Russia doesn’t care

Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader from an episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and FriendsAnother news day, another insight into the role of social media in the 2016 election cycle. I’ve written before about the role that fake social media accounts originating in Russia played in providing support for Donald Trump and other candidates. Unsurprisingly — at least in retrospect — those social media efforts went beyond support for specific candidates.

In a new study published today (Broniatowski et al., 2018) and reported on by many reliable media outlets, researchers at George Washington University studied three years’ worth of tweets containing keywords related to vaccines.

The reason that vaccines are important is that there is an ongoing debate in the U.S. about whether vaccines cause autism (they don’t), whether the initial study saying they did was a deliberate fraud (it was), and whether parents should vaccinate their children (they should). I have a lot of sympathy for parents who are reluctant about vaccinating their children — injecting your children with known disease-causing agents is undeniably creepy. But it works, to protect them and to protect other children too.

I haven’t read the full paper yet, but the bottom line is that during the period from 2014 to 2017 (and of course continuing through to today), Russian agents used (and continue to use) the vaccine debate to shift how Americans talk about social and political issues. But there is a fascinating difference between the candidate-based study I wrote about before and this one:

When discussing vaccines, the Russian trolls took both sides in the debate.

They didn’t care.

This at last provides some insight into why the Russians have invested time and energy into running social media campaigns in the U.S. They are seeking to divide our country, because a divided country is a weak country.

Don’t let them do it. Find someone who disagrees with you and talk to them, right now.

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