Washington D.C., United States—Evidence suggests that the Russian propaganda machine was involved in the vaccine debate.

A new study titled “Weaponised Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate” conducted by university researchers has concluded that social media bots were used to spread misinformation and sow discord about vaccination and its potential dangers on social media.

Researchers from prestigious U.S. institutions found that Russian trolls’ tactics were quite similar to those they had used during the 2016 presidential election.

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society. . .they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases,” said Mark Dredze, a Computer Science professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in social media data analysis.

The research team went through thousands of tweets sent between July 2014 and September 2017. They found that numerous Tweeter accounts were identical to the Russian trolls and marketing and malware bots that interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. The tweets had a dual purpose: misinformation and communication disruption.  Tweets first focused on the negative complications of vaccines and second disrupted online communication between health experts.

“The vast majority of Americans believe vaccines are safe and effective but looking at Twitter gives the impression that there is a lot of debate,” said David Broniatowski, professor of Engineering and Applied Science in the George Washington University.

How they did it, however, is the most concerning part. Instead of flooding Tweeter with anti-vaccine messages, they posted equal amounts of pro-vaccination and anti-vaccination tweets—manufacturing a debate but making sure that it went toward the anti-vaccination camp.

“It turns out that many anti-vaccine tweets come from accounts whose provenance is unclear. These might be bots, human users or ‘cyborgs’—hacked accounts that are sometimes taken over by bots. Although it’s impossible to know exactly how many tweets were generated by bots and trolls, our findings suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas,” added Broniatowski.

The research, furthermore, found that hundreds of tweets were sent by a software company with strong links to the Russian government that was also recently sanctioned by a U.S. court for meddling in the 2016 elections.

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health. You can find it here Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate.