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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Maryland Researcher Co-Authors Study on Influence of Bots and Russian Trolls on Vaccine Debate

In a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, University of Maryland family science department professor and chair, Dr. Sandra Quinn, collaborated with researchers at George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University to explore how Twitter bots and trolls promote online health content. Ms. Amelia Jamison, a faculty research assistant in the School of Public Health, was another co-author.

In the study, the researchers highlight how the spread of health-related misconceptions, misinformation, and disinformation through social media poses a threat to public health. They identify that possible sources of this type of false information may include “Bots” — accounts that automate content promotion — and “trolls” individuals who misrepresent their identities with the intention of promoting discord.

Using tweets sent from July 2014 through September 2017, the researchers compared the rates of vaccine-relevant messages among bots and average users. They found that compared to average users, Russian trolls, sophisticated bots, and “content polluters” tweeted about vaccines at higher rates. They conclude that “Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.”

They discovered that several accounts belonging to the same Russian trolls who interfered in the U.S. election tweeted both pro-and anti-vaccine messages, intending to breed rancor.

“Public health practitioners and researchers need to understand this complex and evolving world of bots and trolls, and we need to work together on research that examines how exposure to these social media messages may impact attitudes about vaccines and vaccine uptake,” said study co-author Dr. Sandra Quinn.

Lead author of the new research, David Broniatowski of George Washington University’s department of engineering management and systems engineering, said the findings “suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas.”

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” said  Dr. Mark Dredze, a team member and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University. “However, by playing both sides, they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases. Viruses don’t respect national boundaries.”

The study, “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate,” was published in the American Journal of Public Health.