Have the Russians weaponized measles?


Biological warfare offers an unparalleled opportunity for enemies of the US to terrorize and kill Americans.

According to Wikipedia:

Biological warfare (BW) — also known as germ warfare — is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war.

The use of biological weapons is prohibited under customary international humanitarian law, as well as a variety of international treaties. The use of biological agents in armed conflict is a war crime.

The limiting factor in biological warfare is not the number of agents; there are many excellent candidates that could be used to wipe out our population. To date the limiting factor has been the ability to weaponize those agents.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Anti-vaxxers, Russia is trying to Make America Sick Again. Don’t help them![/pullquote]

The primary difficulty is not the production of the biological agent, as many biological agents used in weapons can often be manufactured relatively quickly, cheaply and easily. Rather, it is the weaponization, storage and delivery in an effective vehicle to a vulnerable target that pose significant problems.

But what if it were much, much easier? What if you didn’t need to manufacture the agent, weaponize it, store it and find an appropriate method of dispersal? What if all you needed to do was convince Americans not to vaccinate against it?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are undoubtedly aware that Russia under Vladimir Putin has been engaged in a multi-faceted disinformation campaign designed to cause chaos in the American political system, enable the election of Russia friendly politicians, and sow discord in the international alliances that restrict Russian aggression. It has been successful beyond Putin’s wildest imagination, with the election of Donald Trump — Russia’s candidate — to the Presidency. And it was all done without firing a shot. All it took was the theft of private information, weaponized by mastery of Facebook and Twitter.

But what if you wanted to go beyond a wholesale takeover of the political system of the US and actually kill Americans? All you’d need is the weaponization of misinformation about vaccines and disease, and scourges believed controlled in the US would come roaring back.

What if anti-vaxxers — so desperate to believe that their ignorance and conspiracy theories mark them as enpowered, independent thinkers — are nothing more than easily controlled pawns in an effort to weaken the US? It’s not as unlikely as you might think.

Indeed, US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been investigating it. The paper Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate was published in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2018:

We report the results of a retrospective observational study assessing the impact of bots and trolls on online vaccine discourse on Twitter. Using a set of 1 793 690 tweets collected from July 14, 2014, through September 26, 2017, we quantified the impact of known and suspected Twitter bots and trolls on amplifying polarizing and antivaccine messages.

This analysis is supplemented by a qualitative study of #VaccinateUS — a Twitter hashtag designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political wedge issue. #VaccinateUS tweets were uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency — a company backed by the Russian government specializing in online influence operations.

Thus, health communications have become “weaponized”: public health issues, such as vaccination, are included in attempts to spread misinformation and disinformation by foreign powers. In addition, Twitter bots distributing malware and commercial content (i.e., spam) masquerade as human users to distribute antivaccine messages. A full 93% of tweets about vaccines are generated by accounts whose provenance can be verified as neither bots nor human users yet who exhibit malicious behaviors. These unidentified accounts preferentially tweet antivaccine misinformation.

They found:

Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user. Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments. This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of contro- versial topics — a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy… We recently found that this strategy was effective for propagating news articles through social media in the context of the 2015 Disneyland measles outbreak.

This is not Russia’s first foray into disinformation campaigns about disease. As the accompanying editorial in the American Journal of Public Health notes:

Consider, for example, Russia’s active measures campaign in the mid-1980s to disseminate propaganda that the AIDS virus was unleashed on the world by the United States as a biological weapon. As an individual campaign, it successfully spread thousands of false stories; its reach was limited only by a lack of human resources to conduct active measures. Today, new communication channels, tested strategies, and established preferences among the online public allow the propagation of false information in viral fashion.

The Russian effort to weaponize measles by sowing misinformation about vaccination has important implications both for anti-vaxxers and for medical professionals fighting to save the lives anti-vaxxers put at risk.

Anti-vaxxers need to understand that they are the target of a highly sophisticated disinformation campaign designed to weaken our country. They are not brave, independent thinkers. They are dupes. What more do you need to know about the safety and efficacy of vaccination than the fact that the Russians, our mortal enemies, are trying to convince you of the opposite?

And the stakes are far higher than they realize. It isn’t just a matter of wasting money on the books and supplements peddled by anti-vax celebrities. It isn’t just a matter of putting the lives of your own children and other people’s infants and immunocompromised children at risk. It’s a matter of putting the safety of our country at risk.

Anti-vaxxers, you are NOT the victims of a massive conspiracy of all the doctors, public health officials and pharmaceutical companies in the world. You ARE a victim of a Russian conspiracy targeting you specifically, understanding that your lack of knowledge of science and statistics makes you the weak link in the effort to protect the health of individual Americans and American itself.

Russia is trying to Make America Sick Again. Don’t help them!