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Russian Twitter trolls played both sides of vaccine debate, study says

The trolls insulted advocates on both sides to generate hostility.

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Russian trolls used Twitter to sow discord in the vaccination debate, according to a study.

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Russian trolls on Twitter didn't pick a side in the vaccine debate, but insulted both sides to maximize hostility, a study found.

The same trolls and bots that meddled in the 2016 presidential election claimed that the Illuminati were behind vaccines and also said failing to get them was "stupidity," The New York Times reported on Friday, citing a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

"On guns, or race, these accounts take opposite sides in lots of debates," said Dr. David A. Broniatowski,  the study's lead author. "They're about sowing discord."

The study looked into the origins of 899 vaccine-related tweets sent from mid-2014 to late 2017 and found that many came from accounts linked to spam and malware links, but most were linked to known Russian trolls.

Some of the tweets were designed to appeal to the conspiracy theorists who frequent sites like Infowars -- itself the subject of major controversy in recent weeks.

More than quarter carried the hashtag #VaccinateUS, which the study says is "uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency," a propaganda operation with Kremlin links, according to the Times.

On Tuesday, Facebook and Twitter took down hundreds of accounts that they said were linked to influence efforts from Russia and Iran, while Google removed 58 accounts tied to what it said was an Iranian effort to sow discord from YouTube and other sites on Thursday.

A former Facebook security chief on Wednesday said it's "too late to protect the 2018 elections," but believes the 2020 election can still be saved.