Brad Moline, a fourth-generation turkey farmer from Iowa, has seen this happen before. In 2015, a virulent outbreak of bird flu nearly wiped out his flock.
The barns that were once full of chattering birds were suddenly silent. Employees were distressed about having to kill sick animals. The family business, started in 1924, was at serious risk.
His business recovered, but now the virus is back, again endangering the nation’s poultry farms. And this time, there’s another pernicious force at work: a powerful wave of misinformation that avian flu isn’t real.
“You just want to bang your head against the wall,” Moline said of Facebook groups where people insist the flu is fake or maybe a bioweapon. “I understand the frustration with the way COVID was handled. I understand the lack of trust in the media nowadays. I understand. But this is real.”
Although it poses little risk to humans, the global outbreak it has led farmers to cull millions of birds and threatens to drive up already-rising food prices.
It’s also spawning fanciful claims similar to those that surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic, underscoring how conspiracy theories often surface. in times of uncertaintyand how the Internet and a growing mistrust of science and institutions fuel its spread.
Claims can be found on obscure online message boards and on major platforms like Twitter. Some accounts claim that the flu is fake, a hoax used to justify reducing the bird supply in an effort to raise food prices, either to wreck the global economy or force people to be vegetarians.
“There is no ‘bird flu’ outbreak,” one man wrote on Reddit. “It’s just Covid for the chickens.”
Other posters insist that the flu is real, but that it was genetically engineered as a weapon, possibly intended 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.
As proof, many who claim that the flu is fake point out that animal health authorities monitor the outbreak are using some of the same technology that is used to test for COVID-19.
“They are testing the animals for bird flu with PCR tests. That should give you a clue as to what’s going on,” one Twitter user wrote, in a post that has been liked and retweeted thousands of times.
In truth, PCR the tests have been used routinely in medicine, biology, and even law enforcement for decades; its creator won a Nobel Prize in 1993.
The reality of the outbreak is much more mundane, if not less devastating to birds and the people who depend on them for their livelihoods.
Farmers in states including Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota have already culled millions of birds to prevent the outbreak from spreading.. Zoos across the US have moved exotic bird exhibits indoors to protect their animals, and wildlife authorities are discouraging backyard bird feeding in some states to prevent spread by wild birds. The disease has also claimed bald eagles. Around the country.
The first known human case of the H5N1 outbreak in the US has been confirmed. last month in Colorado on an inmate who had been helping with the slaughter and disposal of poultry at a local farm.
Most human cases involve direct contact with infected birds, which means the risk to a wide population is low, but experts across the country are monitoring the virus closely to be sure, according to Keith Poulsen, director of the Laboratory. of Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostics, an agency that tracks animal diseases in part to protect the state’s agricultural industries.
“I can guarantee you this is the real deal,” Poulsen told The Associated Press. “We’re certainly not making this up.”
Poultry farms drive the local economy in parts of Wisconsin, Poulsen said, adding that a devastating outbreak of bird flu could create real hardship for farmers and consumers alike.
While details may vary, all bird flu conspiracy theories speak of a distrust of authority and institutions, and a suspicion that millions of doctors, scientists, veterinarians, journalists, and elected officials can no longer be trusted of all the world.
“Americans clearly understand that they have been repeatedly lied to by the federal government and the mainstream media and completely corrupted by drug companies,” said Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopath whose claims debunked about vaccines, masks and the coronavirus made him a prominent source of misinformation about COVID-19.
Mercola’s interest in bird flu goes back years. A 2006 book for sale on its website, which Mercola uses to sell unproven natural health remedies, is titled “The Great Bird Flu Hoax.”
Surveys show that trust in many American institutions, including the media, has declined in recent years. Trust in science and scientific experts has also decreasedand 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 bitter debates about 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.. The Moline farm had to cull tens of thousands of turkeys after the flu invaded one of its barns. Farm workers now adhere to a hygiene policy aimed at limiting the spread of viruses, including wearing different pairs of boots and clothing for different stalls.
Conspiracy theories are bound to flourish in times of social unrest, according to John Jackson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Before the Internet, there were probably so many people who privately doubted explanations for big events, Jackson said. But they enjoyed limited opportunities to connect with like-minded people, little opportunity to win new converts, and no way to get their views across to strangers.
Now, conspiracy theories gaining wide popularity, such as the QAnon movement or debunked claims about COVID-19 — work because they give believers a sense of control in a rapidly changing, interconnected world, Jackson said. While they can arise after disasters, murders, or plane crashes, they can also appear in times of social upheaval or rapid change.
“There is no phenomenon on the planet, whether it is bird flu or 5G, that’s not ready for conspirators yet,” Jackson said. “Now we have the coronavirus, which has traumatized us so deeply … we look at this very idea of bird flu with completely new eyes, and we bring different types of conspiracy to it.”
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 force 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 she said they also defy common sense in their cinematic fantasies about vast, sprawling conspiracies of millions of people working like clockwork 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.”