By Sy Mukherjee
August 24, 2018

Happy Friday, readers! This is Sy.

The ambitions of Russian cyber-trolls on social media don’t stop at an election’s edge—or at least that’s the conclusion of a fascinating new study from researchers at George Washington University, as CNN reports. The reach of this digital brand of epistemological warfare extends to public health, too—specifically, the critical issue of vaccine safety.

The study published in the American Journal of Public Health has the rather ominous title of “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate.” It centers on, well, how Twitter bots and Russian trolls amplified the vaccine debate among the American public (and not in a good way).

The researchers conclude that the perpetrators were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to use Twitter to sow discord and disseminate anti-vaccine propaganda (my colleague Jonathan Vanian has an excellent writeup of the details, including interviews with the lead study author and examination of the political machinations that influenced the campaign).

But failure aside, the tactic of using public health issues as a wedge between people isn’t new, even if the methods have evolved in our social media-saturated times. Just consider the example of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “[T]he response to AIDS is probably the most striking contemporary example of how intertwined politics, policy, and public health are,” wrote United Nations experts in a 2007 paper on the virus’ spread.

“Why has the global response to AIDS been so highly politicized? One key reason is the prejudice and discomfort around the ways HIV is transmitted,” they write. “Another is that the epidemic is fueled by injustices. AIDS both exposes and exacerbates multiple fault lines of social and economic inequality and injustice, which in themselves are highly political. An expanding AIDS epidemic reveals a political system’s weak points, whether at the national or the community level.”

The examples extend beyond HIV/AIDS. In 2014, in the midst of the initial Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there was heated, and politically-motivated, debate about whether or not American health care workers treating Ebola patients should have been allowed back into the United States if infected—even though public health officials went out of their way to insist there was minimal risk of spreading the virus with proper safety precautions, and that the best opportunities for effective treatment were here in America.

Human biology is so fundamental to our shared existence that perhaps it’s not surprising it can be twisted into a political football. That’s a reality that Internet trolls have, it seems, taken to heart.

I hope you enjoy your weekend, and read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


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