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Russian Social Media Hackers Used Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric to Hurt American Kids

They're both comfortable putting American kids at risk.

During the 2016 elections, Russian cyber-attackers disseminated thousands of inflammatory posts through fake profiles on social media. The goal of deploying fauxmericans was to increase partisan rancor by encouraging the discussion of controversial subjects and thereby create an unsustainably polarized electorate. ut while the Russian bots posted primarily about politics, a recent study has found they also worked to amplify division on vaccine safety. The result was increased confusion around settled vaccine science — confusion that ultimately put children’s health in danger. In short, America’s enemies abroad leveraged parental fears and scientific ignorance to trigger animosity and, in so doing, launched what was tantamount to an attack American children.

Yes, this sounds very much like some kind of dystopian conspiracy theory, but data published in the American Journal of Public Health makes a convincing, peer-reviewed case that Russians borrowed anti-vaxxer rhetoric to gin up confusion and resentment. Researchers analyzed data from the Twitter accounts of recognized Russian bots and internet trolls. The study found that some of the same accounts that spread political disinformation also spread disinformation about vaccines.

Because the goal was to attract attention from a diversity of users, the Russian bots seem to have published pro- and anti-vaccine posts at equal rates, according to researchers. The twist is that an equal representation of pro- and anti-vax ideas actually works to make the anti-vax community look far more robust than it actually is. Americans overwhelming believe in vaccines for the simple reason that they have been proven to protect children. But that’s not how it looks on social media, where the science of vaccine safety appears to be up for debate and anything but settled.

What concerned parents have seen online is a debate between digital ghosts on a public health subject that should not be debatable. The “debate” parents witness allows doubt and fear to creep in. And fear is particularly strong motivator for parents when it comes to their children. Parents who feel vaccines are debatable may be inclined to also see them as optional, or at least not worth the perceived risk of autism or death.

Unfortunately, this is not another simple case of Russian hackers attempting to exploit cultural schisms in service of weakening political support for, ultimately, foreign entanglement and engagement. How is it different? In taking the anti-vaccine tack, the Russians knowingly risked the health if not the lives of children — both those that have gone unimmunized and those that will suffer as herd immunity is lost. This is not an abstraction. The Centers for Disease Control findings that among the 1,789 measles cases in 2017, 70 percent of the infections happened in unvaccinated people. Children died of the disease.

So how do we defend ourselves? One way is to hold social media companies accountable for policing the foreign-intelligence bot networks. That might work, but many of the companies seem pretty much immune to public shaming. The more plausible solution is to call out this specific act of aggression against American children as what it is, an egregious attempt to materially harm the most vulnerable members of society. Once that much is clearly stated, sanctions and penalties against Russia for its egregious misbehavior are the logical next step. What is not acceptable is the continued kowtowing of the Trump White House to Russian President Vladimir Putin who condoned if not coordinated an act of hostility against kids.

Still, given Trump’s inexplicable (unless it’s as explicable as some think) pro-Russia public posture, true consequences seem unlikely. Given that the federal government will not be protecting children from this foreign aggressor, all parents can do is bring a healthy skepticism to anything they read or find on social media. All parents can do is attempt to erect walls to keep out misinformation and avoid false equivalencies.

There’s also this: American parents must simply internalize the fact that vaccine science is settled science. In all but the most rare cases, children need vaccinations. And not vaccinating children is a way to play into the hands of America’s enemies. In the deepest sense, it is both unpatriotic and irresponsible.