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Pestilence in the blogosphere: antivaxxers and influence operations

At the core of conflict is a contest of narratives. Propaganda and influence operations have been utilised throughout history to engineer populations towards certain beliefs. 

Cyberspace - and social media in particular - has exacerbated the speed and propagation of narratives, providing loopholes for states to act outside of international conventions on the use of certain weapons of mass destruction. Exploiting civilian-led campaigns, such as the anti-vaxxer movement, opens the possibility for influence operations to take root.

Cyberspace has provided an unprecedented capability in swift, sufficient, and autonomous distribution and absorption of information by individuals, organisations, and states. In 2018, the International Telecommunications Union estimated that more than half of the world’s population is active online. Opportunity for larger cyber influence operations to a broader audience, from individual, to group and national level campaigns can sway attitudes and behaviours in ways detrimental to national and international interest. 

The accessibility of cyberspace, and the speed with which influence operations are conducted will only continue to snowball due to cyberspace’s limited governance and the international community’s lacklustre approach to information warfare.

Information warfare is a method of social engineering conducted with the aim of influencing a population through encouragement or discouragement towards an outcome beneficial to the instigator. Social engineering is not purely an act of aggression, however. Governments use it on their own civilians to encourage greater economic growth, health or education, for example. 

Most often executed by governments with the aim of influencing social order and safety, it can also be used negatively by a foreign adversary to deceive a target population. This was evident in the Russian interference in the United States presidential election in 2016, and can be born from the dissemination of anti-vaccination sentiment online.

Anti-vaxxer bloggers might not seem overly problematic, especially for those who are inoculated, but the core of this misbehaviour is not simply the risk posed to those too young or physically unable to be immunised. It is also not the rise of Dickensian or mutations of once eradicated diseases. It is the risk posed to the broader community when narratives such as this open loopholes for malicious states to take control as a means to navigate around international conventions, such as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The BWC came into effect on 26 March 1975 and states that parties to the convention are determined to move towards “total disarmament” and are “convinced that the prohibition of the development, production and stockpiling of chemical and bacteriological (biological) weapons and their elimination, through effective measures, will facilitate the achievement of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Furthermore, Article I (2) proposes that each State Party to the Convention never undertakes, in any circumstances, the ability to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or attain “…means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes.” But when the means of delivery are unvaccinated civilians influenced by an online campaign ostensibly run by a fellow-blogger, attribution and attrition becomes problematic.

The development of a new culture of responsibility is needed to deal with the rise of anti-vaccination attitudes at the local, domestic and international levels. While anti-vaccination sentiment is an example of an influence operation with the potential to become a social engineering operation, it will also take a social engineering operation by governments, professionals and the international community to overcome it before an adversary state is able to harnesses the narrative for its own operations.

With cyberspace acting as a ‘host body’ for these infectious narratives, these campaigns aim to target the human mind’s cognitive biases – at the core of the anti-vaxxer narrative is bias and fear. Targeting that fear and promoting a culture of awareness through building trust is where governments and healthcare professionals will begin to overcome this narrative. 

One function of the World Health Organization (WHO) is the eradication of epidemic, endemic and other diseases. It has started the fight against anti-vaxxers with an informative online campaign addressing the myths surrounding immunisation, using #vaccineswork. But it will take more than hashtags and removing online accounts. WHO and those at the next BWC Review Conference should be considering the ramifications associated with information warfare and bioterrorism. Governments should find ways to amplify their efforts with coherent policy enabling their communication campaigns.  

The BWC was enacted with the determination for those State Parties involved to contribute to international development and security, in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, to eliminate the possibility for biological agents to be used as weapons. 

Implementing stronger mechanisms and education surrounding immunisations extends beyond greater public health, because the misconceptions bred by anti-vaxxers are not only about immunisations. These narratives project suspicion in legitimate government apparatuses put in place for the very purpose of contributing to the development and security the United Nations, BWC and WHO seek to promote. 

Creating a divide between civil society and government is key in influence operations executed for hostile purposes, and we are not prepared for the next generation of viruses, digital or biological.

Madeleine Nugent is the Cyber Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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