As deadly measles outbreak spreads, Russian trolls and bots spread antivax messages. Here’s why

Click to play video: '37 dead as measles cases spike in Europe' 37 dead as measles cases spike in Europe
More than 41,000 measles cases have been reported in Europe during the first half of 2018, already dwarfing last year's total – Aug 20, 2018

A measles epidemic in Europe worsened in the first half of this year. More than 41,000 people have contracted measles and at least 37 have died, the World Health Organization reported.

Rates are highest in Ukraine and the Balkans, the WHO reported. Measles is easily prevented by vaccination, but three-quarters of cases in the Ukraine had never been vaccinated.

Measles, among the world’s most contagious diseases, is a virus that’s spread in the air through coughing or sneezing. Health officials say vaccination rates of at least 95 percent are needed to prevent epidemics.

In Ukraine’s case, part of the problem can be explained by the armed conflict in parts of the country, but part is due to discredited claims, made by ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield, that vaccines cause autism. Wakefield  was stripped of his licence to practice medicine in 2010 when a British disciplinary panel found that research that he claimed proved a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism was “dishonest” and “irresponsible.”

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READ MORE: Measles outbreak: How a decades old, fraudulent anti-vaccine study still affects public health

Despite being thoroughly debunked, though, Wakefield’s claim is still used by the anti-vaccine movement 20 years later.

READ MORE: I created an anti-vax filter bubble for myself on YouTube (It was a bit too easy)

Another ally of those arguing that the measles vaccine spreads autism: Russia-based bots and trolls, a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health argues. (Cynically, their creators also made more bots and trolls to argue the other side; one purpose was, simply, division for its own sake.)

WATCH: How to protect kids too young for the measles vaccine

The study’s authors traced the accounts to the same source as those who intervened in the 2016 U.S. election., the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.

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The Russian tweets were different from more organic antivax messages, the study’s authors wrote:

“These included arguments related to racial/ethnic divisions, appeals to God, and arguments on the basis of animal welfare. These are divisive topics in US culture, which we did not see frequently discussed in other tweets related to vaccines.”

They also introduced conspiracy theories about government that antivaxers generally don’t, for example:

  • “Apparently only the elite get ‘clean ’ #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?! #VaccinateUS”
  • “Did you know there was a secret government database of #vaccine-damaged children? #VaccinateUS”

The tweets were also used as a way of distributing malware.

WATCH: 4 reasons why measles is so contagious

People engaged the trolls, thinking that they were arguing in good faith, which only escalated the controversy and played into their hands.

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Amplifying whatever points of division appear is typical of Russian social media efforts aimed at the West. Other themes have been aimed at issues like immigration, race and policingall things Trump, and more eccentric causes, like Texas secession.

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has said the aim is to widen existing political divisions: ” …  to see us in conflict on big social issues is in the Kremlin’s interests.”

On a more sophisticated level, stoking online controversies is a cheap way of understanding a rival power’s ‘fracture points‘. Some will catch fire, some won’t, and the attacking power learns which is which through trial and error.

READ MORE: Trump’s comments on autism hint, again, at anti-vaccination sympathies

The United States and Britain have been targets; France and Germany have as well.

Is Canada immune? Of course not. But we have the advantage of not being first in line, and of knowing more or less what to expect.

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Click to play video: 'Measles case in Dartmouth jail springs health authorities into action' Measles case in Dartmouth jail springs health authorities into action
Measles case in Dartmouth jail springs health authorities into action – May 8, 2017

In brief:

  • Alex Stamos, until recently head of security at Facebook, warns that U.S. elections are just as vulnerable to digital disruption as ever: “The combination of offensive cyber techniques with a disinformation campaign would enable a hostile nation or group to create an aura of confusion and illegitimacy around an election that could lead to half of the American populace forever considering that election to be stolen.”
  • In New York magazine: a deep dive into the dark side of the Internet, as explained by its creators. What went wrong: In brief: the free model led to 1) addictive products, and 2) selling advertisers precisely defined market segments, which led to the dystopian surveillance culture that’s becoming more and more obvious. In turn, the snowballing problems led to Trump, Brexit and the current moment of truth. Long read, worth your time.
  • In the New York Times, a look at microtargeting voter segments using Facebook. Russian-linked accounts first used benign posts to try to identify non-white voters in the U.S. in 2016, then tailored ads to them to discourage them from voting.
  • Researchers at the University of Warwick set out to understand racially motivated attacks in Germany. What made some places experience attacks and others not? Income? Politics? “One thing stuck out. Towns where Facebook use was higher than average … reliably experienced more attacks on refugees. That held true in virtually any sort of community — big city or small town; affluent or struggling; liberal haven or far-right stronghold — suggesting that the link applies universally.”
With files from the Associated Press

READ MORE: Measles cases could spike if vaccinations drop even a little: study

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