Brad Moline, a fourth-generation Iowa turkey farmer, saw this happen before. In 2015, a virulent avian flu outbreak nearly wiped out his flock.
Barns once filled with chattering birds were suddenly silent. Employees were anguished by having to kill sickened animals. The family business, started in 1924, was at serious risk.
His business recovered, but now the virus is back, again imperiling the nation’s poultry farms. This time there is another danger: A powerful wave of misinformation that says the bird flu doesn’t exist.
“You just want to beat your head against the wall,” Moline said of the Facebook groups in which people insist the flu is fake or, maybe, a bioweapon. I understand your frustration about COVID. I understand the lack of trust in the media today. I get it. But this is real.”
While it poses little risk to humans, the global outbreak has led farmers to cull millions of birds and threatens to add to already rising food prices.
It’s also spawning fantastical claims similar to the ones that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, underscoring how conspiracy theories often emerge at times of uncertainty, and how the internet and a deepening distrust of science and institutions fuel their spread.
The claims can be found on obscure online message boards and major platforms like Twitter. Some versions claim the flu is fake, a hoax being used to justify reducing the supply of birds in an effort to drive up food prices, either to wreck the global economy or force people into vegetarianism.
“There is no ‘bird flu’ outbreak,” wrote one man on Reddit. “It’s just Covid for chickens.”
Other posters insist the flu is real, but that it was genetically engineered as a weapon, possibly intended to touch off a new round of COVID-style lockdowns. A version of the story popular in India posits that 5G cell towers are somehow to blame for the virus.
As evidence, many of those claiming that the flu is fake note that animal health authorities monitoring the outbreak are using some of the same technology used to test for COVID-19.
“They’re testing the animals for bird flu with PCR tests. This should provide a hint as to the truth,” one user on Twitter wrote in a post that has been liked thousands of times and retweeted many thousand times.
In truth, PCR tests have been used routinely in medicine, biology and even law enforcement for decades; their creator won a Nobel Prize in 1993. The reality is much more simple, but no less destructive to the birds and those who depend upon them for their survival.
Farmers in states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota have already culled millions of fowl to prevent the outbreak from spreading. Zoos around the U.S. have moved exotic bird exhibits indoors to protect their animals, and wildlife authorities are discouraging backyard bird feeding in some states to prevent the 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 U.S. was confirmed last month in Colorado in a prison inmate who had been assisting with culling and disposing of poultry at a local farm. Most human cases are caused by direct contact with infected poultry, so the risk for a large population of people is very low. However, experts from around the country have been closely monitoring this virus, said Keith Poulsen (director, Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory), who tracks the disease partly to safeguard the state’s agricultural industry.
“I can guarantee you, this is the real deal,” Poulsen told The Associated Press. “We certainly aren’t making this up.”
Poultry farms drive the local economy in some parts of Wisconsin, Poulsen said, adding that a devastating outbreak of avian flu could create real hardships for farmers as well as consumers.
While the details may vary, the conspiracy theories about avian flu all speak to a distrust 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 major media have lied to them repeatedly, and are completely corrupted by the pharmaceutical companies,” said Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopath whose discredited claims about vaccines, masks and the coronavirus made him a prominent source of COVID-19 misinformation.
Mercola’s interest in the bird flu dates back years A 2009 book for sale on his website, which Mercola uses to sell unproven natural health remedies, is titled “The Great Bird Flu Hoax.”
Polls show trust in many American institutions — including the news media — has fallen in recent years. Trust in science and scientific experts is also down, and along partisan lines.
Moline, the Iowa turkey farmer, said he sympathizes with people who question what they read about viruses, given the last two years and bitter debates about masks, vaccines and lockdowns. He said that anyone doubting the seriousness or existence of the avian influenza threat doesn’t know the danger.
The 2015 outbreak was later determined to be the most expensive animal health disaster in U.S. history. After the flu infected one of Moline’s barns, Moline had to slaughter tens or thousands of turkeys. The farm’s workers now follow a strict hygiene policy to prevent the spread of viruses. They use different boots for each barn and different clothes.
Conspiracy theories are bound to flourish during times of social unrest or unease, according to John Jackson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Before the advent of the internet, many individuals doubted big-event explanations. Jackson stated that this was likely to be true even before it became popular. But they enjoyed limited opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals, few chances to win new converts, and no way to broadcast their views to strangers.
Now, the conspiracy theories that gain wide popularity — such as the QAnon movement or discredited claims about COVID-19 — work because they give believers a sense of control in a rapidly changing, interconnected world, Jackson said. While they can emerge after disasters, assassinations or plane crashes, they can also appear during times of social upheaval or rapid change.
“There isn’t a phenomena on the planet, whether it’s the avian flu or 5G, that isn’t already primed for conspiracists,” Jackson said. “Now we have coronavirus, which has traumatized us so profoundly … we look at this same idea of bird flu with completely new eyes, and we bring different kinds of conspiracy to it.”
Claims that the avian flu is a hoax used to drive up food prices also highlight real-world concerns about inflation and food shortages. Worries that the flu is somehow linked to 5G towers underscore anxieties about technological change. Suggestions that it will be used to mandate vegetarianism, on the other hand, reflect uncertainties about sustainable agriculture, climate change and animal welfare.
Conspiracy theories give believers a feeling of control or power by creating explanations. Jackson said that conspiracy theories can also be a deceitful cinematic fantasy about massive conspiracies that involve millions of people working together with clockwork efficiency in order to subvert human affairs.
“Conspiracy theories rest on the idea that humans have the capacity for keeping secrets,” Jackson said. “But they underestimate the reality that we aren’t very good at keeping them.”
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