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Russian misinformation campaigns target health fears

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Russian efforts to sow discord ahead of the 2020 elections appear focused on fear-mongering around health care issues.

Why it matters: Misinformation online can have real-world health and safety repercussions.

Driving the news: Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that RT, the Russia-backed television network based in the U.S., has been peddling unverified stories claiming that 5G wireless technology can be linked to cancer, autism, Alzheimer's and other health problems.

  • "Hundreds of blogs and websites appear to be picking up the network’s 5G alarms, seldom if ever noting the Russian origins," the Times notes. "Analysts call it a treacherous fog."

Earlier this year, the CDC attributed a rise in measles outbreaks to misinformation that fueled anti-vaccination sentiments.

  • A study from George Washington University professor David Broniatowski and his colleagues in October found that Russian trolls using sophisticated Twitter bot accounts were attempting to fuel the anti-vaccination debate by posting about the phenomenon — from both sides — at a far greater pace than the average user.
  • Their efforts, Broniatowski notes, mimic misinformation tactics that Russian trolls have used in the past — supercharging the online discourse in America around one issue by inflating polarizing viewpoints about it from both sides.

Be smart: The most effective misinformation often plays into preconceived notions or fears that already exist in society, especially around health, safety and well-being.

  • Part of the recent backlash against big technology companies is over concerns that they will prioritize innovation and commercialization over public safety.

The bottom line: Health issues are particularly susceptible to manipulation, given that it's still unclear what directly impacts and cures many conditions, including cancer.

Go deeper: 2020 misinformation campaigns take aim at the latest spook issues