autism-related anti-vaccine beliefs on Twitter, 2009-15. Soc Sci Med 191, 168–175 (2017).

[4] Smith, M. J. & Marshall, G. S. Navigating parental vaccine hesitancy. Pediatr Ann 39, 476–482 (2010).

[5] Betsch, C. et al. Opportunities and challenges of Web 2.0 for vaccination decisions. Vaccine 30, 3727–3733 (2012).