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Russian Trolls Stir Up Measles Vaccination Controversy

Russian Trolls Stir Up Measles Vaccination Controversy

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest

"The people will believe what the media tells them they believe" —George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm

Most Americans are aware of the intelligence reports charging Russia with interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But what many Americans are unaware of are Moscow’s ongoing attempts to disrupt another major American phenomenon -- the worst outbreak of measles in the U.S.in the past 25 years.

Radio Free Europe, a long-time observer of Russia and Eastern Europe activities, in February claimed that Russian social media trolls “may also have played an unintended role” in stirring fears about the measles outbreak.

The U.S. government-run international radio service blamed Russia’s Internet Research Agency for creating an “artificially bolstered debate on social media about vaccines since 2014.” That campaign has helped to erode public trust in the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine commonly known as MMR.

“Experts in the United States and Europe are now working on ways to gauge the impact that the Russian troll and bot campaigns have had on the spread of the disease by distributing medical misinformation and raising public doubts about vaccinations,” RFE noted. “Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning that ‘vaccination hesitancy’ has become one of the top threats to global health.”

CDC Figures Show Measles Epidemic Still Spreading

Despite the best medical efforts to stem the highly contagious disease, recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the measles epidemic continues to spread.

“The number of cases in the United States now stands at more than 750, the highest number recorded in a year since the disease was declared eliminated in this country in 2000,” The Federalist reported in mid-May citing the CDC.

That number is up from 555 cases only one month earlier, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Physicians and public health experts agree that the widely available MMR vaccine is almost 100% effective and perfectly safe. Still, a vituperative debate rages in the public square and on social media between proponents of vaccination and opponents of the procedure. This ongoing debate is one reason why Americans cannot agree on a national vaccination policy. Russia’s propaganda apparatus that is stoking the controversy is a less well-known reason.

For example, a study by academics at George Washington University concluded that “Whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated antivaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord. Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.”

Russian Troll Tweets Were Significantly Higher about Vaccination than Other Tweets

The GWU study examined almost two million tweets posted between 2014 and 2017. It found that Russian troll accounts were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than were Twitter users generally.

The provocative tweets— such as “Apparently only the elite get ‘clean’ #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?!” — have only exacerbated divisions in American society.

In January, the U.S. Senate Select Committee in Intelligence released the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” prepared by Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence.

According to the assessment, “For years [Russia has] conducted cyber espionage to collect intelligence and targeted our critical infrastructure to hold it at risk. They are now becoming more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave, and decide.”

Moreover, “Moscow continues to be a highly capable and effective adversary, integrating cyber espionage, attack, and influence operations to achieve its political and military objectives.” The report also said, “Moscow is now staging cyberattack assets to allow it to disrupt or damage US civilian and military infrastructure during a crisis and poses a significant cyber influence threat….”

Given Moscow’s determination to do all it can to destabilize American society, it’s quite likely that the measles epidemic will be long over before Russia decides to quit its cyberattacks on us.

 

David Hubler David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield published the paperback edition of David’s latest book, "The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation's Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever."