May 30, 2019

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

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10:30 a.m. ET: 1,363,365— Total deaths: 76,420 — Total recoveries: 292,425Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10:30 a.m. ET: 368,533 — Total deaths: 11,008 — Total recoveries: 19,972Map.
  3. Trump administration latest: Peter Navarro warned White House colleagues in late January about the massive potential risks from the coronavirus.
  4. Public health update: Funeral homes are struggling to handle the pandemic.
  5. 2020 update: Wisconsin Supreme Court blocks the governor's attempt to delay in-person primary voting until June.
  6. Tech update: YouTube has removed thousands of COVID-19 videos for violating policies related to spreading medical misinformation.
  7. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal health. Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Stephanie Grisham out as White House press secretary

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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