Brad Moline, a fourth-generation turkey farmer in Iowa, saw this happen before. In 2015, a virulent bird flu outbreak nearly wiped out his flock.
The family business, founded in 1924, was in serious jeopardy. Barns once filled with twittering birds were suddenly silent. Employees were tormented by having to kill sick animals.
His business recovered, but the virus is back again, putting the country’s poultry farms at risk. And this time, another pernicious force is at work: a powerful wave of misinformation claiming that avian flu isn’t real.
“You just want to hit your head against the wall,” Moline said of the Facebook groups where people claim the flu is fake or a biological weapon. “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.”
While posing little risk to humans, the global outbreak has caused farmers to kill millions of birds and threatens to increase already soaring food prices.
It also raises fantastical claims similar to those created 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 are spreading. Stimulate.
The claims can be found on obscure online message boards and major platforms like Twitter. Some versions claim that the flu is a fake, a hoax used to justify cutting bird supplies to drive up food prices, either to destroy the global economy or force people into vegetarianism.
“There is no ‘bird flu’ outbreak,” one man wrote on Reddit. “It’s just Covid for chickens.”
Other posters insist that the flu is real, but it has been genetically engineered as a weapon, possibly intended to trigger another round of COVID-like lockdowns. One version of the story popular in India states that 5G cell towers are somehow responsible for the virus.
As proof, many who claim the flu is a fake note that animal health authorities monitoring the outbreak are using the same technology used to test for COVID-19.
“They test the animals for bird flu with PCR tests. That should give you an idea of what’s going on,” one Twitter user wrote in a post that was liked and retweeted thousands of times.
In reality, PCR tests have been routinely used in medicine, biology, and law enforcement for decades; their creator won a Nobel Prize in 1993.
The reality of the outbreak is much more mundane, if not less devastating, to birds and people who depend on them for their livelihoods.
Farmers in states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota have already culled millions of chickens to stop the outbreak from spreading. Zoos in the US have moved exotic bird exhibits indoors to protect their animals, and wildlife authorities in some states are discouraging backyard bird feeding from preventing the spread of wild birds. The disease has also claimed bald eagles across the country.
The first known human case of the H5N1 outbreak in the US was confirmed last month in Colorado by a prison inmate who had helped cull and dispose of poultry at a local farm.
Most human cases involve direct contact with infected birds, meaning the risk to a broad population is low. Still, according to Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, experts across the country are closely monitoring the virus just to be sure. , an agency that detects 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 definitely not making this up.”
Poultry farms are powering the local economy in some parts of Wisconsin, Poulsen said, adding that a devastating bird flu outbreak could cause real hardship for farmers and consumers alike.
While the details may vary, 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 worldwide can no longer be trusted.
“Americans clearly understand that the federal government and the big media have repeatedly lied to them and have been completely corrupted by the drug companies,” said Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopath whose discredited claims about vaccines, masks, and the coronavirus have brought him to a standstill. A major source of misinformation about COVID-19.
Mercola’s interest in bird flu dates back years. A 2009 book for sale on his website that Mercola uses to sell unproven natural health remedies is titled “The Great Bird Flu Hoax.”
Polls show that confidence in many American institutions — including the news media — has recently declined. Trust in science and scientific experts is also down along partisan lines.
Moline, the turkey farmer from Iowa, said he sympathizes with people wondering what they’re reading about viruses, given the past two years and bitter debates about masks, vaccines, and lockdowns. But he said anyone who doubts the existence or seriousness of bird flu doesn’t understand the threat.
Moline’s farm had to finish up tens of thousands of turkeys after the flu hit one of its barns. The 2015 outbreak was later determined to be the costliest animal health disaster in US history. Farm workers now adhere to a hygiene policy to limit the spread of viruses, including using different pairs of boots and clothing for various sheds.
According to John Jackson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, conspiracy theories will undoubtedly flourish in times of social unrest or unrest.
Before the Internet, there were probably just as many people who privately doubted explanations for major events, Jackson said. But they enjoyed limited opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals, few chances to win new converts, and no way to express their views to strangers.
Now the conspiracy theories that are gaining popularity — like 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 appear after disasters, murders, or plane crashes, they can also occur during social unrest or rapid change.
“There isn’t a phenomenon on the planet, be it bird flu or 5G, that isn’t already primed for conspirators,” Jackson said. “Now we have the coronavirus, which has traumatized us so deeply … we look at the same idea of bird flu with completely new eyes, and we bring different kinds of conspiracy to it.”
Claims that bird flu is a hoax used to drive food prices also point to concerns about inflation and food shortages. Worries that the flu is somehow linked to 5G towers underscore concerns about technological change. In contrast, suggestions that it will be used to mandate vegetarianism reflect uncertainties about sustainable agriculture, climate change, and animal welfare.
By creating explanations, conspiracy theories can provide the believer with a sense of power or control, Jackson said. But he said they also defy common sense in their cinematic fantasies about huge, sprawling conspiracies of millions working with clockwork efficiency to undermine human affairs.
“Conspiracy theories rest on the idea that humans can keep secrets,” Jackson said. “But they underestimate the reality that we’re not very good at preserving it.”