The creation of the Internet spawned a new age for humanity; suddenly, information could be acquired if someone simply knew how to search for it. The constant access to new updates and developments allowed people to share and collaborate on projects and is responsible for some of the most profound advancements and achievements of humankind.
Unfortunately, the very same power can be used for malicious purposes, spreading incorrect information to incite people who don’t know any better or aren’t willing to dig any deeper. For example, scientists recently discovered that Russian bots were spewing false information about vaccines on Twitter during the 2016 presidential election. However, their goals were to stir up the American public in an attempt to divide us even further than we already were.
“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” said Mark Dredze, a team member and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, which was involved in the study. The bots (which were detected because they tweeted about vaccines 21 times more often than the average human) targeted both sides, pro- and anti-vaccine, to “erode public trust in vaccination across borders.”
David Broniatowsky, an assistant professor in George Washington’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, stated that the vast majority of Americans believe vaccines are safe and effective, but the Russians’ efforts on Twitter gave the idea that there was a lot to debate about. Since around 81% of consumers do their research before making a purchase or decision, it stands to reason that those results could have swayed more than a few people.
Ironically, this comes at a time where Europe is facing its biggest measles outbreak in years. A staggering 41,000 have been diagnosed with the disease within the first six months of 2018, compared to just 5,273 in 2016. Measles is easily preventable through the measles vaccine and has saved an estimated 17.1 million lives since 2000 — apparently, 15 years is all it takes for the seed of misinformation (regarding MMR vaccinations and their correlation to autism) to become complete distrust.
Fortunately, the U.S. seems to be keeping up on their shots: as of September 8, 2018, only 137 cases have been documented this year. However, Dr. Pauline Paterson from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had a good point when she stated the following.
“With a vaccine preventable disease, one case is one too many, and the numbers of measles cases so far this year is astounding.”