Mapping the disciplined ranks of anti-vax Twitter

Anti-vax Twitter consists of several thousand vaccine denialists whose present project is stopping California's mandatory vaccine bill, through campaigns of lockstep tweeting to lawmakers, workplace and home-based harassment of dissenters, and coordinated SEO campaigns that muddy the waters for concerned parents who try to research the subject.

Renee DiResta (a vaccination advocate) and Gilad Lotan (a data scientist) pulled anti-vax Twitter traffic from Twitter's firehose and subjected it to analysis, grouping participants based on the kind of messages they focused on, and looking at the shape of the social relationships between them, finding a series of largely discrete groups in a command-and-control relationship with a small number of coordinators who instruct them on daily hashtags and marching orders.

Over time, anti-vax Twitter has changed its tactics and emphasis based on which messages gained currency with lawmakers and the public. Once dominated by conspiracy theories about a CDC coverup of vaccines' supposed harms, today's anti-vax Twitter focuses on "choice" and "safe vaccination," while its participants are exhorted to physically stalk and harass lawmakers and their staff in a spiral of increasing aggressive confrontations.

Significantly, there is no pro-vax Twitter that counters this force; when doctors, pediatricians and parents dare to assay messages about scientific rigor and public health, they are deluged with harassing tweets reminiscent of the Gamergate dogpiles.

Twitter activity around #sb277 is part of a multipronged strategy that takes place alongside phone, email, and fax campaigns, coordinated by well-funded groups including the Canary Party and the NVIC. The net effect is that legislators and staffers feel besieged on all fronts. In one unfortunate video, a movement leader encouraged supporters to use Twitter to harass and stalk a lobbyist, who has since filed police reports. In a very recent creation, that same leader excoriates her "Twitter army" for diluting the power of the #cdcwhistleblower movement by creating their own hashtags rather than using the ones they've been assigned. She also requests that the entire network tweet at Assembly representatives to inform them that their political careers will be over if they vote in favor of SB277. Much like Food Babe leverages her #foodbabearmy to flood corporations with demands for change, the goal of anti-vax twitter is to dominate the conversation and make it look as if all parents are vehemently opposed to the legislation.

…"Tweetiatrician" doctors, lawyers, and pro-vaccine parents often do attempt to join the conversation around the antivax hashtags. Unfortunately, many of the most active accounts experience the same attention received by the legislators: They become the target of harassment that includes phone calls to their places of employment, tweets posting identifying information or photos of their children, or warnings that they are being watched. Pro-vaccine activists and legislators alike often become paranoid when they attempt to engage the anti-vax community. They face accusations of being shills paid by Big Pharma to sway the narrative and keep "vaccine choice" activists from spreading The Truth.

Anti-Vaxxers Are Using Twitter to Manipulate a Vaccine Bill [Renee DiResta and Gilad Lotan/Wired]