Tag Archives: vaccination

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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Social health policies, freedom of choice and responsibility

Social health policies inevitably raise the issue of the individual’s freedom of choice. While debates around these policies often concentrate on questions of fact, scientific consensus and reliability of evidence, these tend to be surrogates for the underlying values issues. To what extent should I sacrifice my freedom of choice, or my freedom of choice to decide for my children, for the good health of the community? And what if my freedom of choice violates the freedom of choice for others?

hall-offit-fullPaul Offit discussed these issues in a recent Point of Inquiry podcast – Paul Offit, MD, on Measles in the Magic Kingdom and the Anti-Vaccine Movement. He is a Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit is the author of the book Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.

He basically talks about the spread of measles throughout California and neighboring states because of a source of infection at Disneyland. Although measles were eliminated in the U.S. by 2000, the misinformation of the anti-vaccine movement has caused a return of a full-fledged outbreak.

Levels of responsibility and consequences

Paul makes the comparison of opposition to vaccination with opposition to blood transfusion.

1: Blood transfusions. A person my refuse to accept treatment involving blood transfusion because of their personal religious beliefs. More questionably they may refuse on behalf of their children. However, the consequences are limited to the person or her child. The decision does not harm the community at large.

2: Vaccinations. A person may refuse a measles vaccination for themselves or their children. But in this case the consequences are not personal – they affect the whole of society. By lowering the degree of immunisation in the community they threaten the lives of others – particularly the most vulnerable, children.

In these two cases the person has refused an intervention, a medical treatment or vaccination, which could be seen to violate their freedom of choice – or even to violate their body. In the first case the consequences are personal, limited to the person who made the wrong decision. But in the second case the consequences are social. An personal wrong decision has taken away the freedom of choice, the health and in some cases the lives, of others in society.

A bit like the personal decision to drive on the wrong side of the road. Society has taken away a small personal freedom of choice in our road rules to protect the lives of all of us.

3: Fluoridation. Social health policies like community fluoridation of water, salt, milk, etc., are recognised as being safe, beneficial and cost-effective. But they are opposed by a vocal minority. Activists will passionately promote the freedom of choice argument and, considering they don’t have the scientific evidence on their side this is often seen as their strongest argument. After all, it is values-based and therefore can’t be tested and rejected by evidence.

But, this third case is different to the other 2.

  • The act of fluoridation or not is social, taken by society as a whole or their representatives. An person may contribute to the decision but cannot decide the issue by a personal action as they can with vaccinations or blood transfusions. Although individual political action, or dissemination of information or misinformation, may influence that social decision – and hence the social consequences.
  • Fluoridation does not involve an intervention or treatment, medical or otherwise. No one is forced to drink fluoridated water or milk, or to consume fluoridated salt. The freedom of choice argument is invalid here because there are always alternatives.

Despite actively promoting the freedom of choice argument even the NZ anti-fluoride activist Fluoride Free NZ provides information on these atlernatives. They list alternative water sources, distillation, ion exchange filters and reverse osmosis. Most of these choices are cheap and available.

So what is driving anti-fluoridation propagandists?

Unlike opponents to blood transfusion they cannot argue freedom of choice to refuse an intervention on religious grounds. There is no intervention. The only personal imposition is that they may wish to buy a water filter (many already have these) or buy water from a different source.

Again, unlike opponents of vaccination they cannot argue freedom of choice to refuse an intervention even on grounds of personal belief – because there is no personal intervention.

Given the lack of any forced or personal intervention I am forced to conclude the freedom of choice issue that concerns the anti-fluoride activists is their freedom of choice to decide the oral health quality of other members of their community. And given the health and scientific expert consensus on the issue they are really arguing for their freedom of choice to decide the oral health of others on the grounds of their own minority personal beliefs or convictions.

In last year’s High Court judgement on the question of fluoridation in South Tarinaki, Justice Hansen wrote:

“Provided it does not have consequences for public health a person has the right to make even the poorest decisions in respect of their own health. But where the state, either directly or through local government, employs public health interventions, the right is not engaged. Were it otherwise, the individual’s right to refuse would become the individual’s right to decide outcomes for others. It would give any person a right of veto over public health measures which it is not only the right but often the responsibility of local authorities to deliver.”

The freedom of choice the anti-fluoride activists are promoting is their freedom of choice to decide health outcomes for others – not themselves.

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Pseudoscience in your supermarket

pseudoscience1

Image credit: Blueollie

This article by Michael Schulson in the Daily Beast struck a chord with me – Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience. Possibly because I have spent far too much time debating  anti-fluoride activists. But the experience has certainly made me very aware the pseudoscience  extends a lot further than creationism and climate change denial. That’s the point Michael makes:

“you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.”

I have found that in very many cases if you scratch an anti-fluoridationist or anti-vaccinationists you will find a food faddist. Often a dogmatic food faddist.

Schulson makes the point that a lot of food faddism is pseudoscience – but it is a pseudoscience which seems far more acceptable, even to intelligent people, than what we usually think of as pseudoscience:

“there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.”

We all know people who get sucked in by this talk – maybe many of us get sucked in a bit ourselves. Perhaps there is a bit of food faddism in all of us. And isn’t this sort of thing harmless – if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why bother?

But I think Schulson has a point when he writes:

“The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.”

For some people it is not far from a food fad to chemo-phobia. Start buying sea salt because it is advertised as “chemical free” and it is easy to get sucked into ideas that anything is bad because it contains “chemicals.” “Chemical” becomes a bad word – and “natural” a good one.

In my article Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action?  I described how the NZ Health Trust, the organisation behind the recent High Court action attempting to rule fluoridation illegal, is a lobby group for the natural supplement and health practitioner industry. I described their court action as that of a corporate lobby group attempting to stop a public health policy.

One of my critics actually made the point that I was wrong. An industry selling “natural” health products could not be described as corporate because of the word “natural!”

Words like “chemical” and “natural’ can be emotionally laden for many people and this can make them susceptible to other pseudoscientific ideas.

That is what I have found with many people I have debated. Their emotional or ideological committment to food fads like “organic” food and coconut oil treatments often goes together with opposition to fluoridation and vaccination. With many of them it seems to lead to conspiracy theories like depopulation and chemtrails.

To me, that is the message of the poster above.

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