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How Russian trolls polarized the vaccine debate

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

The anti-vax movement has been fed by myths and legends that have distorted the public debate around the topic. New research1 from the University of Pennsylvania highlights the role Russian state-sponsored trolls have played in this distortion.

The researchers looked at over 2.8 million tweets made by 2,689 accounts that are operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA). The agency used nine distinct types of persona, from fake Trump fans to fake Black Lives Matters activists.

“We demonstrate how IRA accounts discussed vaccines not only to sow discord among people of the United States but also to flesh out the personalities of their ‘American’ accounts in a credible way,” the researchers explain.

Spreading misinformation

The analysis revealed that misinformation around vaccinations was a relatively small part of the canon of tweets sent by the group over the three year period, but a mixture of pro- and anti-vaccination tweets were used by them to establish realistic seeming identities.  The idea was that by politicizing vaccination, the trolls could affect attitudes and ultimately promote hesitancy with vaccines, and subsequently magnify health disparities.

“Russian trolls worked to polarize Americans on a health topic that is not supposed to be political,” the researchers say. “As our nation deals with the coronavirus pandemic, that type of politicization poisons the well of crisis communications for COVID-19 in ways that create tensions, mistrust and, potentially, a lack of intention to comply with government orders and health directives.”

The work builds upon previous research into the role of the IRA in elections and uses unsupervised machine learning to map the topics tweeted about by the group.  This allowed the researchers to develop nine thematic personas, which were each analyzed in relation to their discussions of vaccines.

These personas would post on either hard news or soft news, be pro-Trump or anti-Trump, some would imitate African Americans, while others would focus on Ukraine. Each different persona discussed vaccines in a unique way, with the most glaring differences falling across political lines.

Political division

It appears that the trolls attempted to cater for specific political inclinations by targeting their messages based upon how they believe those political groups thought about the topic. For instance, both the pro-Trump and African American personas were more likely to be anti-vaccine, because they believe those groups are also that way inclined.

This was especially so among the pro-Trump personas, of whom 17% mentioned vaccines at least once, with the majority of those tweets anti-vaccinations.  By contrast, just 2% of the more liberal personas mentioned vaccines at all, with a large proportion supportive of them.

So how influential are these accounts?  It’s hard to say, but the researchers believe that anti-vaccine commentary will be triggered again during the COVID-19 pandemic as and when a vaccine for it is developed.

“Even if small in magnitude, the intentional Russian spread of antivaccine discourse targeted at specific subpopulations that are susceptible to it (i.e., pro-Trump users and African Americans on Twitter) could be the beginning of a new front in the ongoing informational cyberwar,” the researchers conclude.

Editor’s note: See also:

Article source: How Russian Trolls Polarized The Vaccine Debate.

Header image source: PickPik, in accordance with the Terms of Service.


  1. Walter, D., Ophir, Y., & Jamieson, K. H. (2020). Russian Twitter Accounts and the Partisan Polarization of Vaccine Discourse, 2015–2017. American Journal of Public Health, 110(5), 718-724.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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