Russian trolls pushed divisive content over vaccines, researchers say

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Russian trolls weren’t just trying to cause division in U.S. politics. A new study shows that they were also trying to stoke divides in one of the country’s most heated debates around public health: vaccinations.

Russia-linked social media bots pushed divisive speech and misinformation on Twitter on both sides of the preexisting vaccine debate, according to research led by George Washington University and published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” the study’s authors said.

The team of researchers, which also includes academics from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, analyzed a database of Russian troll accounts assembled by NBC News and found that the accounts were “significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than are average Twitter users.” The research spanned from July 2014 to September 2017.

The researchers also found several tweets belonging to accounts that were identified by Congress as being linked to the notorious Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin “troll farm.”

These accounts posted messages both against and for vaccination in roughly equal amounts.