A Russian online trolling operation allegedly involved in US election meddling has been linked to new attempts to sow social discord over the use of vaccines, a US study has found.
Accounts linked to Russian troll farms tweeted both in favour and against vaccines in an apparent attempt to spark a debate that casts doubt over the safety of the drugs.
Other groups controlling Twitter bots – software that sends out automated posts on social media – also took advantage of the highly-charged debate by tweeting stark messages against vaccines that encouraged users to click links to advertising or spread malware, the study concluded.
It found Twitter bot accounts were 22 times more likely to tweet about vaccines than the average user.
The research, conducted by George Washington University and published in the American Journal of Public Health, analysed thousands of tweets between 2014 and 2017.
Some of the troll accounts assessed in the study were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russia-based organisation recently named in an indictment over US election meddling. In February, 3,800 Twitter accounts linked to the agency were deleted from the platform.
“The vast majority of Americans believe vaccines are safe and effective, but looking at Twitter gives the impression that there is a lot of debate,” said David Broniatowski, one of the researchers.
“Our findings suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas.”
The findings come just days after the World Health Organisation declared a record high of measles cases in Europe.
More than 41,000 people contracted the disease in the first six months of this year and 37 people died. Experts blame the drop in vaccinations for the dramatic rise in cases.
"These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” said Mark Dredze, another researcher on the project from Johns Hopkins University.