To the chagrin of top social networks, trolls are using an array of sensitive topics to sour user experiences.
In the latest example, a new study from George Washington University finds that social media bots and Russian trolls promoted discord and spread false information about vaccines on Twitter.
Using tactics similar to those deployed during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, these Twitter accounts engaged in vaccine-related debates months before election season.
Led by GWU, the team also included researchers from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. Together, they examined thousands of tweets sent between mid 2014 and late 2017.
The researchers found several accounts, which were later identified as the same Russian trolls who interfered in the U.S. election, as well as marketing and malware bots.
"Many anti-vaccine tweets come from accounts whose provenance is unclear," David Broniatowski, assistant professor in GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, notes in the new report. "These might be bots, human users or 'cyborgs' -- hacked accounts that are sometimes taken over by bots."
"Although it’s impossible to know exactly how many tweets were generated by bots and trolls, our findings suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas," Broniatowski added.
The researchers found that "content polluters" -- bot accounts that distribute malware, unsolicited commercial content and disruptive materials -- shared anti-vaccination messages 75% more than average Twitter users.
The study, "Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate," was just published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Struggling to preserve a safe and positive environment, social networks are pumping more resources into the fight against trolls and spreaders of disinformation and discord.
Facebook, for example, recently said it expects total expenses to grow by as much as 60% from last year to this year -- largely due to efforts to clean up its network.
At the same time, social giants are struggling with how much they should police content on their networks.
Twitter recently drew criticism for supporting Alex Jones at a time when other networks were severing ties with the conspiracy theorist. After reconsidering its position, Twitter later decided to give Jones a brief “time out.”