COVID-19 taught us that tackling a pandemic means tackling two pandemics: one viral and one informational.
Here are some of the emerging, and yet-to-emerge, misinformation trends from the Monkeypox outbreak:
Viruses mutate. Mutation breeds uncertainty – both around how quickly it spreads and the severity of illness it causes. Uncertainty breeds misinformation. The COVID-19 pandemic saw new waves of misinformation with each new mutation, and if Monkeypox mutates there is a reasonable probability that we’ll see the same.
Mutations also support the conspiracy theorists’ claim that viruses are being released systematically for population control. In July 2021, a fabricated document of unknown origin began to circulate on social media, claiming to show planned release dates for COVID-19 variants from the World Health Organisation, World Economic Forum, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and John Hopkins University – some of the most common targets of conspiracy theorists.
Most of what we call misinformation or disinformation is more accurately described as ‘adversarial narratives’: content and narratives which inflame social tensions, leading to real-world outcomes such as delays to climate action, damaging public health, degrading democracy and endangering groups at-risk of discrimination.
These narratives are built on a lot of the same foundations – distrust of progress, the state, elites – which is why they can bleed so easily into one another.
In the case of Monkeypox, we’re seeing a repeat of the mistakes that were made with the AIDS epidemic, as disinformation spreaders seek to blame the LGBTQ+ community for the outbreak, creating a real-world risk of harm. A potential secondary outcome of the focus on the LGBTQ+ community is that non-LGTBQ+ individuals don’t consider themselves to be at-risk, hampering the public health response.
Bogus health cures
Research shows that health anxiety makes individuals more susceptible to accepting online health misinformation. This means that as new viruses spread, so does the risk of individuals using unproven – and at times even dangerous – remedies. This is bolstered by a vast network of ‘alternative health’ grifters, looking to leverage a new crisis for their own financial gain.
By 25 March 2020, City of London police had already prosecuted an individual trying to make money off the back of false cures.
Monkeypox is high risk due to the fact that current treatments are fairly limited. The further monkeypox spreads, and the more anxiety it generates, the more false cures we’re likely to see.
Thus far we haven’t seen the extreme public health measures we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic – but if the virus were to mutate and pose a greater threat to public health, then the adversarial narrative backlash would most likely be severe. Most disinformation occurs in response to big, unfolding events, so we now have an opportunity to prepare for such an outbreak ahead of time.
Some conspiracy theorists have already posited that the Monkeypox virus is a ‘bioweapon’ – and should mandatory government health guidelines come into force, we’d see an increase in this. The risk from these adversarial narratives going mainstream would be even greater due to increased fatigue in populations already subjected to strict COVID-19 measures over the last two years.
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