Friday 24 August 2018

"Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate": Blame content pollutors first and foremost

"Nyet Comrade"
I'm slightly outside of my comfort zone when talking about the findings reported by David Broniatowski and colleagues [1] which has been reported in the lay media with headlines such as: "Russian trolls 'spreading discord' over vaccine safety online".

Outside of my comfort zone not just because this topic is one on the periphery of the core material of this blog (see here and see here for examples) but also because I've long held the belief that this blog should be apolitical and areligious. There are plenty of other outlets online to satisfy such needs these days. To reiterate, the typical currency on this blog is peer-reviewed science and science really should be free from politics, religion and 'allegiance'.

But here I am talking about a paper titled: "Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate" and a study which did mix science with politics. Indeed, a paper which seemingly complements a whole debate on how social media in particular, really is the mouthpiece of the masses in a global sense, but at the same time, is a media ripe for 'promoting discord'.

Set within the reality that people say pretty much anything and everything on social media and that you don't really know who you're 'socialising with' when using such resources (ever heard of 'stranger danger'), Broniatowski et al set about looking to "understand how Twitter bots and trolls (“bots”) promote online health content." The specific online health content they were interested in was "vaccine-relevant messages" as part of a scheme of work previously undertaken by some of the authors. On this occasion, they looked at well over a million tweets over a 3 year period (2014-2017) and "estimated the likelihood that users were bots, comparing proportions of polarized and antivaccine tweets across user types." They also "conducted a content analysis of a Twitter hashtag associated with Russian troll activity."

Results: "Compared with average users, Russian trolls..., sophisticated bots..., and “content polluters”... tweeted about vaccination at higher rates." Researchers observed that 'content pollutors' - "bot accounts that distribute malware, unsolicited commercial content and disruptive materials" tended to post more 'anti-vaccine content'. One would assume this was because their aim is to 'distribute malware and related materials' and by posting such provocative material, it is more likely to get people to click 'their way'.

Also: "Whereas content polluters posted more antivaccine content..., Russian trolls amplified both sides." Bearing in mind that the overall numbers of those tweets from accounts linked to that Twitter hashtag with Russian activity was small, very small, as a percentage of the whole dataset - "the researchers found 253 tweets containing the #VaccinateUS hashtag among their sample" - their content was more mixed - "43% were pro-vaccine, 38% were anti-vaccine, and the remaining 19% were neutral" - if not actually more likely to be pro-vaccine or neutral. The authors interpret this by saying "its messages were more political and divisive."

I have to say that I'm left slightly unimpressed with the interpretation being made from the Broniatowski data. I'm not quibbling with the idea that: "Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination" or that "More research is needed to determine how best to combat bot-driven content." Yes, social media typically does not typically have many filters ('evidence-based' or otherwise) and that is a downside to the content that users are exposed to.

But the whole 'Russian trolls' promoting 'discord' and being 'divisive' thing seems to be built on fairly flimsy evidence at best. I say this on the basis of the small number of tweets from those Russian troll accounts and the majority direction of their stance with regards to vaccines (neutral if not pro-vaccine in the majority). The bigger story here is the continued effects of 'content pollutors' and how, through their attempts to spread their 'mal-wares', so vaccination policy is being potentially undermined as a result. I say all that wearing the objective blinkers of science and recognising that I am not affiliated to any particular political group, red or otherwise.

I know there's something of an obsession these days about how 'social media is being used to subvert democracy', and how the population at large are somehow unable to form their own opinions as a function of 'what social media says'. Personally, I've always felt such sentiments belittle people, and indeed, say more about those who subscribe to such 'control' ideas than those who are actually exposed to them.

It's also interesting that, outside of the continuing search - often a desperate search - for examples of how Russia is somehow trying to 'take over the world' (😏), mention of the word 'vaccine' in the paper from Broniatowski and colleagues, taps into another topic which can ruffle feathers. I shouldn't really need to emphasise how important vaccines are as part of the modern-day medical arsenal (read Roald Dahl's account if you need more evidence of this). But there does seem to be a general feeling that if one even mentions something that distracts from the life-saving message about vaccines, one becomes persona non grata in certain quarters. Y'know, like the idea that for some groups - "immunodeficient individuals are more likely to develop complications resulting from live-virus vaccines" - vaccination might not be potentially advantageous, or how side-effects, rare as they are, can occur: "Within 48 hours after immunizations... the patient developed a fever to 38.9°C, inconsolable crying, irritability, and lethargy and refused to walk." By linking Russian trolls to social media posts about vaccination, it's not difficult to further 'demonise' various groups of people; and with it, 'pull in' (mainly) parents, some of whom are not 'anti-vaccine' but rather, have some genuine concerns about the potential effects of vaccination on their children (see here)...

And just in case anyone needs any advice on vaccination, there are lots of helpful resources around (see here and see here).

Update: 25 August 2018. The Broniatowski paper is open-access (see here).


[1] Broniatowski DA. et al. Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. AJPH. 2018. Aug 23.


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