Sickening

I read something recently which said that about half of all postings on social media are automatically generated (by so-called ‘bots’). You can bet your bottom dollar that every issue of social importance is being debated on the internet. That means that there are going to be a lot of bot-generated links to the matter in question. And, it goes without saying, some of those will have been generated by somebody in Russia. I say this just to point out that whatever the issue, if it’s important then it’s pretty much certain that you’ll find something about it on the internet that you can trace back to Russia. So if your measure of whether ‘Russia’ is pushing an issue, or is responsible for swaying public opinion on a given matter, is that Russian-based accounts have posted something on the subject, then there is absolutely nothing you can’t hold Russia responsible for.

Of course, regardless of the question, there will also be bots and trolls, and even genuine, ordinary people, commenting on it from America, and Canada, and England, and France, and Germany, and who knows where else. But for some reason, nobody ever holds them responsible. Russians are involved – it’s their fault. Forget about everybody else.

And so it is that in the past couple of weeks, a plethora of articles have appeared blaming Russia for, of all things, measles. As is well known, the disease has made a comeback in recent years, largely as a result of a significant reduction in vaccinations. It turns out that some Russian-based social media accounts have forwarded or provided links to anti-vaccination messages. Ergo, the revival of measles is Russia’s fault.

One of the most egregious examples of this logic appears in an article in the respect medical journal The Lancet. This blames an upsurge of measles in Ukraine firmly on Russia. In 2008, 95% of Ukrainian babies were vaccinated against measles. By 2016, this figure had fallen to 31%, ‘among the lowest in the world’. Vaccinations for Hepatitis B have similarly collapsed. Last year there were 23,000 cases of measles in Ukraine, about half the entire European total. The Lancet links this to the war in Donbass and also comments that, research ‘concluded that Russian trolls promoted discord and, masquerading as legitimate users, created a false impression that arguments for and against vaccination were equiposed. The result has been an erosion of public consensus on the value of vaccine programmes.’ The inference is clear: Russia is to blame for the massive outbreak of measles in Ukraine.

In fact, the research in question analyzes the Twitter hashtag #VaccinateUS, which was allegedly produced by the Russian ‘troll farm’, the Internet Research Agency. The research shows that this hashtag was associated with 253 posts, slightly more of which were pro-vaccine than anti. It also notes that ‘accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses (e.g. Zika) but not necessarily about vaccines. Finally, traditional spambots (designed to be recognizable as bots) were significantly less likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses than was the average Twitter user.’ This hardly suggests that Russian bots are the no. 1 anti-vaccine propagandists. Moreover, it’s hard to see the link between #Vaccinate US and Ukraine.

As The Lancet notes, ‘the precipitous fall in vaccination level [in Ukraine] began after 2008’. The supposed link to the war in Donbass is therefore irrelevant, as this process began long before that. Moreover, the Internet Research Agency wasn’t even founded till 2013, so I can’t see how it had any influence on plummeting vaccination levels in Ukraine before then. Added to that, as a graphic on Ukrainian vaccination rates on Anatoly Karlin’s blog shows, vaccination levels  have shot up since 2016, at which point not only was war waging in Donbass, but Russian bots were supposedly working their hardest. In short, there is no correlation with Russian bot activity and falling vaccination levels, and so no good reason to link measles in Ukraine to Russia. This, however, has not stopped the likes of RFE/RL from running articles suggesting that the opposite might be true.

And now, here in Canada, as we suffer an outbreak of measles in British Columbia, our very own Marcus Kolga has come forward to tell us who is to blame. In an article in yesterday’s Toronto Star, he tells us that ‘Russian disinformation is attacking our democracy and making us sick.’ According to Kolga,

As our information environment continues to be poisoned by Kremlin bots and trolls, it turns out that they’re also making us sick, literally. … Since 2014, the Kremlin has developed, distributed and amplified antivaccination conspiracy theories, urging parents not to allow their children to be vaccinated against life threatening illnesses, including measles. This has created a global health crisis.

There are some highly questionable assertions here. The first is that all Russian bots and trolls are ‘Kremlin bots and trolls’. Kolga produces no information to support the claim that this is a ‘Kremlin’ plot. The second is that Kremlin is developing and spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and ‘urging parents’ not to vaccinate their children. Actually, as shown above, alleged Russian messages tend to favour vaccines more than oppose them. The third is that it is specifically Kremlin bots who have ‘created a global health crisis’. This is blatantly untrue. The current crisis has its origins in a 1998 article by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, which linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Since then, the fear of vaccines has developed a life of its own, spread by vast numbers of people, most of whom have nothing to do with Russia. Even if it’s true that some Russian bots have spread anti-vaccine messages, nobody has yet shown that these constitute more than a tiny drop in the ocean of overall anti-vax propaganda. To say that Russian bots have ‘created a global health crisis’ is preposterous.

As for Canada, the current measles outbreak has been traced to the family of one Emmanuel Bilodeau, whose 11-year old son caught measles on a holiday to Vietnam. Bilodeau told the CBC that, ‘We worried 10-12 years ago because there was a lot of debate around the MMR vaccine. Doctors were coming out with research connecting the MMR vaccine with autism. So we were a little concerned.’ So this outbreak derives from a decision made eleven years ago. How then is it a product of Russian bots and trolls, none of whom, as far as anybody has yet claimed, was saying anything about measles at that point?

Connecting Russia to measles is fearmongering, pure and simple. And as the anti-vaccination issue has shown us, fearmongering is bad for the health. To quote Marcus Kolga, it ‘makes us sick’. Indeed.

 

15 thoughts on “Sickening”

  1. “One of the most egregious examples of this logic appears in an article in the respect medical journal The Lancet. This blames an upsurge of measles in Ukraine firmly on Russia. In 2008, 95% of Ukrainian babies were vaccinated against measles. By 2016, this figure had fallen to 31%, ‘among the lowest in the world’. Vaccinations for Hepatitis B have similarly collapsed. Last year there were 23,000 cases of measles in Ukraine, about half the entire European total. The Lancet links this to the war in Donbass and also comments that, research ‘concluded that Russian trolls promoted discord and, masquerading as legitimate users, created a false impression that arguments for and against vaccination were equiposed. The result has been an erosion of public consensus on the value of vaccine programmes.’ The inference is clear: Russia is to blame for the massive outbreak of measles in Ukraine.”

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  2. Measles is a benign but contagious viral infectious childhood disease. which most affects children and young people aged between 4 and 14 years.It is a strictly human virus, quickly destroyed by heat and ultraviolet light. The contagion occurs through direct contact (the virus in fact resists little to the environment) through the droplets of saliva issued with coughs and sneezing. Its severity is often linked to poor hygiene conditions, malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency, and the patient suffering from Immunodeficiencies. The improvement of living and sanitary conditions during the last century had drastically reduced the impact without the need for vaccination. In England, for example, vaccination is “compulsory” only for children and young adults considered at risk.
    The disease leaves a permanent immunity and this is the reason why immunisation against it is disputable. Note that Measles appears in African and tropical countries (in particular south america ans south asia) late and might have been brought there during the colonisation era by westerners. There, the devastation was high indeed…Now!
    it would be very easy to refute all the statements divulgated in your article… Is it worth of it? The whole is just so ridiculous indeed…Propagandist idiocy, in some countries, is becoming alarming and pathological but unfortunately it seems that there is no cure for that… Do not get upset, give it a laugher…It is the best detox…Ah!Ah!Ah!Ah!

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      1. The disease leaves a permanent immunity and this is the reason why immunisation against it is disputable.

        I doubt that poor sanitary conditions or malnutrition were the reason, but my mother decided, since I hadn’t caught it myself earlier, to put me close to my two younger ‘measled’ sisters so I would catch it too. Get it over with, once and for all?

        Made sense she thought, I guess, for me to get the permanently immunity against it too.

        *********************
        A German filmmaker was confronted not toto long ago with the recommendations by our Robert Koch Institute over here in Germany. Apparently this means six vaccinations at the tender age of two month. His wife revolted, which forced him look into matters. His research resulted in both a film and a book. Creating quite a little controversy over here, without any Russian support:

        Eingeimpft/inoculated:
        https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eingeimpft

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      2. Aule, my own encounter with measles happened before vaccine for measles was available.Neither my nor my sisters case looked as bad as in the photograph of a baby in Karlin article linked above.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Measles_vaccine#History

        This seems the core problem feeding a rather heated pro and con debate.
        “According to WHO, 95% of children need to be fully vaccinated to stop the disease from spreading.”

        ************
        More generally debates about vaccinations have a long history.

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  3. Measles is far from benign, having a 0.2% death rate but the rate can be much higher in places with poor nutrition and health care. Other serious complications include permanent brain damage. But it is very easily preventable by vaccination.

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  4. Kudos on doing the research footwork. While attributing anti-vax to Russian hackers plumbs new levels of zealotry, even I was surprised to see that they spread more pro-vax than anti-vax messages.

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  5. “I read something recently which said that about half of all postings on social media are automatically generated (by so-called ‘bots’).”

    I’m sure we’ve all seen some ‘political’ spam (usually of the hate-mongering kind), but about 99% of all spam is, I imagine, purely commercial. Advertisement.

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  6. Dear Professor Robinson,

    Perhaps you should consider writing in a response to the Lancet. This is an editorial from back in September so they might not publish it but it’s always worth a try.

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  7. A lot of Russiaphobic tweets are often spread by doctors in the NHS mostly via a former member of the exec committee of an NHS party that was set up. I met her a year ago at a conference and asked why she kept tweeting all this repeatedly and she said she didn’t know why.

    A lot of ill informed opinions about Russian healthcare is also hyped by health professionals on social media by a mix of rumour, who follow some people like Martin Mckee who has done some work in Russia.

    As the majority of the doctors don’t speak or read Russian and probably only read English articles from Russian health professionals in journals; they take Martin Mckee and others words as definitive. Am not saying he makes false claims about his Russia health research at all, he is someone whose work is of a very high standard, I doubt he spreads rumours like that but also probably doesn’t get vety vocal.about challenging it either. And people then assume he is an expert on all other aspects of Russian society.

    I send things to health colleagues to try and raise awareness. I remember the Lancet article and spent quite a bit of time on social media pointing out the investment and contributions to WHO for TB vaccine that Russian govt leading on. But falls on mostly closed ears.

    I will find out more about whether our vaccine regulator does any collaboration work with Russia as I used to work for MHRA about 6 years ago.

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