In what seems to be an offshoot of the Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential Elections in the United States, Russian “trolls” apparently sowed discord in the American public on the issue of vaccinations. A “troll” is a person who behaves online in a way that creates controversy only for the sake of causing trouble. In a study from George Washington University, it was found that Russian trolls used memes and other social media posts to cast doubt on the United States vaccination recommendations.
Memes like this one:
Here is the last paragraph of the conclusion section, and it is quite informative:
“The highest proportion of antivaccine content is generated by accounts with unknown or intermediate bot scores. Although we speculate that this set of accounts contains more sophisticated bots, trolls, and cyborgs, their provenance is ultimately unknown. Therefore, beyond attempting to prevent bots from spreading messages over social media, public health practitioners should focus on combating the messages themselves while not feeding the trolls. This is a ripe area for future research, which might include emphasizing that a significant proportion of antivaccination messages are organized “astroturf” (i.e., not grassroots) and other bottom-line messages that put antivaccine messages in their proper contexts.”
Of course, we know that anti-vaccine organizations exist not only online. They are very active in real life. For example, a group of anti-vaccine activists showed up in Rockland County, New York, epicenter of one of the largest measles outbreaks in the country since the disease was declared eliminated. While there, they continued to make unverifiable and false statements about what they claimed were the dangers of vaccination. All the while, they minimized the benefits.
Just a few months ago, I attended a talk by Paul Offit, MD, in Washington, DC. He was supposed to talk about his latest book, but a group of about 20 or 30 anti-vaccine activists showed up to launch accusations — and the random question or two — at him over what they perceived to be his “conflict of interest” in being paid for working on the rotavirus vaccine and on promoting the use of immunizations as recommended by experts the world over. Some of them stuck to simple “gotcha” questions while others told verifiable falsehoods.
In real life, as on the internet, certain ideas about vaccines have spread far and wide. As Dr. Offit said in an interview, the vaccine “controversy” is a cultural issue and not a scientific one. As we see our lives being more and more informed by what we learn online, we are bound to see those who would take advantage of this new technology and misinform us in order to sow discord. Only time will tell if we as a society mature enough to learn the difference between authentic information and lies.