Why a Russian Anti-Vaccine Trolling Operation Failed to Resonate on Twitter

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Russian trolls used Twitter to spread polarizing information about vaccines in an effort to sow discord among Americans, according to a new study published this week by researchers at George Washington University.

The study, which examined thousands of Twitter posts between July 2014 and September 2017, focused on an unusual hashtag campaign called #VaccinateUS that the authors were able to link to previously known Russian trolls. (Fortunewriter Sy Mukherjee has examined the study and the history of using public health issues to fuel conflict in a separate, thought-provoking essay.)

These trolls, who have ties to Russian political organizations, allegedly spread propaganda and fake news on Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube in prelude to the 2016 U.S. presidential election in order to divide the country on hot-topic issues like race and politics.

While the latest study highlights how Russian outfits have increasingly used social media to toy with people’s emotions to influence their behavior, it’s also notable for the fact that most Twitter users appeared to have ignored its anti-vaccine messages.

“What we saw in the VaccinateUS hashtag is the anatomy of a failed information campaign,” said the paper’s author David Broniatowski, an assistant professor in at George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Tweets that referenced the #VaccinateUS hashtag contained messages both in support of vaccinations and those against them. This was unusual, Broniatowski said, because most Twitter campaigns about vaccines are firmly for one side or the other.

The theory is that Russian trolls played both sides in order to lure casual Twitter users into sharing their own opinions, creating a snowball-down-a-mountain effect on replies.

But outside of the Russian trolls, virtually no real Twitter (TWTR, +1.18%) users actually responded to the messages, Broniatowski said. Generally, Russian trolls try to exploit controversial topics like religion, and race and class division, but “sometimes they get it hilariously wrong,” he said.

Broniatowski attributed the campaign’s failure to the content of the tweets, which included: “VaccinateUS mandatory #vaccines infringe on constitutionally protected religious freedoms;” “Did you know there was a secret government database of #vaccine-damaged children? #VaccinateUS;” and “Dont get #vaccines. Iluminati are behind it. #VaccinateUS.”

The messages were so far-fetched that even people who believe in conspiracy theories chose to ignore them.

“We like to think this is a brilliant puppet master that got us figured out,” Broniatowski said about the Russian outfits trying to sowing discord. “Sometimes they are just trying stuff.”