Tag Archives: Facebook

Who is weaponising the vaccination debate?

Image credit: How To Win a Vaccination Debate

The  media are promoting a new scientific paper on the vaccination debate. Their interest is undoubtedly driven by the study’s conclusion that “Russian trolls” (and by implication the Russian state) are amplifying this debate to promote discord in the US. The title describes this as “Weaponization of Health Communication.”

I am very cynical. After all, the media loves to dramatise these matters – and scientists are not immune to the temptation of taking advantage of this and the current political environment. The data the authors present is weak and has a far more reasonable explanation than the one they assume.

Yes, I may well be called a “Russian troll” or one of “Putin’s Useful Idiots” (and it wouldn’t be the first time) for expressing these doubts. But I have read the paper and this was helpful as it provides sources enabling me to do my own checking.

The paper is:

Broniatowski, D. A., Jamison, A. M., Qi, S., AlKulaib, L., Chen, T., Benton, A., … Dredze, M. (2018). Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. American Journal of Public Health.

That’s just the abstract but here is a link to the full text.

The paper summarises its main claim about “Russian trolls” as:

“Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user. Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments. This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics—a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy.”

The sources

The analysis relies on subjective judgment for defining a twitter account as a bot, but it does use two publicly available lists of twitter accounts (and tweets from these accounts) defined as inauthentic or false “Russian trolls.”

These sources are:

  1. “Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news” which allegedly documented “Russian interference in the US political system” (see Twitter deleted 200,000 Russian troll tweets. Read them here), and
  2. “Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” (see Twitter’s list of 2,752 Russian trolls).

The evidence supporting their main claim is given in their Figure 1: Bots’ Likelihood of Tweeting About Vaccines Compared With Average Twitter Users: July 14, 2014–September 26, 2017. See below:

Tweets from the “NBC Russian Trolls” contain a higher incidence of vaccination keywords than tweets from the average twitter user. To be clear – this is not evidence of promotion of an anti-vaccine message (“Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments”). It simply shows these collection of tweets contained a higher than average reference to this polarizing subject.

I suspect a similar analysis of this collection of tweets would also show a higher than average incidence for other polarizing subjects in this collection. It is the nature of the tweet selection not evidence of a specific motive.

In fact this claim of “promoting discord” is so commonly used nowadays that it seems to have lost any meaning. Politicians now attribute this motive to much of the Russian social media – and to Russian mainstream media (eg., RT and Sputnik) news reports.

We should note that the authors did not attempt to justify the highly political allegation. They simply aligned themselves with the political message, but the senior author Broniatoski admits “we cannot say that with 100% certainty, because we’re not inside their head.”

Unfortunately, they did not consider for one moment other possible explanations for their results (that is highly unscientific and reveals a bias). I think this illustrates the power of the controlling or prominent political narrative. Anti-Russian hysteria is widespread in the US at the moment.

But there are more innocent motives for such tweets which a more objective analysis would have considered (see below).

The “guilty” tweets

I have looked through the database listing the tweets identified as from“Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news.” The incidence of reference to vaccination in the tweets from“Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” was not much different to that for the “average user” so I did not consider them.

There were 203,451 tweets in this collection and I found about 100 (about 0.05%) included a vaccine keyword (vacc*). The paper gives examples of both pro and anti-vaccine tweets from this collection and mine were similar. These were hardly remarkable – indeed most of them were retweets. For example:

  • RT @HealthRanger: Don’t miss this: #autism-vaccine link explained by doctors!   https://t.co/L9ziemow6o  #antivax #vaccines #adhd
  • RT @ActivistPost: States are rushing to pass vaccine mandates before everyone realizes that they’re completely unnecessary at best, harmful…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Danish #documentary exposes widespread damage caused by HPV vaccine https://t.co/nuQqQ1u0XZ  #health #vaccines #antivax #…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Never inject them. #antivax #vaccines #natural #health https://t.co/oY0XLqRkdH
  • RT @pakalert: The Scary TRUTH About Vaccines (Satanic illuminati Vaccines Agenda Exposed Full Documentary) https://t.co/fxs8zOwVnV
  • RT @WorldTruthTV: Robert De Niro To Produce Film Proving Vaccines Cause Autism | World https://t.co/telXZBWPRi https://t.co/VrApvqn62s
  • RT @CobraCommans: Canadian scientists to test promising HIV vaccine on 600 volunteers @ANCParliament @My_AfricanUnion @AfricaHealthFor
  • RT @GStein269: Perry talking about Drugs and Vaccines? https://t.co/lsxJN2Udcy
  • RT @SanJosePost: #politics California’s vaccine bill passes Assembly, next hurdle: Gov. Jerry Brown
  • RT @varadmehta: Having a vaccine truther chair a commission on vaccine safety is something that merits actual outrage. But media only has o…
  • RT @blicqer: Major HIV Vaccine Trial Set to Begin in South Africa  https://t.co/fPkW3XYV32 @TheRoot https://t.co/I5iRgU42Yn

The #VaccinateUS hashtag

The paper describes the #VaccinateUS hashtag as:

“designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political wedge issue. #VaccinateUS tweets were uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency—a company backed by the Russian government specializing in online influence operations.”

Again, it did not provide any evidence to support this allegation.

The authors claim these tweets “contain a combination of grammatical errors, unnatural word choices, and irregular phrasing.” I did not see this myself – the grammar in these tweets appeared to me to be far better than the average tweets I see. The authors did acknowledge that these “messages contain fewer spelling and punctuation errors than do comparable tweets from the general vaccine stream.”

Tweets with this hashtag are about evenly divided between pro- and anti-vaccination potions (“43% were provaccine, 38% were anti vaccine, and the remaining 19% were neutral”). It occurred rarely in the quarter million tweets.

While they appear to have been specifically written by the account holders or staff at the organisation behind them, rather than simple retweets, they hardly provide evidence for a motive of “sowing discord.”

Here are some examples:

  • what will you fill when you get a disease that you could’ve been protected from? #VaccinateUS
  • if we don’t have regular chek ups and get #vaccines-what’s the point of doctors’ work? #VaccinateUS
  • open your eyes, people! It’s all government conspiracy plan  #VaccinateUS
  • our government cares only about money so it’s profitable for them to say that #vaccination is necessary #VaccinateUS
  • the production of a #vaccine is disgusting #VaccinateUS
  • #VaccinateUS FDA  state that #vaccines are safe
  • #VaccinateUS For sure #vaccines work!
  • God bless big pharma. You fools #VaccinateUS

Amplification of the anti-Russian hysteria

Ironically the charge laid at the supposed “Russian trolls” (that they seek to sow discord by amplifying existing electoral or polarizing debates) is actually typical of much of the reaction in our media to stories like this. In fact these media reports are aimed at sowing discord and promoting Russophobia. And, unfortunately, such anti-Russian amplification, or weaponization to use the language of the paper, comes from people I would have thought should know better.

This example from March for Science – a social media group formed after Trump’s election and aimed at mobilising scientists against anti-science policies of the new administration.

They are reposting an article from the Guardian (which these days leaps onto any anti-Russian argument they find). But in doing so they add their own claim:
” Study finds that 93% of tweets about vaccines between 2014 and 2017 were planted by bots and Russian trolls with the aim of sowing division.”

The 93% is the invention of March for Science as neither the paper or The Guardian provided this figure. And the study did not “find” that Russian trolls were sowing divisions – that was the prevailing assumption they started with. March for Science is simply crudely (very crudely considering their invention of 93%) amplifying the anti-Russian narrative and contributing to weaponization of social media against the Russian Federation.

Bringing this home, the NZ Facebook page Science Community New Zealand reposted the March for Science claim. Here we have social media accounts claiming to be pro-science amplifying an outright lie on social media.

Update: Science Community New Zealand has now removed the offending post – a good sign perhaps.

I am disappointed at such a naively political falsification from organisations which is meant to be promoting science. It does show how persuasive the current anti-Russian hysteria is – but it is especially disappointing to see people who should know better succumbing to it. Or, perhaps, I have been fooled and the real motives of March for Science and Science Community New Zealand have been far more questionable right from the start.

A more realistic motive for these tweets

The motive given by the study’s authors, and usually promoted in the current mainstream media narrative (sowing discord to weaken US society), really does not hold water. That strategy could more legitimately be attributed to ordinary US twitter users who indulge in tweeting on controversial subjects in far larger numbers. Anything  added by these Russian trolls is minuscule. If the Kremlin genuinely has such a strategy it should be judged a pitiful failure.

But what about this shady company Internet Research Agency based in St Petersburg? I have no doubt it exists and that it is planting material in social media like Facebook and Twitter. Presumably it is also setting up non-authentic or fake accounts for this purpose.

However, the paper’s claim that it is “a company backed by the Russian government” is not supported by any evidence at all and is typical of the way our media continually falsely claims that Russian individuals and entities are connected to the Kremlin or “close to Putin” – simply because of their ethnicity.

While the company (and many similar companies indulged in similar activity) have no credible results in “sowing discord” (compared with the ordinary, authenticated users of Twitter and Facebook in the US) they do seem to be doing this for commercial purposes. These appear to be similar to the activity of the Cambridge Analytica company which acquired personal data from social media users which they then marketed to political users.

Using fake or inauthentic accounts to retweet messages, or plant original messages, in a polarizing political or health debates is one way of mining personal data. Authentic users who retweet, “like” or repost such messages reveal a preference or bias which is of interest to companies involved in marketing products and ideas. Even seeding social media with pictures and videos of cats and dogs which attract likes, retweets and reposts can help obtain information of use to commercial and political entities.

Hell, Google, Facebook and Twitter themselves are involved in mining account holder’s personal information and selling it to advertisers.

How else do we end up getting social media messages related to topics we have searched for information on, or have commented  on in social media. On the surface this appears harmless, even useful (although the continual  messages I still get offering travel insurance just because I researched the topic several months ago are rather tiring – and counter-productive as they turn me off the advertiser).

Conclusions

My main objection to this paper is its uncritical and unthinking acceptance of the prevailing political narrative. I think it shocking that a scientific study makes no attempt to question or validate the narrative it relies on.

The data is extremely weak – only someone intoxicated by the political narrative will seriously see the extremely small number of tweets and retweets they found as evidence of a “strategy of sowing discord.”

Finally, the authors make no effort to consider other more reasonable explanations for their data. That is a pity as mining personal data by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Cambridge Analytica, the Internet Research Agency and other commercial companies should concern us all. Targeted advertising is very intrusive and annoying. Targeted political influence is also no doubt occurring and should concern us.

But the old trick of blaming the Russians for these problems is diverting our attention away from the real culprits.

I guess this shows how a bad political climate and destructive prevailing narrative can influence even the most scientific researcher.

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Science and social media in new Zealand

How is New Zealand science dealing with social media?

Screen-Shot-2015-06-05-at-2.04.57-pmThe latest report* from NZ’s Science Media Centre answers that question (see Social Media Snapshot – how are our research institutions using Twitter, Facebook etc.).

It concludes that “science and social media make comfortable bedfellows” because:

“Most research institutions have some form of social media presence and several have amassed tens of thousands of followers, helping them to stay engaged with a broad audience who “share”, “like” and “favourite” their content.”

That is good news, on the whole, but it does tend to be a “cup half full” interpretation because it doesn’t analyse why some of the scientific institutions are failing when it comes to social media. It’s great that 91% of the country’s 45 major research organisations engaged in scientific research have an official social media presence. But what about those 9% which don’t?

Which institutions are the slow uptakers?

First the good news:

“The University of Auckland, GeoNet and Te Papa have the most followers for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube respectively.”

But apart of Auckland University, Auckland Museum, Te Papa and Geonet the main users of social media appear to be the universities. Although smaller sections of the research community – including university faculties, departments and research labs and collaborations – have been slower to adopt social media. Facebook appears to be their preferred platform.

What sticks out like a sore thumb to me is the absence of the larger Crown Research Institutes. My old institute, AgResearch, certainly wasn’t among the front-runners in this report – despite the fact that it is the largest Crown Research Institute and involved in research vital to this country’s main industries. However, on checking I found that AgResearch does have a Facebook and Twitter presence. It’s just that the likes (Facebook) and followers (Twitter) are very low compared with the front-runners. For example, its about 1100 Facebook likes compares with University of Waikato’s 35,000!

At least it is something, I suppose. From my memories of the conservatism of the heads of communication departments in my day I was half afraid they were shunning social media altogether. Mind you, with this low performance I can’t help feeling their approach to social media is possible only luke-warm.

If this is the case, I suspect it could be a common problem with Crown Research Institutes which tend to be bureaucratic and unwilling to allow uncontrolled or unsupervised contact of staff members with the public. I guess that is a human organisation problem but it is a pity because these institutes do have large “client” or “customer” groups which already use social media and would willingly connect via such media. Probably more so than through the limited industry meetings, conferences and field days – and centrally managed press releases.

This is not a suggestion that these institutes turn away from their tried and true communication methods – far from it. Just a suggestion that supplementation via social media can enhance and widen such communication.

*Download the report here.

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Anonymous comments on social media

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Something I picked up on the internet.

Yes, I know – some people have legitimate and understandable reasons for being anonymous when they comment on social media. Concern for jobs and protection for family and self.

I can appreciate that and have no issue with those people.

But there is just such a lot of rubbish spouted by anonymous commenters on social media. I can only conclude the reason for anonymity of these hostile and drive-by commenters is that they are at least subconsciously aware of the rubbish they are promoting so do not want their name associated with it.

Whatever their reason, anonymity seems to bring out the worst in these people. and they waste a lot of time for others who attempt to debate them.

How can scientists use social media?

This video will mainly interest scientists who are interested in social media and its use in networking (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc). Scientist took a while to accept this new media, and many are still suspicious or reluctant to use it. But at least the media is being discussed and considered these days.

This is a Google Hangout video of a discussion by 5 US scientists. it brought home to me that different people use these media for different purposes and in different ways. As a retired scientist my use could be very different to the way a working scientist uses it. And scientists involve in policy issues, or science communication, will use it differently to those involved in teaching and/or research.

Credit: UCS Science Network: Tip of the Week | Union of Concerned Scientists.

Black cat in a dark room – and the role of science

photo 5
There are some  really excellent quotes on social media – Facebook and Twitter.
The one above really appeals to me. Sure the classifications are broad, and it would be interesting to break each one down. But the main message is certainly one I agree with.

It does summarise the problem very well. But I am sure someone will disagree?

Blogging for New Zealand

Picked up the press release last night. Seems to be for a good cause – the recovery of New Zealand and the Christchurch region after the tragic earthquake of February 22.

Specifically this is aimed at the tourist industry and independent travelers. The aim is saturation blogging on March 20, 21 and 22 promoting New Zealand as a travel destination. The web site describes the promotion as :

Blog4NZ is a grassroots blogging and social media effort to support New Zealand travel in the wake of the Canterbury earthquake.

It is a worldwide blogging event happening on March 21-23, 2011 and you can be a part of it.”

If you are interested, want to contribute a blog post or publicise the event contact details are at:

Calling all travel bloggers to join Blog4NZ.

The face book page is: Blog4NZ – Blog for New Zealand on Facebook.

And you can follow on twitter using the tag # blog4nz


The world is in shock that one of the premium travel destinations in the world could suffer such a natural disaster as happened two weeks ago in Christchurch. And while all our thoughts go out to those people who have lost loved ones, lost homes and businesses, travel bloggers around the world are uniting to tell the world New Zealand is a great place to travel and there is no better time than now.

March 21, 22, and 23 has been set aside by travel bloggers throughout the world as 72 hours of content generation about travelling to New Zealand. #Blog4NZ is the brain-child of New Zealand travel bloggers Jim McIntosh and John Reese. John himself living in Christchurch. “We want a total black-out of travel content across the world, we want Twitter dominated by Tweets about travelling to New Zealand, we hope that all travel bloggers rally behind this cause and publish as many articles as possible throughout this period about travelling to New Zealand” said event organiser Craig Martin of Indie Travel Media.

“New Zealand is one of the world’s greatest travel destinations and has been a great source for many travel bloggers and travel entrepreneurs. For many northern hemisphere countries it is the furthest most spot they can travel. It has been the place where so much innovation has come with regard to travel – the home of Bungy, the birth place of hop-on hop-off backpacker travel, NZ led the way in independent hostels throughout the eighties and nineties. It is also a country where tourism is the number one contributor to GDP, where the Minister of Tourism is the PM – that is how important tourism is. This is the travel community saying hey go to NZ – if there is one place that should be on your travel list this year it is NZ” said Dan Roberts of Travel Generation. “This is something that as the travel community we can do to support not only all the businesses in Christchurch but everyone in New Zealand.”

via Press Release: Calling All Travel Bloggers – #Blog4NZ | Blog4NZ – Bloggers Resources.

See also:
Travel Blogging Community Rallies for New Zealand
A Great Project to be Involved – blog4NZ