Moises Velasquez-Manoff at NYT Magazine:
California-based anti-vaccine groups had long used the hashtag #cdcwhistleblower on Twitter, a reference to the spurious claims of C.D.C. malfeasance that would be central to Wakefield’s conspiratorial documentary “Vaxxed.” But the hashtag only occasionally traveled beyond the confines of the anti-vaccine crowd. So different hashtags with broader appeal — #TCOT (top conservatives on Twitter), #2A (Second Amendment) and even #blm (Black Lives Matter) — were included in tweets. The tactic paid off. According to an analysis by [Renee] DiResta and Gilad Lotan, a data scientist, there had not been much overlap between what they call “Tea Party conservative” and “antivax” Twitter before 2015. But around this time, a new space emerged between the two realms, a domain they labeled “vaccine choice” Twitter. Its participants were obsessed with the ideas of freedom and government overreach.
These online groups, quite small in number, proved to be very adept at leveraging the viral potential of social media to make themselves seem large. Although surveys have repeatedly indicated that the great majority of parents support vaccination, these activists fostered, DiResta says, “a perception among the public that everyone was opposed to this policy.” To her dismay, some California Republican politicians adopted this new rhetoric of “parental choice,” despite the fact that SB277 had several Republican co-sponsors. They seemed to have sensed a wedge issue, she says, “an opportunity to differentiate themselves from Democrats,” who held a majority in the Legislature. “It was pure cynicism.” Many of their own children were vaccinated, she points out. But the rhetoric galvanized people in a way that previous anti-vaccine messaging hadn’t.
With Donald Trump’s arrival on the national political scene, the politicization of vaccines that was happening in California accelerated in the national arena. Figures like Wakefield and Kennedy reached new levels of visibility: Wakefield attended Trump’s inaugural ball, where he called for a “shake-up” of the C.D.C. — he has refused to divulge who invited him to the event — and Kennedy told The Washington Post that the president was considering appointing him to lead a commission on vaccine safety. Trump himself had already thrown fuel on the anti-vaccine fire. While campaigning for president, he repeated the by-then thoroughly debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. “That took this fringe issue,” David Broniatowski says, “and made it a political issue associated with the parties.”