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Russian social media bots fueling anti-vaccine movement, study finds

They're not just interfering with elections — they're spreading a public health risk.

Credit: JUNIOR D. KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: JUNIOR D. KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images

Russia isn’t just trying to influence and disrupt U.S. elections.

The online anti-vaccination movement has been fueled in part by the same Russian trolls responsible for stoking the fires of other divisive political issues, according to a new study released Thursday by George Washington University.

Accounts associated with Russian troll farms were far more likely to tweet about vaccinations than average Twitter users, researchers found. Those accounts would take up both sides of the anti-vaccination debate in an attempt to further drive a wedge between the warring camps — same tactic Russian trolls employ to divide Americans along fault lines of race, sexual identity, and other hot-button issues.

Russian involvement in the anti-vaccination myth poses a legitimate public health risk. Anti-vaxxers, as they’re known, peddle the conspiratorial idea that common vaccinations cause autism, a hoax with no basis in science. But thousands of parents still refuse to vaccinate their children, leading to outbreaks of diseases previously thought to be eradicated in the United States.

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The number of parents who have sought non-medical exemptions to otherwise mandatory vaccines has risen in 12 out of the 18 states that allow for them since 2009, according to NBC News, and there is a significant geographic overlap with areas where Russian trolls are known to have set up fake accounts designed to mimic legitimate local news sources.