Conspiracy theorists flock to bird flu, spreading lies

Conspiracy theorists flock to bird flu, spreading lies

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Brad Mullen, a fourth-generation turkey farmer in Iowa, has seen this happen before. In 2015, a virulent avian influenza outbreak nearly wiped out his flock.

The barns full of chattering birds were suddenly silent. Staff worried about having to kill sick animals. The family business, started in 1924, was in great danger.

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

“You just want to bang your head against the wall,” Mullen said of Facebook groups where people insist the flu is fake or possibly a biological weapon. “I understand the frustration with how to deal with COVID. I understand the mistrust of the media today. I get it. But it is real.”

While it does not pose a significant risk to humans, the global outbreak of the disease has prompted farmers to cull millions of birds and threatens to drive up already high food prices.

It also generates fanciful claims similar to those that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic, underlining how conspiracy theories often emerge in times of uncertainty, and how the internet and growing distrust of science and institutions fuel their spread.

The allegations can be found on obscure online message boards and major platforms such as Twitter. Some versions claim that the flu is fake, a hoax used to justify reducing the supply of birds in an attempt to raise food prices, either to destroy the global economy or force people to follow a vegetarian diet.

“No bird flu outbreak,” a man wrote on Reddit. “It’s just covid for chicken.”

Other posters insist that the flu is real, but that it has been genetically modified as a weapon, and may have been intended to trigger a new round of COVID-style lockdowns. A version of the well-known story in India assumes that 5G cell towers are somehow responsible for the virus.

As evidence, many who claim the flu is fake have noted that animal health authorities monitoring the outbreak are using some of the same technology used to test for COVID-19.

They test animals for bird flu through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. That should give you an idea of ​​what’s going on,” one Twitter user wrote, in a post that has been 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 the Nobel Prize in 1993.

The reality of the outbreak is more mundane, if not less devastating to 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 outbreaks. Zoos across the United States have moved exhibits of exotic birds indoors to protect their animals, and wildlife authorities discourage backyard bird feeding in some states to prevent the spread of wild birds. The disease has also affected bald eagles across the country.

The first known human case of an outbreak of H5N1 in the United States was confirmed last month in Colorado in a prison inmate who was helping to cull and dispose of poultry on a local farm.

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

“I can guarantee you, this is the real deal,” Paulsen told The Associated Press. “We’re definitely not making this up.”

Poultry farms are driving the local economy in some parts of Wisconsin, Paulsen said, adding that a devastating bird flu outbreak could create real hardships for farmers as well as consumers.

While the details may vary, conspiracy theories about bird flu all speak of a mistrust of authority 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 major media have lied to them over and over again, and that drug companies are completely corrupt,” said Dr. Joseph Mercola, an orthopedist whose distorted claims about vaccines, masks and the coronavirus have made him a prominent source. Misinformation about the COVID-19 virus.

Mercola’s interest in bird flu dates back years to a 2006 book for sale on his website that Mercola uses to sell unproven natural health remedies, titled The Great Bird Flu Trick.

Polls show that trust in many American institutions – including the media – has declined in recent years. Trust in science and scientific experts is also low, and along partisan lines.

Mullen, an Iowa turkey farmer, said he sympathizes with people questioning what they’ve read about viruses, given the past two years and bitter discussions about masks, vaccines and lockdowns. But he said anyone who doubts the existence or seriousness of bird flu does not understand the threat.

The 2015 outbreak was later determined to be the deadliest animal health disaster in US history. Mullen’s farm had to cull tens of thousands of turkeys after the flu entered one of his pens. Farm workers are now adhering to a hygiene policy aimed at limiting the spread of viruses, including using different pairs of shoes and clothing in different sheds.

Conspiracy theories are bound to thrive in times of social upheaval or anxiety, according to John Jackson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication.

Jackson said that before the Internet, there were likely many people who questioned private interpretations of major events. But they had limited opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals, few chances to win new converts, and no way to spread their views to strangers.

Now, said Jackson, the conspiracy theories that are gaining in popularity — such as the QAnon movement or distorted claims about COVID-19 — work because they give believers a sense of control in a rapidly changing, interconnected world. While it can appear after disasters, assassinations, or plane crashes, it can also appear during times of social upheaval or rapid change.

“There is no phenomenon on this planet, whether it’s bird flu or 5G, that’s not really primed for conspiracies,” Jackson said. “Now we have the coronavirus, which has deeply shocked us… We look at the same idea of ​​bird flu with entirely new eyes, and we bring with it different kinds of conspiracy.”

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 connected to 5G towers underscore concerns about technological change. On the other hand, suggestions that it will be used to impose veganism reflect skepticism 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 they also, he said, defy common sense in their cinematic fantasies about the vast and sprawling plots of millions working efficiently around the clock 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 fact that we’re not very good at keeping them.”

2022-05-17 04:13:50

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