Limited Success For Bots Engaged In Spreading Anti-Vaccination Message, Finds Study

A study conducted on millions of tweets have found that anti-vaccination content generated by bots are rarely retweeted by Twitter users which suggests that there are some serious limitations in the use of bots in spreading vaccine misinformation.

The role of bots was apparently found to be ineffective with respect to efforts to influencing discourse around vaccines even though there are growing concerns that misinformation spreading can be significantly influenced by bots, said University of Sydney’s associate professor Adam Dunn from the University of Sydney that conducted the study.

The importance of the study was in the act that it measured the impact of bots even though many previous studies have explored aspects of number of bots used and those who were behind the use of such bots, Dunn said.

The interactions of more than 20m vaccine-related tweets posted by both human-operated and bot-operated Twitter accounts of more than 53,188 randomly-selected active Twitter users in the United States was examined by the research team. The time period of the monitoring was between January 2017 and December 2019.

The researchers found that a median of 757 vaccine-related posts and a median of 27 posts critical of vaccination were viewed by a typical Twitter user. Bots were responsible for less than 0.5% of those critical tweets the study found. Anti-vaccination content that came from other people was more likely to be retweeted by users, the study concluded.

The researcher also noted that over 15% of all of eh Twitter accounts were bots which meant that such accounts are operated automatically by software for posting, retweeting or replying to tweets to users.  The study also noted a large degree of difference in the level of sophistication of the bots – ranging from those that simply reposting links to often malicious web pages to those that masquerading as humans.

“There is an assumption that the more bots that post, the more impact they have, but that’s not true if you’re not measuring what reaches people,” Dunn, who heads the university’s school of biomedical informatics and digital health, said.

“Thousands of tweets may never be seen if those accounts have no human followers. If you’re simply counting up bots, you’re not measuring reach or impact.”

The number of Twitter users whose total number of vaccine related tweets in their accounts comprised of vaccine-critical tweets of at least 50 per cent was relatively small, the study found.

“Engagement with any vaccine-related tweets, vaccine-critical tweets, and bots was higher in the 5.8% of users who were embedded in communities where vaccine-critical content was common,” the study found.

“The overwhelming majority of the vaccine-related content seen by typical users in the US is generated by human-operated accounts, not bots.”

Dunn said that “the concentration of misinformation is in this small community and that is where the problem lies”.

“Rather than focusing on bots, we need to engage public health communication specialists whose aim is not to change opinions of vocal critics of vaccines, but to persuade silent observers of those critics and fence-sitters,” he said.

(Adapted from TheGuardian.com)

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