Conspiracy theorists flock to bird flu, spreading falsehoods

Brad Moline, a fourth-generation turkey farmer in Iowa, has seen this happen before. In 2015, a virulent outbreak of avian flu nearly destroyed his flock.

Barns once filled with chattering birds were suddenly silent. Employees were distressed at having to kill sick animals. The family business, started in 1924, was in serious danger.

His business has recovered, but now the virus is back, again putting the country’s poultry farms at risk. And this time, there’s another pernicious force at work: a potent wave of misinformation that claims bird flu isn’t real.

“You just want to bang your head against the wall,” Moline said of the Facebook groups in which people insist the flu is fake or, perhaps, a bioweapon. “I understand the frustration with the way COVID has been handled. I understand the lack of trust in the media today. I understand. But this is real.”

It is also generating fantastic claims similar to those that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, underscoring how conspiracy theories often emerge in times of uncertainty and how the internet and a growing distrust of science and institutions fuel their spread.

The allegations can be found on shady online message boards and on major platforms like Twitter. Some versions claim that the flu is fake, a hoax used to justify reducing poultry supplies in an effort to raise food prices, either to destroy the global economy or force people into vegetarianism.

“There is no outbreak of ‘bird flu,'” wrote one man on Reddit. “It’s just Covid for chickens.”

Other posters insist that the flu is real, but that it has been genetically engineered as a weapon, possibly destined to trigger a new round of COVID-style lockdowns. One version of the popular story in India posits that 5G cell towers are somehow to blame for the virus.

“They are testing the animals for avian flu with PCR tests. This should give you a clue as to what’s going on,” one Twitter user wrote, in a post that was liked and retweeted thousands of times.

In fact, PCR tests have been routinely used in medicine, biology, and even law enforcement for decades; its creator won a Nobel Prize in 1993.

The reality of the outbreak is far more mundane, if not less devastating for birds and the people who depend on them for their livelihoods.

Farmers in states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota have already culled millions of birds to prevent the outbreak from spreading. Zoos in the United States have moved exotic bird displays indoors to protect their animals, and wildlife officials are discouraging backyard bird feeding in some states to prevent the spread of wild birds. The disease has also killed eagles across the country.

The first known human case of the U.S. H5N1 outbreak was confirmed last month in Colorado in an inmate who was helping with the slaughter and disposal of birds at a local farm.

Most human cases involve direct contact with infected birds, meaning the risk to a broad population is low, but experts across the country are monitoring the virus closely just to be sure, according to Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, an agency. that tracks animal diseases in part to protect the state’s agricultural industries.

“I can assure you this is the real deal,” Poulsen told the Associated Press. “We’re certainly not making this up.”

Poultry farms boost the local economy in some parts of Wisconsin, Poulsen said, adding that a devastating outbreak of bird flu could create real hardship for farmers and consumers.

While the details may vary, the bird flu conspiracy theories speak to a distrust of authorities and institutions, and a suspicion that millions of doctors, scientists, veterinarians, journalists and elected officials around the world can no longer be trusted.

“Americans clearly understand that the federal government and the mainstream media have lied to them repeatedly and are completely corrupted by the drug companies,” said Joseph Mercola, an osteopath whose discredited claims about vaccines, masks and the coronavirus have made him a prominent source. of COVID-19 misinformation.

Research shows that trust in many American institutions – including the news media – has dropped in recent years. Trust in science and scientific experts is also down, and along party lines.

Moline, the Iowa turkey farmer, said he sympathizes with people who question what they read about viruses, given the past two years and the bitter debates over masks, vaccines and lockdowns. But he said anyone who doubts the existence or severity of bird flu doesn’t understand the threat.

The 2015 outbreak was later determined to be the costliest animal health disaster in US history. Moline’s farm had to cull tens of thousands of turkeys after the flu entered one of its barns. Farm workers now follow a hygiene policy aimed at limiting the spread of viruses, including wearing different pairs of boots and clothing for different barns.

Conspiracy theories tend to flourish in times of social unrest or unease, according to John Jackson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication.

Before the internet, there were probably so many people who privately doubted explanations for major events, Jackson said. But they enjoyed limited opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals, little chance of gaining new converts, and no way to convey their opinions to strangers.

Now, conspiracy theories that gain great popularity — like the QAnon movement or discredited claims about COVID-19 — work because they give believers a sense of control in an interconnected and rapidly changing world, Jackson said. While they can appear after disasters, murders or plane crashes, they can also appear in times of social unrest or rapid change.

“There isn’t a phenomenon on the planet, whether it’s bird flu or 5G, that isn’t already prepared for the conspirators,” Jackson said. “Now we have the coronavirus, which has traumatized us so deeply…

Claims that bird flu is a hoax used to drive up food prices also highlight real-world concerns about inflation and food shortages. Concerns that the flu is somehow linked to 5G towers underscore anxieties about technological change. Suggestions that it will be used to enforce vegetarianism, on the other hand, reflect uncertainties about sustainable agriculture, climate change and animal welfare.

By creating explanations, conspiracy theories can offer the believer a sense of power or control, Jackson said. But he said they also defy common sense in their cinematic fantasies about vast, sweeping conspiracies of millions of people working with mechanical efficiency to undermine human affairs.

“Conspiracy theories are based on the idea that humans have the ability to keep secrets,” Jackson said. “But they underestimate the reality that we’re not very good at keeping them.”

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