Russian trolls tried to hack the debate between pro and anti-vaxxers via bot accounts on Twitter, says a new study from the American Journal of Public Health. CNN reports that the discovery was made as a result of research into online behavior and how it informs the conversation around vaccines.
They, however, found out that there was Russian interference in the online discourse and it involved the same perpetrators who have been implicated in presidential election tampering.
The bots and trolls didn't just favor one side of the debate. They created accounts that advocated vaccines and railed against them, which were active between 2014 and 2017.
According to the study, their sample contained over 250 tweets that used the "#VaccinateUS." The tweets for and against were roughly evenly divided while the rest were neutral.
One researcher described the tweets as "weird," as they tied the vaccine to larger political issues like racial inequality and class issues. One tweet linked "clean vaccines" to elitism which stood out since the anti-vaccine stance normally doesn't target one group over another.
The research also found that these accounts were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company implicated in election tampering that's reportedly supported by the Kremlin.
"This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics -- a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts," the report said. "Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy."
If you're wondering why Russsian would be interested in planting fake tweets within the vaccine debate, the research team isn't fully certain either.
"The Internet Research Agency has been known to engage in certain behaviors," said David Broniatowski, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University. "There's the one everybody knows about, which is the election. They also tend to engage in other topics that promote discord in American society."
Although he was not part of the study, Patrick Warren, an associate professor of economics at Clemson University, told CNN that he believes that their interference in the vaccine debate was an "experiment." One that didn't go as planned since the hashtag, "#VaccinateUS" never went viral.
"I would call that an experiment that they abandoned," he said.
Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian individuals who worked for The Internet Research Agency for their attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump. A 13th person who was employed by a company that funded them was also indicted, Slate reports. The indictment states that in February, 2016, the agency's employees were given orders to target Hillary Clinton's campaign with "criticism," while leaving Trump and Bernie Sanders alone because they "liked" them, Slate also reported.