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The Deadly Anti-Vaxxer Movement: Started in Britain, Co-opted by Trump, Boosted by Putin

As Washington State declares a state of emergency over measles, populist misinformation over vaccination is putting children’s lives at risk

As Washington State declares a state of emergency over measles, populist misinformation over vaccination is putting children’s lives at risk.

The modern anti-vaccination movement can be traced back to a now-retracted fraudulent study published by British doctor Andrew Wakefield in 1998.

The paper, which claimed to show a link between the MMR (Measles/Mumps/Rubella) vaccine and autism, was quickly refuted, then retracted, and eventually found to be be the product of falsified data.

The incident resulted in Wakefield being stripped of his medical licence, as well as his credibility. But, while Wakefield is now considered a pariah in the field of medicine, he has found a kindred spirit in none other than Donald Trump.

Trump has a very public history of espousing anti-vaccination beliefs and promoting conspiracy theories about vaccines and autism. He hasn’t used the White House to push these views, but he has frequently taken to Twitter to spread vaccine-related misinformation.

On more than 20 occasions, Trump has tweeted falsehoods claiming that there is a link between vaccination and autism (there’s not). He has never retracted those false claims, nor addressed them publicly since taking office.

In the summer of 2016, Trump met with Wakefield and other prominent ‘leaders’ of the anti-vaccination movement and expressed interest in meeting with anti-vaccine activists in the future. Wakefield even got an invitation to Trump’s inaugural ball, which he accepted.

Trump’s meeting with Wakefield energised the anti-vaccine movement, which viewed then presidential candidate Trump as a vessel to bring its anti-science crusade into the White House. Right-wing populists like Trump are a natural ally of anti-science crusades. Both movements thrive on values such as contempt for the elite establishment and antagonism towards intellectuals.

Conspiracy theories and disinformation about vaccines appear to have a broader goal: undermining trust in democratic institutions, shared knowledge and the notion of truth altogether.

And just like many populist movements have received support from Russia in recent years, so too has the anti-vaccine movement.

The Russian Troll Farm Steps In

At the same time that Trump was giving new life to the anti-vaccine movement, the Kremlin was actively promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on social media.

According to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Russia’s Internet Research Agency (commonly referred to as the “troll factory”) was involved in pushing conspiracy theories and disinformation about vaccines before and during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

The study, which examined nearly 1.8 million tweets posted between July 2014 and September 2017, found that accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than the average user and, when they did, they used the same polarising tactics that were deployed to sow division during the election.

“Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and anti-vaccination arguments,” the study reported. “This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics – a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts.”

Many of the tweets sent by Russian accounts linked vaccination to controversial issues in American society, such as racial and socioeconomic inequalities, while others called into question the legitimacy of the US Government.

What is Russia Doing Meddling in Medicine?

These are the same tactics Russia used in 2016, and continued to use throughout 2018, to achieve its goals of dividing US society, sowing distrust, and, more broadly, undermining faith in democratic institutions – including in medical and scientific establishments.

As the director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in August 2018: “[W]e continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.”

The American public has proven to be a receptive audience for anti-vaccine messages and the consequences have been dire. Measles has been on the rise in recent years, and 2019 is on pace to be among the worst years in the last decade. From January 1 to February 7, more than 100 cases were reported in 10 states.

In late January, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency after 35 cases of measles were confirmed in a single county. According to the State Department of Health, there are now at least 54 cases of the disease, all but one of which were located in Clark County, Washington, where nearly a quarter of school-aged children have not received the MMR vaccine.

In addition to sowing division, the promulgation of conspiracy theories and disinformation about vaccines appears to have a broader goal: undermining trust in democratic institutions, shared knowledge, and – ultimately – the notion of truth altogether.

If that’s the goal, Trump has proven to be the best ally the Kremlin could imagine – even at the expense of public health, well-being and perhaps democracy itself.

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