In November 2016, @ameliebaldwin, supposedly a conservative Christian, tweeted: “Holistic doctors found #autism-causing carcinogens in #vaccines before being murdered.”
Another user, @imissobama, who identified as black, wrote: “The anti-vax movement can only exist bc few living Americans can recall what polio actually did to ppl. I fear the same is true of fascism.”
Both were later found to be Russian trolls, the Twitter accounts owned and operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency, a company that worked with Moscow to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
The creators of the Russian accounts used opinions on vaccines to create believable personas and reinforced misinformation about them to susceptible demographics, pushing voters toward Donald Trump and away from Hillary Clinton, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, the University at Buffalo, and Georgia State University.
“The goal of these trolls was to influence the 2016 election, and vaccines were just a step in the way to bolster the reliability of these characters,” said Yotam Ophir, a coauthor of the study and professor of media at Buffalo. “They polarized vaccine information based on your political identity, [but] health topics should be decided based on science, not political party.”
The research was published this week in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which Ophir said is already becoming politicized, with views on how seriously to take the crisis often falling along party lines. Ophir said Russia could use misinformation about the virus in a similar way to further the divide.
“From what I see, and I see it all across the world, not just in the United States, it seems like the coronavirus is consistently being framed as a political issue. We don’t want a situation where liberals believe the risk is real and stay home, but the conservatives don’t because it’s a liberal scheme," Ophir said. "The virus doesn’t work this way. You get it whether you’re a liberal or a conservative.”
Dror Walter, a professor at Georgia State, and Kathleen Jameson Hall, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn, coauthored the study. Hall’s 2018 book, Cyber War, looks at how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect Trump.
The main finding and concern of the latest research, Ophir said, is that such Russian influence could have a detrimental effect on public health.
“If the Russians are harnessing this new phenomenon and sending people different messages, you’re going to see widening gaps between the number of conservatives willing to get vaccinated and liberals," he said.
The Annenberg study was also notable for its look at how detailed the Russian agency was in developing believable Twitter characters. The study analyzed about three million tweets sent over three years, paying special attention to nine distinct “personas.”
The anti-Trump persona shared information supporting vaccines and often included links to reputable news organizations’ articles. The pro-Trump persona often shared conservative website links, photos of MAGA merchandise, and anti-vaccination views. There were also accounts that made no mention of vaccines, like fake youth accounts where topics were heavy with references to celebrities including the Russia-born Maria Sharapova and Alexander Nevsky, an 13th-century Russian leader.
The Russians also created personas imitating African American users who posted about Black Lives Matter activism and celebrities like Talib Kweli. These accounts often used the N-word. Views on vaccines were more mixed with about half of the fake African American accounts favoring vaccination and half opposing it.
The study found that “the intentional Russian spread of antivaccine discourse targeted at specific subpopulations thought to be susceptible to it (e.g., pro-Trump users and African Americans on Twitter) could be the beginning of a new front in the ongoing informational cyberwar.”
The Russian troll accounts identified in the research have all since been blocked by Twitter, but U.S. intelligence sees evidence the country is trying to influence the 2020 election. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign said federal officials warned it that Russia was trying to help him become the Democratic nominee, as it was found to have done in 2016.
Polling shows a stark partisan divide in view of how Trump is handling the crisis but not much difference in behavior. While 91% of Republicans said Trump’s handling of the crisis was “very good” or “somewhat good” in a CBS News poll last week, just 22% of Democrats said so.
Democrats were much more likely to call the coronavirus a crisis (71%) than Republicans (51%). Notably, though, 61% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans answered that they were only leaving the house if “absolutely necessary.” Ninety-six percent of Democrats and 87% of Republicans said they were practicing social distancing.
Trump on Sunday changed his tone on the coronavirus, underlining its seriousness by backing away from a plan to lift restrictions in time for Easter.
Ophir says he fears mixed messaging suggests to the public that everything is a subjective opinion, not a fact, and that people will align with their political tribe or team instead of with science.