Star Tribune (Minneapolis): Parents beware: Russian trolls sought to sow vaccine discord

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Measles cases have surged in Europe, with experts blaming the rise in infections on a drop in the number of people getting vaccinated. In Minnesota, there was a measles outbreak last year. Now, a medical journal article reports that trolls pushed divisive vaccine safety information on social media over three years the authors studied. The objective wasn't necessarily to get fewer U.S. parents to vaccinate their kids, but to sow division among Americans.

"Weaponized Health Communication" is how the authors of the new American Journal of Public Health analysis summed up the online efforts to sow doubts about the immunizations that prevent measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and other serious childhood diseases. "Weaponized" is not an exaggeration.

What researchers found is that Twitter users linked to a Russian "troll farm" pushed both pro- and anti-vaccine views on the social media platform from 2014 to 2017. "Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination," according to the authors.

The mission wasn't necessarily to get fewer Americans to vaccinate their kids. Instead, Russians identified vaccines as a topic they could use to further divide this nation.

Other Russian social media propaganda has attempted to leverage class or race — online trolls tried to exploit Philando Castile's 2016 death at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, for example — for the same reason. A nation is weakened when its citizens turn against each other instead of standing united against outside enemies.

Researchers also found that Twitter bots spreading malicious software used inflammatory anti-vaccine statements as "clickbait." Those sucked in by these reckless claims may have allowed malware onto their computers when they opened a hyperlink.

As alarming as this is, the collateral damage to public health is the more immediate danger. This propaganda builds upon disinformation already spread by vaccine conspiracy theorists. Amplifying this harmful fearmongering may have convinced more parents to forgo childhood immunizations. In turn, that opens the door for these diseases to make a comeback, putting others in harm's way — such as individuals with compromised immune systems or babies who haven't yet had the full series of shots.

The threat is real. It was just over a year ago that measles swept through a Minnesota immigrant community targeted by vaccine conspiracy theorists. In Europe, measles cases are at a record high. "More than 41,000 people have been infected in the first six months of 2018, leading to 37 deaths," the BBC reported Aug. 20. "Last year there were 23,927 cases and the year before, 5,273. Experts blame this surge in infections on a drop in the number of people being vaccinated."

The authors of the American Journal of Public Health study understandably call for additional research to better understand how medical providers can combat vaccine myths. But parents also need to step up, especially when their kids' health is at stake.

Not all sources of information are equal. Medical providers and organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are credible sources on vaccines. Unverified Twitter users such as @EllaWonderGirl or @GayleHappyMom — two accounts recently identified as Russian trolls on a list released by the U.S. Congress — are not.

Embracing this basic truth when it comes to vaccines and other issues is more important than ever. Vetting information has become a vital inoculation in itself, protecting against those aiming to put public health at risk.

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