Bots are not that significant in vaccine misinformation spreading campaigns

Bots are not that significant in vaccine misinformation spreading campaigns

People hope that COVID-19 crisis ends when vaccines are developed. However, there are a whole lot of people who hate the very idea of vaccination. Social media sites are filled with negative and oftentimes inaccurate messages about incoming COVID-19 vaccines and a lot of those posts are spread by bots. But how many? A new research led by the University of Sydney showed that bot activity on Twitter in this area might be exaggerated.

Although there are many posts about vaccines shared on social media, most of them are positive. And almost none of them are created and spread by bots. Image credit: Retha Ferguson via Wikimedia

A lot of people believe that the false information about vaccines is spread using some higher tech approaches, such as automatic posting bots. But it may not be the case at all. Scientists now  looked at over 53,000 randomly selected active Twitter users in the United States and monitored their interaction with more than 20 million vaccine-related tweets. Researchers chose the period between 2017 and 2019, which is before the COVID-19 pandemic, but when discussions about vaccines were already very active.

Although messages about vaccines might have been overwhelming in their number (a typical Twitter user potentially saw 757 vaccine-related posts over the three-year period), most of these posts were positive. Just 27 posts of 757 were critical of vaccinations and none of them were created by bots. In other words, scientists determined that bots play virtually no role in shaping the discourse about vaccines on Twitter.

Associate Professor Adam Dunn, lead author of the study, said: “The reality is that most of what people see about vaccines on social media is neither critical nor misinformation. It is convenient to blame problems in public health and politics on orchestrated and malicious activities, so many investigations focus on simply tallying up what vocal anti-vaccine groups post, without measuring what everyone else actually sees and engages with.”

Scientists say that focusing on bots in this case might do more bad than good. Policy makers should focus on education campaigns instead, because showing people the real information is more important than combating bots that don’t really do that much harm.

Interestingly, scientists also found that people are extremely actively engaged in vaccine debates. For example, 36.7 % of Twitter users involved in this study posted or retweeted vaccine content. Again, most of it was positive – just 4.5 % retweeted vaccine-critical content and 2.1 % retweeted a bot.

Vaccine-critical ideologies help people form communities online, which foster those flawed beliefs. The only appropriate response to that is education. Nothing pushed, nothing forced. Just clear facts that are easy to find and check. An not too much attention to bots, because they are not that significant.


Source: University of Sydney

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