PD Editorial: Trolls and bots prey on anti-vaccine fears
Russian trolls and online bots have received plenty of attention for disrupting elections and politics. We’ve all learned to approach political social media with a healthy dose of skepticism these days. But it’s not just politics that’s under attack. Digital ne’er-do-wells target anything that sows discord or garners clicks, and one particularly divisive topics is vaccination.
Public health researchers studied social media content produced by Russians trolls and Twitter bots over three years. They found an inordinate focus on vaccines and their alleged potential harms.
Bots tended to deliver the most inflammatory messages possible, usually from an anti-vaccine perspective. They want to generate clicks so readers visit dangerous websites that phish for passwords or install malware.
The Russian trolls, on the other hand, were more insidious. Their tweets also were inflammatory, but they would take either side of the vaccine debate in hopes of magnifying divisions in American society. As long as each side became further entrenched, they succeeded.
The goals might be social or criminal, but the effects on children’s health are very real.
“Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination,” the George Washington University researchers warn.
Protecting children from deadly diseases shouldn’t be a divisive topic. Americans have recognized the value of vaccinations all the way back to President Thomas Jefferson. When he sent instructions to Lewis and Clark before they departed on their expedition, he asked them to take along the new smallpox vaccine and instruct people they met on how to use it.
After more than two centuries of progress and refinement, however, vaccines somehow remain controversial.
Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, some people continue to hold out. It’s amazing and disheartening to see how many otherwise rational parents discover a deeply held spiritual belief against vaccination in order to get their kids out of immunization requirements.
Those children are at greater risk of preventable diseases that could have lifelong effects or even kill. They also diminish the herd immunity that exists when most people are vaccinated.
California has a goal of 80 percent immunization rate for children ages 19-35 months by 2022. Even that modest goal might remain elusive. In 2010, about 54 percent of California children had their shots. In 2016, the most recent year for which there is data, the rate was only 65 percent.
The state had almost reach to goal of 80 percent in 2014, but it lost ground the next two years. Those years coincided with the first two years of the social media study. Are Russian trolls and bots to blame? Almost certainly some but not solely. The spread of misinformation about vaccines and hardening of the sides in defiance of data can’t help.
The best response, it should surprise no one, is not trusting every random tweet or Facebook post. There are good sources of information and bad ones. Troublemakers will exploit any topic that arouses passion for their own ends.
Researchers also suggested that people not engage with trolls. Remember, the trolls want to gin up angry argument, not participate in an informed discussion.
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