Russia's meddling online went beyond the 2016 US presidential election and into public health, amplifying online debates about vaccines, according to a new study.
The recent research project was intended to study how social media and survey data can be used to better understand people's decision-making process around vaccines. It ended up unmasking some unexpected key players in the vaccination debate: Russian trolls.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health on Thursday, suggests that what appeared to be Twitter accounts run by automated bots and Russian trolls masqueraded as legitimate users engaging in online vaccine debates. The bots and trolls disseminated both pro- and anti-vaccine messages between 2014 and 2017.
The researchers started examining Russian troll accounts as part of their study after NBC News published its database of more than 200,000 tweets tied to Russian-linked accounts this year. They noticed vaccine-related tweets among the Russian troll accounts, and some tweets even used the hashtag #VaccinateUS.
"This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics -- a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy," they wrote.