William J. Broad at NYT:
At the same time, Mr. Putin has worked hard to encourage Americans to see vaccinations as dangerous and federal health officials as malevolent. The threat of autism is a regular theme of this anti-vaccine campaign. The C.D.C. has repeatedly ruled out the possibility that vaccinations lead to autism, as have many scientists and top journals. Nonetheless the false narrative has proliferated, spread by Russian trolls and media.
Moreover, the disinformation has sought to implicate the C.D.C. in a cover-up. For years, tweets originating in St. Petersburg have claimed that the health agency muzzled a whistle-blower to hide evidence that vaccines cause autism, especially in male African-American infants. Medical experts have dismissed the allegation, but it reverberated.
In a series of 2015 tweets, Russian trolls promoted a video of a black minister in Los Angeles addressing a rally. “They’re not just shooting us with guns,” he told the audience. “They’re killing us with needles.” The minister and accompanying text in the video claimed that childhood immunizations had caused autism in 200,000 black children.
RT America echoed the charge. It focused on “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” a 2016 film by Andrew Wakefield, a discredited anti-vaccine activist. When the film was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival after a public outcry, the network aired an interview with its creators. “Can we trust the C.D.C. on vaccines?” a plug for the show asked.
Russian trolls fired off tweets containing links to the film and a fund-raising site for its promotion. One claimed that autism rates were about to skyrocket to “1 in 2” vaccinated children.
Mr. Putin’s disinformation blitz has coincided with a drop in vaccination rates among children in the United States and a rise in measles, a disease once considered vanquished. The virus, especially in infants and young children, can cause fevers and brain damage. Last year, according to the C.D.C., the United States had 1,282 new cases, a record in recent decades; of these, 128 involved hospitalizations and 61 resulted in major complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis.