Researchers investigate whether anti-vaxxers and opponents of Ukraine are in the same propaganda group

Credit: Adobe Stock
Credit: Adobe Stock

Only 6.4 percent of anti-vaccination accounts on X (formerly Twitter) began publishing anti-Ukrainian content after Moscow's attack on Kiev. 'It is not easy to prove that we are dealing with an organised propaganda campaign,’ says Dr. Leon Ciechanowski from the Kozminski University,

Researchers from the Kozminski University determined this by analysing 3.5 million entries from 3,600 Internet users. University representatives write about it in a release sent to PAP.

'The analysis of data has shown that the online activity of Russia and its sympathizers - in the context of war - is visible. Their practices spread to various groups and do not exclusively target any specific one, although various studies - including ours - show that anti-vaccination groups are more susceptible to disinformation,’ says data analyst Dr. Ciechanowski.

After the outbreak of the war caused by Russia, information began to appear online that the accounts of vaccination opponents immediately became the publishers of statements directed against the victims of Vladimir Putin's aggression.

Studies with this conclusion were published, for example, by the American think tank Brookings or the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and by Polish organisations.

'The fact that caught our attention was that the mentioned studies were based on the analysis of, for example, 10,000 social media posts. Meanwhile, reliable samples from which reliable conclusions can be drawn should contain from 3 to 8 million posts,’ says Dr. Ciechanowski, who researches fake news in the research team led by Professor Dariusz Jemielniak.

'We decided that the claim about an organised campaign of opponents of vaccinations and Ukraine could be another fake news,’ he adds. 

Therefore, the researchers analysed a much larger data set: 3.5 million entries from 3,600 Internet users. They checked hashtags and detailed content of posts. The set included such phrases as: 'stopsanitarysegregation', 'dontvaccinate', 'coronavirus', 'zelensky', 'volhynia', 'putin', 'warinUkraine'. Polish journalists also helped the scientists. They suggested an observation of approximately 300 accounts known for their activity in the examined thematic areas.

Domination of far-right accounts

The analysis showed that among those opposed to vaccinations who moved to criticize Ukraine, accounts associated with the far right were the dominant group.

Dr. Ciechanowski says that propaganda in this regard was spread, among others, by party accounts and those belonging to supporters of these organizations. At the same time, the study did not confirm the claim that anti-Ukrainian propaganda originated primarily from the online anti-vaxx movement.

'Our analyses showed that out of a total of 3,600 analysed users, only 6.39 percent of anti-vaccination accounts switched to anti-Ukrainian profiles. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about a deliberate and organized campaign of opponents of vaccinations and Ukraine,’ Ciechanowski says. 

The researcher explains how the connections between anti-vaccine and anti-Ukrainian accounts were verified.

'We combined independent analysis with analysis using algorithms. First, selected posts were assessed by a group of users who knew the topics they covered. Then we used artificial intelligence to conduct network analysis and sentiment analysis. As a result, we determined which accounts were 'trendsetters', which were the most popular and had the most interactions with other accounts. The selected accounts were assessed by a group of users,’ adds Ciechanowski.

Researchers from the Kozminski University conducted a study of Twitter (currently X) content from 2009 to March 2022. The war in Ukraine broke out on February 24, 2022, and the coronavirus pandemic lasted from 2020 to 2022. Checking whether accounts spreading anti-vaccine propaganda and anti-Ukrainian narrative constitute one and the same Internet movement is one of the parts of a several-year research project financed by the Gospostrateg programme. Its goal is to develop a set of tools for verifying medical fake news.

'Vaccination reluctance has been recognized by WHO as one of the main threats to public health. Therefore, we need to study the topic of disinformation and its social impact. We will soon release software that will help health care workers, educators, scientists, and public administration build trust in vaccinations. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to understand the mechanisms of social influence that govern the Internet,’ says Professor Dariusz Jemielniak.

The several-year research project, financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under the Gospostrateg programme, focuses on detailed identification of the nature of medical disinformation. A large amount of false information about vaccinations in the media reduces trust in this method of disease prevention.

MEDfake attempts to trace the decision-making mechanism of people who refuse vaccinations. The long-term goal of the project is to reduce the number of vaccine refusals. (PAP)

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