Over on my Twitter feed, which veers off-topic a bit more often than this blog, I had a series of tweets the other day about troll/bot accounts. And as fate would have it, that very subject now intersects more closely with a focus on biomedical news. This new paper in the American Journal of Public Health details an interesting (and dismaying) look at Twitter activity around the question of vaccinations. As it turns out, a good deal of it seems to be coming from automated or semiautomated accounts. Since I’ve seen a lot of agitated questions about this (on Twitter and elsewhere), let’s switch to a Q&A format:
Who’s doing this? Are you automatically saying that it’s some Russian plot? No, not automatically. But the accounts that were tweeting out vaccine-related propaganda had already been linked to Russian disinformation efforts in the 2016 elections. Turns out that they had a sideline in posting about this as well.
Are you saying that all the anti-vaccine posts are Twitter are from Russian bots? Not at all. There are plenty of real people who are worried about vaccines. But it appears that a significant amount of the talk about vaccines on the Twitter platform was at least partially driven by such troll accounts (some of which were probably “bots”, that is, totally automated, some of which had humans at the keyboards, and some of which switched between those two modes). As one of the authors of the study put it, by looking at Twitter you’d get the impression that there’s a lot more debate and uncertainty about this issue than there really is.
Why would Russian propaganda accounts be anti-vaccination, then? Well, not all of them were. And that’s the key point: some of these accounts tweeted out anti-vaccine lines, while others tweeted aggressively pro-vaccination ones (stuff like “You can’t fix stupidity. Let them die from measles“) These messages were deliberately sent into the discussions where they would cause the most argument and sow the most doubt and confusion. It’s not that the Russian troll factories were pro-vax or anti-vax: they were pro-discord.
This sort of thing should not surprise anyone who knows about the history of propaganda techniques. It’s just that social media platforms like Twitter allow these strategies to be run far more efficiently and quickly. There were, for example, rumors during the 1980s that HIV was some sort of nefarious biowarfare agent that had escaped from a US facility. And these were amplified by the (then) KGB, just because it was good policy to make their adversary look bad and to spread fear and uncertainty. (And yes, before anyone hops into the comments with the observation that the US has done things like this as well, we certainly have. But the Russian government are acknowledged as masters in the field).
My tweets earlier this week were about the explicitly political bots and trolls, not these biomedical messages. But the intentions and the approaches are the same. First off, you want to make it look like the authorities are lying to you, keeping the real truth hidden. It doesn’t help that many authorities over the years, political, medical, and otherwise, have tried to do just that about various issues, but neither is it helpful to assume that every single thing you hear from anyone with any expertise is automatically a deception. Second, you want to just spread doubt and confusion about everything, to the point that it wears everyone out, and people are willing to just throw their hands up in the air and believe whatever, or not believe anything much at all. In my political arguments on Twitter, I’ve encountered people – well, probably people – who will say “Well, one source says this, and another says that, and it all depends on where you look, so who can ever know for sure?” But they say this about things like, say, what the 2017 GDP growth rate was, or what the electoral vote count came out to in 2016. Which is insane.
I say that because, as a scientist, I believe that there are facts in this world, and that these facts can be known, and that we can use them as foundations to learn even more facts. We may revise former views as we do so, but that is in the process of getting us an even more complete and more accurate picture of the world. The “Everything You Know Is Wrong; Here Are The Real Secrets” crowd is pretty annoying, but even worse are the nihilist “Nobody Really Knows Anything” folks. Because we do know things. I have devoted a substantial part of my life to knowing things, revising all the time as new information comes in. One of those things I know, by the way, is that vaccines do vastly more good than harm. For example, the MMR vaccine does not, in fact, cause autism, but that skipping it does, in fact, lead to an increase in the number of sick and dead children.
So you can imagine the utter contempt that I hold for people who deliberately and cynically pollute the stream of human knowledge in the way the article above describes. Deliberately amplifying ignorance, confusion, and conflict is a grave sin if there is such any such thing as a grave sin, and doing it by (along the way) encouraging people to put their own children at risk of disease and even death is inhuman. Honi soit qui mal y pense: let evil come to those who think such evil.