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Are Russian bots being used to sow division over vaccines? Maybe.

A study released yesterday has led to numerous breathless headlines in the media about Russian bots on Twitter sowing discord about vaccines by spreading polarized antivaccine and provaccine messages. The stories imply that this is a huge problem. But is it? There’s no doubt that this study showed some Russian bots Tweeting polarized messages about vaccines, but, contrary to the news stories, it doesn’t support the concept of a widespread Russian effort to stoke conflict about vaccines. It’s unclear whether the Russian effort was opportunistic or experimental, but it wasn’t huge.

I’ve been involved in what I sometimes call the vaccine wars for a long time, dating back nearly 20 years. It was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I discovered that there were actually people who thought that vaccines were not only unsafe, but that they caused autism, autoimmune diseases, and basically every chronic disease under the son. However, I didn’t really get involved in actively refuting online antivaccine misinformation in a big way until early 2005, not long after I started version one of this blog. Back then, social media consisted primarily of Usenet (which by the time I started this blog in late 2004 was dying from a disease we’re all familiar with in 2018, trolls drowning out any actual conversation) and blogs like this one. Twitter had not yet been founded, and, while Facebook existed, it was in its infancy and access had not been granted to the general public yet. (To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I didn’t join Facebook until 2008, and I didn’t sign up for a Twitter account until 2009. Then I hardly used Twitter for the first couple of years I had an account.) Russian bots and trolls did not yet exist, either. So blogs were pretty much it, and pretty much the main source of antivaccine pseudoscience and misinformation that needed to be countered at the time.

With the rise of Facebook and Twitter, the social media landscape changed markedly. Blogs, while still important, are no longer the primary vehicles of social media, and the antivaccine movement, albeit slow to do so, did ultimately dive into Twitter and Facebook in a big way. I first took note of its first bumbling, fumbling forays onto Twitter in 2015 over the whole “CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory,” whose birth I observed in 2014. By 2017, fake news and Twitter bots spouting antivaccine misinformation were rampant, and the antivaccine movement had made major inroads into Facebook. Now—surprise! surprise!—it turns out that Russian bots and troll farms are now Tweeting about vaccines as well, as a new study released yesterday examined. The study, Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate, led by David A. Broniatowski at The George Washington University in the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering.

Basically, the investigators, who came from GWU, the University of Maryland, and Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, started examining Russian troll accounts as part of their study after NBC News published its database of more than 200,000 Tweets emanating from Russian-linked accounts. These known Russian troll accounts were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a company backed by the Russian government that specializes in online influence operations and churns out memes, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and Tweets pretending to be activists and activist groups in an attempt to sway political conversations. Basically, it’s the same Russian propaganda machine that interfered in the 2016 US election.

Broniatowski describes what caught his attention:

“One of the things about them that was weird was that they tried to — or they seemed to try to — relate vaccines to issues in American discourse, like racial disparities or class disparities that are not traditionally associated with vaccination,” Broniatowski said.

For instance, “one of the tweets we saw said something like ‘Only the elite get clean vaccines,’ which on its own seemed strange,” he said. After all, anti-vaccine messages tend to characterize vaccines as risky for all people, regardless of class or socioeconomic status.

I can’t help but agree with this observation—mostly. It’s true that antivaxers tend to view vaccines as risky for all children. However, ever since the dawn of the “CDC Whistleblower” manufacturoversy turned into a full-blown conspiracy theory, antivaxers have been bringing race and class into their messaging more. For instance, key to the whole “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory is the misinterpretation in a reanalysis by an antivaxer named Brian Hooker of a study of the MMR to claim that MMR vaccination was associated with autism in African-American boys. That reanalysis was so bad that it was ultimately retracted. More recently, antivaxers have been palling around with the Nation of Islam to spread their message and targeting vulnerable minority populations, such as the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota, in the name of “helping” to protect them from “government-mandated” vaccines. The result in Minnesota has been a massive measles outbreak. So, Borniatowski shouldn’t have been that surprised. This sort of message is not as far-fetched as he apparently thought it was.

The investigators reacted thusly to their observation:

The researchers were stunned to find Russian troll accounts tweeting about vaccines, but unraveling why they would stoke the vaccine debate was mind-boggling, too.

So, the authors analyzed the Tweets and discovered Russian bots Tweeting about vaccines. Before I discuss that in a bit more detail, let’s look at the paper itself more. The authors note in the introduction:

Proliferation of this content has consequences: exposure to negative information about vaccines is associated with increased vaccine hesitancy and delay.8–10 Vaccine hesitant parents are more likely to turn to the Internet for information and less likely to trust health care providers and public health experts on the subject.9,11 Exposure to the vaccine debate may suggest that there is no scientific consensus, shaking confidence in vaccination.12,13 Additionally, recent resurgences of measles, mumps, and pertussis and increased mortality from vaccine preventable vaccine preventable diseases such as influenza and viral pneumonia14 underscore the importance of combating online misinformation about vaccines.

Much health misinformation may be promulgated by “bots”15—accounts that automate content promotion—and “trolls”16— individuals who misrepresent their identities with the intention of promoting discord. One commonly used online disinformation strategy, amplification,17 seeks to create impressions of false equivalence or consensus through the use of bots and trolls. We seek to understand what role, if any, they play in the promotion of content related to vaccination.

So the authors used a set of 1,793,690 Tweets collected from July 14, 2014 to September 26, 2017, and also carried out a qualitative study of the hashtag #VaccinateUS, described by the authors as a “Twitter hashtag designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political wedge issue” and Tweets that were “uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency.” In their first analysis, the authors examined whether Twitter bots and trolls Tweet about vaccines more often than the average Twitter user, while in their second analysis they examined the relative rates at which each type of account Tweeted pro-vaccine, antivaccine, or neutral messages about vaccines. Finally, they did their qualitative study of the #VaccinateUS hashtag.

Data for the first analysis was taken from one of two datasets derived from the Twitter streaming application programming interface (API) and consisted of a random sample of 1% of all Tweets and a sample of Tweets containing vaccine-related keywords. For each data set, the authors extracted Tweets from accounts known to be bots or trolls identified in seven publicly available lists of Twitter user IDs and compared these to an equal number of randomly selected Tweets that were posted in the same time frame. The relative frequency with which each account type posted about vaccines was estimated by counting the total number of Tweets that contained at least one word containing “vax” or “vacc.” In the second analysis, the authors collected a random subset of all Tweets from users in the “vaccine stream” (the random sample of 1% of all Tweets) and used the Botmeter API to estimate each Tweet’s “Bot Score,” which reflects the likelihood that the account doing the Tweeting is a bot and consists of a score between 0% and 100% likelihood of “botness.” The accounts were segmented into three categories: those with scores less than 20% (very likely to be human); scores greater than 80% (very likely to be bots); and scores between 20% and 80% (can’t tell for sure). The same analysis was then carried out on the “vaccine stream” (Tweets related to vaccines).

Overall, as you can see, the higher the bot score, the more likely the account is to be Tweeting about vaccines:

I can’t help but notice, though, from this graph, that accounts with unknown and intermediate bot scores seem to be the ones Tweeting the msot about vaccines, and mostly antivaccine messages. It kind of harkens back to the study I discussed way back in 2015. I noted that some antivaccine “influencers” on Twitter Tweeted so often that it makes me wonder how good the Botmeter algorithm is at identifying classifying them as low likelihood to be bots. Similarly, this graph suggests that very low and very high bot scores are associated with basically no Tweeting of pro-vaccine messages. This puzzled me. I wondered how big an effect this really was and whether it justified all the fevered news coverage of this study. After all, the authors themselves noted in the introduction that “a full 93% of tweets about vaccines are generated by accounts whose provenance can be verified as neither bots nor human users yet who exhibit malicious behaviors” and that these unidentified accounts “preferentially tweet antivaccine misinformation.”

Let’s look at graph 2:

This clearly shows that Russian bots and trolls were far more likely to Tweet about vaccines than humans. It also indicates tha content polluters like to use vaccine-related Tweets to draw in clicks to distribute their malware.

Finally, a thematic analysis showed these to be the sorts of pro- and antivaccine messages spread by Russian bots during that three year period:

Antivaccine messages

The authors concluded:

Malicious online behavior varies by account type. Russian trolls and sophisticated bots promote both pro- and antivaccination narratives. This behavior is consistent with a strategy of promoting political discord. Bots and trolls frequently retweet or modify content from human users. Thus, wellintentioned posts containing provaccine content may have the unintended effect of “feeding the trolls,” giving the false impression of legitimacy to both sides, especially if this content directly engages with the antivaccination discourse. Presuming bot and troll accounts seek to generate roughly equal numbers of tweets for both sides, limiting access to provaccine content could potentially also reduce the incentive to post antivaccine content.

By contrast, accounts that are known to distribute malware and commercial content are more likely to promote antivaccination messages, suggesting that antivaccine advocates may use preexisting infrastructures of bot networks to promote their agenda. These accounts may also use the compelling nature of antivaccine content as clickbait to drive up advertising revenue and expose users to malware. When faced with such content, public health communications officials may consider emphasizing that the credibility of the source is dubious and that users exposed to such content may be more likely to encounter malware. Antivaccine content may increase the risks of infection by both computer and biological viruses.

All of this seems like a set of reasonable conclusions. However, I was left with a niggling feeling. How big an effect was this really? After all, the authors themselves note that the highest proportion of antivaccine content is generated by accounts that are not clearly bots, accounts with unknown or intermediate bot scores. This led me to ask: How accurate is Botmeter? Also, as I mentioned before, there are a lot of antivaccine “influencers” on Twitter who are so prolific in their Tweeting that I can see how they might be, if not mistaken for a bot by an algorithm, at least be scored as intermediate by a program like Botmeter.

Also, when you come down to it, the numbers examined in this paper are not that large, something that is not noted in most of the news reports I’ve read about this study. If you look carefully at the results, you’ll find that the activity of known bots and trolls examined consisted of 899 Tweets and that the vaccine stream only consisted of 9,985 Tweets. For a three year period, these are not large numbers at all, even if you take into account that the vaccine stream is only a 1% random sample of vaccine-related Tweets, meaning roughly a million Tweets over three years. I can’t help but wonder how represenative the sample is, and, in particular, I have a hard time gettin excited over such a small number of bot-generated Tweets.

Renee DiResta noted just this on Twitter several days ago:

More recently:

I tend to agree. The bottom line is that antivaccine misinformation is a serious matter. Indeed, Twitter and Facebook have become cesspools of antivaccine pseudoscience and were well on their way to that state before the rise of Russian bots. There are also known to be quite a few antivaccine bots out there, as a 2017 study showed. In other words, knowing a bit more of history of the antivaccine movement’s activities on social media and the Internet would have served the investigators well. Yes, I do believe that Russian bots were trying to spread some discord about vaccines, but this study doesn’t suggest that it’s anywhere near as big a problem as the breathless headlines about the study suggest.

At least not yet.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

52 replies on “Are Russian bots being used to sow division over vaccines? Maybe.”

Thank you for taking this nuanced approach. I was concerned about the headlines overstating the issue and distracting from the heart of the problem, which is the pernicious effects of anti-vaccine misinformation. Not that knowing about anti-vaccine bots isn’t important.

I also think – to focus another direction – that rather than as bots, we need to think of anti-vaccine activists as a mobilized population. Some sociological pieces about some small, extreme ultra-orthodox communities in Israel (and I’m trying to be very cautious here, because I don’t want to write in a way that generalizes to all religious people there) suggested these groups are a mobilized population – they feel like a small minority under siege, they stand out, they feel they stand out, they are deeply committed to a set of values, and they come to battle when called. I think that fits the community of anti-vaccine activists and their behavior, like descending on articles that oppose them. I wonder if anyone is looking from that angle.

In great anticipation, I received a 24genetics (Ancestry) kit in the mail yesterday. If there’s a hint of Russian ancestry, will my vaccine safety advocate self-disclosure be compromised?

Please advise, Orac.

I’m pretty sure he did’t buy that kit. That was just an opportunistic post. Any lie will do.

@ BillyJoe,

I’m always honest to the core. I’ve removed the last three digits of the tracking number. A free copy of the Cambridge Scholars book “Patents and Artificial Intelligence” will be sent to Orac if someone correctly completes the tracking number below.

Here’s the order confirmation and shipping date from Amazon.


Thank you for your order from 24 Genetics. Fulfillment by Amazon has shipped the following items. This completes your order.

Shipped via USPS (estimated delivery date: 08/23/2018 PST)

Tracking No: 9374889686090290238???

Qty Item

1 24Genetics – DNA Ancestry Test Kit – 400 Regions Worldwide – G…

Thank you for shopping with 24 Genetics.

Please note: this email was sent from a notification-only address that cannot accept incoming e-mail. Please do not reply to this message.

Fair enough. I was crediting you with too much intelligence. Sorry about that.

Mikey is right on the story ( Natural News). Woo hoo.

I think that Dorit may be suggesting a realistic outlook as stated above.

I am more worried about how anti-vaxxers/ alties have come to mistrust anything emanating from the mainstream media; many of those I survey have worked long and hard to discount all standard news reporting as well as scientific research and the government. RT and Global Research are cited as meaningful whilst the BBC, CNN, NBC, NYT, CBC are derided as fake news
Bots contribute to a trend created by ( possibly) actual people.

Because I follow these sources of misinformation nearly every day, I’ve seen how natural health entrepreneurs have branched out into politics, economics and social criticism which became especially apparent during and following the Financial Crisis ( 2008-9). Anti-vaxxers as well: have you read Ginger Taylor of late? Or AoA commenters? Null, who still broadcasts from a liberal land-based station, has nearly turned his PRN into an Info Wars clone ( P stands for progressive I’m told). Adams has initiated an alternative ( reality) video service, for authors who have been tossed from You Tube. Interestingly, he has only kind words for Trump.

It’s very disturbing.

That’s one problem that disturbs me as well. In the Netherlands there is some talk about requiring vaccination for access to childcare, but there is some hesitation and they want to convince people to vaccinate, by telling there is nothing wrong with vaccines. As if people who are against vaccinations will believe this, if it is told them by some government officials.

I think the idea is that many, if not most, parents who do not vaccinate are not anti-vaccine but vaccine hesitant. They are not sure what to think and tend to delay or fail to vaccinate by default. Government incentives such as childcare payments which are conditional on your child’s vaccination being up to date could conceivably be effective. We have this system in Australia but it is hard to find evidence that it is effective because of other measures being taken as well to increase vaccination rates. Interestingly, there was no obvious pushback against the idea when it was introduced.

Anti-vaxxers- bot or not- have a new story to sink their teeth into:
former CDC director, Tom Frieden ( legit news sources as well as Natural News) has been accused of “groping” women in NY.

So I’m sure that soon ALL vaccine supporters will also be accused of similar malfeasance.
Mike hasn’t been too concerned about other “gropers” in high places though.

The alleged groping happened in October.

I want to know who the alleged gropee is.

WaPo states that’s it’s a family friend of 30 years, non-work related. It happened in his apartment in Bklyn.

I agree, there’s far more real people doing the antivaccine thing on FB and Twitter than obvious bots. But something else makes me wonder – Merck was a major casualty of NotPetya, which impacted its vaccine manufacturing. I don’t think Merck was NotPetya’s main target, but part of the collateral damage. It looks like part of a broader strategy of attacking the social and economic frameworks that support Western democracies’ (and others’) wellbeing. Perhaps like a computer security weakness, antivax is a proxy for vulnerability to spreading other more political nonsense.

I agree with most of you here. As the old saying goes, correlation doesn’t equal causation. And personally, I doubt the Russian government is all that much of a driving force behind the anti-vax movement.

Still, there’s a reason why Russian trolls and bots are apparently using anti-vax messaging more often. When one gets drawn into one conspiracy theory, it’s easier to be drawn into others. I can’t help but think of Natural News itself, which has gone from a mainly woo heavy crackpottery barn into a full-blown conspiracy clearinghouse full of pro-Trump/Russia-friendly propaganda. (Regardless of how much of this crap Mike Adams actually believes himself, he knows his customer base well enough.)

Btw, I’m a long-time lurker and first-time commenter. I love this site, and all the work you do to educate folks about real science and unreal nonsense.

I doubt the Russian government is all that much of a driving force behind the anti-vax movement.

Yes. It would not exactly the most brilliant move. I have not read the paper but Orac’s summary suggests that it is just as likely that given the mixture of bots there is a lot of confusion, etc.

Why am I not terribly convinced (well close to totally disbelieving) that there would be any official Russian policy to discourage vaccination? Duh, Russians can get the measles too. Anything like that is self-defeating.

Where is the largest current outbreak–Ukraine, right next door to Russia. Russia probably want every Ukrainian vaccinated.

I don’t think it’s so much the Russian government’s stance on vaccines as it is the Kremlin taking advantage of conspiratorial zeitgeists like the anti-vax movement to further its goal of rendering our government and political system so dysfunctional that they can get more of what they want (from the U.S. government, and from the world stage). In this aspect, the crazy anti-vaxxer trolls (particularly those like Mike Adams who have huge internet platforms) are playing right into the Kremlin’s hands.

I read a news report on the Washington Post’s website on this earlier today.

My thought is the Russians saw the freedom of choice nonsense when it came to vaccination as a political movement and tested the waters to see if they could capitalize on it.

Since antivaxxers run the range of political view points, they must not have gotten much traction with it.

Orac seems to not quite get what the IRA involvement means. Maybe some uninformed folks would take this revelation as a suggestion anti-vax isn’t a real thing, just a Russkie fake, but actually it’s evidence to the contrary. That is, the Russians wouldn’t bother spending any time on this unless they felt there was a significant number of people they could mobilize by going down that road. Heck, they may even have gotten the idea in part by reading Respectful Insolence (along with AOA, TMR, NN, PRN…)

The authors seem to fall short in their understanding of the IRA trolls as well, overemphasizing the idea of “a strategy of promoting political discord” that plays both sides of the fence by promoting opposing extremes equally:

Presuming bot and troll accounts seek to generate roughly equal numbers of tweets for both sides, limiting access to provaccine content could potentially also reduce the incentive to post antivaccine content.

But that”s not how it works. They’re not trying to generate equal action on both sides and they’re not just trying to exploit any issue that might stoke some social division or another. It’s all about building support for Trump and Trumpism, stoking the “deplorables”, hardening and motivating the “base”. If you do close readings of the IRA troll content, it’s often hard to tell the extremism of the ‘fake’ CTs that fuel Trumpism from the real thing, while the ‘fake’ posts purporting to support BLM, for example much more often appear too over-the-top. Maybe that’s because the real people Putin’s trying to stoke are just farther out the scale into genuine nutism…). Anyway, the reason they put up the “other side” extremism is to have something to point to scare their own parttisans.

So, why anti-vax? They obviously scanned the web enough (including maybe here) to be aware that Trump had expressed anti-vax sentiments, and the anti-vaxers were going gaga over him as a result. Maybe they bought the alarmist coverage here and elsewhere of Trump’s supposed “meeting” with Andy Wakefield? Whatever, even though there aren’t that many hard core antivaxers, they might have considered them to be key swing votes – including a number of folks who might not have voted for Trump or any Republican otherwise. Of course, the biggest population of anti-vaxers is here in California, where Trump stood n chance whatever, but Orac always reminds us that there’s a strong contingent in Michigan, and that was clearly one of the states the IRA targeted, and did indeed help Trum squeak out a victory.

As a bit of a sidebar, it’s worth noting that the Russians are too smart to actually leave direct traces in the form of puffing for whoever or whatever they want to get useful idiots to support. It’s based in fear and negativity. “Hillary Clinton is running a pedophilia ring out of the basement of a pizza shop!” “The Illuminatti have gotten to the CDC Whistleblower, lest their conspiracy to turn the whole next generation into autistics be exposed!” It’s almost Skinnerian conditioning, the subjects completes the response themselves by mentally adding the MAGA hastag.

You’re over thinking it, sadmar.

The Russians were throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what stuck. Anti-vax didn’t stick. Putin doesn’t care about Trump. He didn’t want to deal with Clinton, and any controversy that would follow whoever won in 2016 is good for him.

“Putin doesn’t care about Trump. He didn’t want to deal with Clinton…” These are not contraries; you are agreeing with sadmar, not disagreeing. You’re summarizing, really.

Possibly. If so, sadmar could work on cutting to the chase. However my impression from reading his post was that he was giving far more credit to Putin and his army of trolls than they deserve.

@ Panacea:

Although it would have been a meatier story for anti-vaxxers if it had been a colleague/ underling, it’s still pretty bad.
I notice that AoA, Handley and Jake are on to the story. Salivating, of course.
It shows that education and a resume do not insulate a person from ( alleged) indiscretion. I imagine it’s everywhere.
Anti-vaxxers will attempt to correlate SBM advocacy and behaving badly.

-btw- someone asked me if I could estimate the percentage of adults who buy into off-the-wall political sites/ television, conspiracy mongering blogs/ facebook pages PLUS woo and alt med.
I said that I couldn’t estimate a number but I fear that it’s shockingly high. I won’t even try to guess but
OK, 40% think Trump is fine as a start….
Oy is correct.

I’m not sure why you have brackets around the word “alleged”. It IS an allegation at this stage. An aging Australian actor was recently charged with rape that allegedly occurred 30 years ago. The alleged victim was his girlfriend at the time and they remained friends up untill about a year ago after which the allegation was first made. Of course, all of that is “alleged” as well (by the actor’s lawyer), so who knows what the truth is. But we should use the word “alleged” unless and until there is a conviction.

@ BillyJoe,

I’ve learned if you absolutely have to go of topic, or slightly off topic, Orac is forgiving if it’s disclosed at the beginning of your comment.


Off topic…


A bit off topic…

Thanks for hanging around, BillyJoe.

@ Orac,

Is it appropriate for MJD to speak for you in this fashion even though you haven’t spoken to me directly in about four (4) years?

John Kane:Why am I not terribly convinced (well close to totally disbelieving) that there would be any official Russian policy to discourage vaccination? Duh, Russians can get the measles too. Anything like that is self-defeating.

I think you greatly underestimate the Russian nostalgia for the 18th and 19th century, including the occasional epidemics, as well as the Russian disdain for children. Like American conservatives, they like babies and fetuses, and utterly despise live children.

Most interesting point there, about “Russian nostalgia for the 18th and 19th century…” What’s your source for that?

Putin’s favorite ideologue is the 20th century Russian fascist “philosopher” Ivan Ilyin, and Putin has also at times expressed support for current Russian fascist “philosopher” Aleksandr Dugin. Both of them are anti-science nuts, but the latter should most definitely be on our radar here, as he advocates for shutting down physics and chemistry entirely. (Why biology wasn’t mentioned in the articles that discussed this, I have no idea.)

@ atdnext August 24, 2018 at 6:40 pm

I don’t think it’s so much the Russian government’s stance on vaccines as it is the Kremlin taking advantage of conspiratorial zeitgeists like the anti-vax movement to further its goal of rendering our government and political system so dysfunctional

The Russians may very well want to help render the US government and political system so dysfunctional though the US seems quite capable of doing this themselves.

I am just arguing that anti-vax propaganda is too dangerous to Russia, itself, for the Kremlin to use it. I believe you are taking a too US-centric view. There is no information wall around the USA. The anti-vax issue is not a specifically US problem. I really doubt that the Kremlin wants to put out anti-vax propaganda that could well result is lower vaccination rates in Russia which could easily happen.

Any anti-vax meme, even if aimed at the USA, shows up all around the world. And lots of Russians speak English. It would be pretty easy for a few Russian anti-vaxers to translate some of that crap into Russian and disseminate it.

Remember, the original “research” by Wakefield was published in English. Notice the measles incidents in places like Romania and Italy. I exclude Ukraine because I suspect that its public health infrastructure is in tatters so vaccination rates may have declined due to lack of resources.

@politicalguineapig85 August 25, 2018 at 1:05 am

I think you greatly underestimate the Russian nostalgia for the 18th and 19th century, including the occasional epidemics, as well as the Russian disdain for children. Like American conservatives, they like babies and fetuses, and utterly despise live children.

Brilliant. I’m still sniggering.

It’s worth remembering that AIDS denialism was pretty much state policy in Russia. The general attitude seemed to be “AIDS only kills drug addicts and people corrupted by Western degeneracy; without them the Motherland will be pure and exclusively heterosexual, why waste money treating it?” Theresponse to the surging rate of diagnoses was to restrict access to clean needles and condoms.

Issues of public health are not really a high priority for the Russian gubblement.

It’s worth remembering that AIDS denialism was pretty much state policy in Russia.

I am at a loss to see the connection between a “new” sexually-transmitted disease that, at the time, was heavily concentrated in the adult gay population and a highly infectious air-borne disease such as measles that mainly targets children and had been for centuries.

Re ” AIDS denialism” in Russia. It may well have been “pretty much state policy” in the USSR. Probably was, now that I think of it. I’d argue that it was not “denialism” in the same sense as anti-vax or climate change denial. It would have been, as you say, let them kill themselves off, the country will be a better place for it. This was not unique to the USSR.

I doubt that, by 1991, that there was a lot of AIDS denialism in the Russian Federation though some of that attitude very well may have persisted well into the 1990’s. The same anti-aids attitudes persisted for a long time in the rest of the world. I think they still do in some places. Uganda maybe?

As Jerry Falwell in the USA so touchingly put it AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh’s charioteers. AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals. (1993 from Wiki).

The attitude in much of the rest of the world in the 1980’s and edging into the 1990’s, as I remember it, was not so much denial as “It’s only killing homosexuals”. By implication, it’s a low priority problem, blah, blah, blah. One “brilliant” UK politician suggested rounding up all HIV/AIDS sufferers in the UK and confining them on an island.

Issues of public health are not really a high priority for the Russian gubblement.

You have some sources for this? I’ve never heard anything one way or the other.

That the public health system is not great is something I can easily believe. It may be a matter of priority, resources or both. Russia is not that rich a country. Even Putin has said that health services in some areas suck (well not in exactly those terms but that’s what he meant).

The HIV is a “gay disease” attitude was pretty prevalent here in the US as well, back in the 80’s. And we had US politicians advocating for HIV leper colonies. Heck, the current director of the CDC advocated such policies on military bases.

But that pales in comparison to the outright AIDS denialism of Thabo Mbeki in South Africa.

As for Russia . . . I think the comment that public health is not a priority for them is well taken. Russia suffers from rampant substance abuse (alcohol and drugs), and treatment is nigh impossible to get. HIV and TB are big problems.

Russia suffers from rampant substance abuse (alcohol and drugs)

Homemade “krokodil” (desomorphine) is quite bad news, as I recall.

@Smut Clyde August 26, 2018 at 6:01 pm

Ouch nasty indeed. It looks like the HIV/AIDS stigma may be holding stronger than I had expected. Russia has had some really nasty budget problems over the last few years and it looks like the easiest target is being hit. One assumes, that as in any capitalistic country many of the victims are the poor?

However this is a subset of public health not Russian public health overall. It does not indicate that Russia has a rather negligent attitude to public health measures overall just that it is god-awful with AIDS[1]. I’d want to look at vax rates, water quality, sewage, infectious disease control (other than AIDS) and probably a myriad of other things.

One can make the agrument that the USA is rather causal about public health based on things like Flint, but that does not give the overall view.

Ontario is in the midst of the opioid epidemic as is just about every other place in Canada and the USA. One of the first steps the new Premier took was to cancel the funding for save injection sites. Not the same as abandoning AIDS victim but the same willingness to kill people. So much for public health in Ontario.

I am at a loss to see the connection between a “new” sexually-transmitted disease that, at the time, was heavily concentrated in the adult gay population and a highly infectious air-borne disease such as measles that mainly targets children and had been for centuries.

There is no obvious connection between HIV/AIDS and HPV antivax agitation, either. Yet a number of the old-school HIV denialists have moved on to become HPV antivaxxers, as our host has discussed.

Such are the workings of Crank Magnetism… HIV denialism is an easy gateway to the medical-conspiracy worldview that embraces antivax ideation. For instance here is David Crowe, of “Rethinking AIDS”, at an AIDS-denial meeting in June, moving on to deny that polio is viral, and that bubonic plague is bacterial. In fact his general idea is that all “viruses” are simply fabrications of Big Pharma, invented to spread fear and encourage vaccine uptake.

This is not immediately relevant to the question of Russian messaging through Twitter. But it does mean that the fear of global viral epidemics will not be a great concern to the AIDS-denying freaks who have still have a strong voice in Russian politics.

If Russian intel agencies/ whoever would attempt to increase division amongst US residents/ citizens, aren’t there even more discordant issues than vaccines?
I doubt that the numbers are 50/50 pro/ con.
Do their surveyors imagine vaccine rejection to be much more of a major issue in the US?

I don’t know, but I would guess that wealth inequality, racism, women’s rights/ issues,,AGW/ environmental concerns or trust in institutions** might be more so: even enough to consolidate political parties around.

** although attitudes about vaccines could reflect this somewhat.

Russian intel agencies

I do so miss the days when voice and Morse numbers stations were abundant. I could almost copy M24, which was sent at 40 wpm. The fallback was this. And a guy in another state who could copy it effortlessly. I think I was the one who discovered the repeats in the sked, though.

Jkrideau: I am at a loss to see the connection between a “new” sexually-transmitted disease that, at the time, was heavily concentrated in the adult gay population and a highly infectious air-borne disease such as measles that mainly targets children and had been for centuries.

Um, it’s god’s will in both cases if someone contracts either disease and dies? And obviously, children who get measles either haven’t led virtuous lives or are being punished for their parent’s sins. (Sarcasm like whoa, though I know some people actually believe that.)

= Good points made, that would be reluctant to push anti-vax too hard in the US, lest it boomerang and cause widespread outbreaks in Russia.

That said, it would be plausible for them to use it occasionally, as bait to draw more conspiracy-believers into Russian orbit via crank magnetism. It would also be plausible to run occasional anti-vax campaigns in the US, and simultaneously run pro-vax material in domestic Russian media, including mockery of stupid Americans who believe the anti-vax stuff.

= Re. the “maybe bots, maybe nots:” In the early Obama era, the US military & intel community were examining related issues, and determined that one live human can manage a decent number of bot accounts and inject enough “real human” content to make them undetectable as bots. The number of bots a “bot herder” can manage effectively, has probably increased since that time, as a function of purpose-built software.

For that reason I’d guess that a lot of the “maybes” in the survey, are actually Russian bots, managed by bot-herders. It should be possible to develop software to detect these, based on various characteristics that people in the relevant disciplines are aware of.

= Russia’s big-picture goal is to destabilize US society, government, and economy, for the purpose of inducing a breakdown comparable to that which Russia itself suffered in the post-Soviet period, and thereby enabling Russia to become the #1 or #2 (after China) world power. One of the obvious tactics is to exploit every possible fault-line of division. Another, less obvious, is to degrade the overall signal-to-noise ratio of our media and civic discourse (including “social” media).

Hoo boy, are there some hot Russia takes in this thread. I’ve been busy with work and anarchist sh!t, but I’ll have to make time to pop in later today.

Gray Squirrel: Most interesting point there, about “Russian nostalgia for the 18th and 19th century…” What’s your source for that?

According to the Guardian and a few other websites, official state policy is starting to suggest that the assassination of the Romanovs was a mistake. Also, the Orthodox church has reascended since the 1980s, and Putin tends to make enough religious noises that the population is convinced that he’s a religious man, like they are. And then there’s the fact that domestic abuse has been legal in Russia for months now.

DW: I suspect that Russians regard those issues as either settled or irrelevant.

I don’t know if it matters. The Russian bot-nets may just be treading water waiting for the next assignment.
This photo of all these women wearing “Vaccines Cause _______ ” t-shirts has been making the rounds of the internet. anyone know where it came from?

@ DLC:

I can’t see the link.
I HAVE seen shirts like this but can’t recall where . My best guess would be TMR or Katie Wright.
If you link, perhaps I can help.

Weird! I always just assumed this blog was written by a Russian vaccine-promoting troll. That’s the only way I could explain the entirely one sided viewpoint. In “medical science” (see “military intelligence”, “hamburger steak”…), there is never a case where everyone totally agrees with each other about a topic outside of fraud of some kind. So I just assumed this was a Russian troll blog, with bot generated comments designed to sow discontent among the few thinking Americans that are left that are able to see both sides of an issue.

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