A rush of tweets increased the volume. “Panic here at ATL !! One said. Another exclaimed: “OMG! Ebola is everywhere! “
As the Kremlin gained confidence, it simply began to recycle old narratives rather than waiting for the emergence of new epidemics. In 2017, Russian trolls used Twitter to breathe new life into the AIDS lie. This time, the alleged perpetrator was Dr. Robert Gallo, a scientist who, in 1984, actually helped discover the virus that causes AIDS. The tweets incorrectly cited him as saying that he had designed the pathogen to depopulate humanity. Trolls cited a website, World Truth. His video attacking Dr. Gallo had nearly four million views.
Six researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that for decades, false accounts of AIDS had fueled a “lack of confidence” among African Americans that made it difficult for many to seek medical care. Their 2018 study, of hundreds of black men in Los Angeles who have sex with men, found that almost half of those surveyed believed that the virus responsible for AIDS had been made. And more than a fifth considered people who take new protective drugs to be “human guinea pigs for the government.”
Defenders under siege
In Russia, Mr. Putin is a strong supporter of vaccines.
“I make sure I get my vaccinations on time, before the start of the flu season,” he told listeners on a phone call in 2016. During a televised meeting with doctors at In Saint Petersburg, in 2018, he reprimanded Russian parents who refuse to vaccinate their children: “They endanger the lives of their own children.”
Calling the issue “very important,” he warned of possible administrative measures to speed up the pace of childhood immunizations. Last fall, Russian health officials laid down broad rules that require further strict adherence to childhood immunization protocols.
At the same time, Mr. Putin has worked hard to encourage Americans to view vaccinations as dangerous and federal health officials to be malicious. The threat of autism is a regular theme in this anti-vaccine campaign. The C.D.C. has repeatedly ruled out the possibility that vaccinations lead to autism, as many scientists and top journals have done. However, the false story has proliferated, spread by Russian trolls and media.
In addition, the disinformation sought to implicate the C.D.C. in a cover-up. For years, tweets from St. Petersburg have claimed that the health agency has muzzled a whistleblower to hide evidence that vaccines cause autism, especially among African American infants. Medical experts rejected the allegation, but it passed on.