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.