A rush of tweets turned up the volume. “Panic here in ATL!!” one stated. Another exclaimed, “OMG! Ebola is everywhere!”
As the Kremlin grew more confident, it began to simply recycle old narratives rather than wait for new epidemics to emerge. In 2017, Russian trolls used Twitter to give the AIDS falsehood new life. This time the claimed perpetrator was Dr. Robert Gallo, a scientist who in 1984 had actually helped discover the virus that causes AIDS. The tweets quoted him, falsely, as saying he had designed the pathogen to depopulate humanity. The trolls cited a website, World Truth. Its video attacking Dr. Gallo registered nearly four million views.
Six researchers centered at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that, over decades, the false narratives around AIDS had fostered a “lack of trust” among African-Americans that kept many from seeking medical care. Their 2018 study, of hundreds of black men in Los Angeles who have sex with men, reported that nearly half the interviewees thought the virus responsible for AIDS had been manufactured. And more than one-fifth viewed people who take new protective drugs as “human guinea pigs for the government.”
Within Russia, Mr. Putin has been a staunch proponent of vaccines.
“I make sure I get my vaccinations in time, before the flu season starts,” he told listeners to a 2016 call-in show. At a televised meeting with doctors in St. Petersburg, in 2018, he scolded Russian parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids: “They endanger the lives of their own children.”
Calling the issue “very important,” he warned of possible administrative steps to speed the pace of childhood immunizations. Last fall, Russia’s health authorities laid out expanded rules that require strict new adherence to protocols for childhood vaccination.
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.