Following the ‘Covid playbook’: How conspiracy theorists are using old tricks around Monkeypox

Alexandra Tyan

 

In recent weeks, Covid-19 has found a new contemporary in the medical conspiracy theory realm: the Monkeypox virus. Although it was named for the laboratory monkeys among which it was first identified in Denmark in the 1950s, the virus is found mainly among rodents in sub-Saharan Africa. It is transmissible to people and it has caught epidemiologists off guard in recent months, with cases popping up in Europe, Asia and the Americas, along with a scourge of disinformation about them to boot.

This week in France, a series of tweets and Facebook posts went viral, claiming that The Simpsons had foreseen (or even somehow caused) the Monkeypox outbreak. The Simpsons has periodically been seen as an oracle, supposedly predicting the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Richard Branson’s trip to space and most recently, the pandemic. Now it is Monkeypox’s turn. Images of Homer sitting on the couch beside a monkey and later lying in bed covered in virus-like red spots have been shared with comments like “the author of The Simpsons cartoon should be investigated.”

Despite the 33-year-old cartoon show’s reputation for prophecy, these posts are misleading. Journalists from France 24 found that these two particular screenshots came from different episodes, one in which Homer adopts a pet monkey to help him with household chores, and another in which he organizes a “chickenpox party” for a neighbor’s kids and ends up contracting the virus himself. 

“THE COVID PLAYBOOK”: COPY-PASTE CONSPIRACIES SURROUNDING MONKEYPOX

Monkeypox conspiracy theories started spreading online almost as soon as cases began to appear outside of sub-Saharan Africa earlier this year.

Leonardo Bianchi, an Italian journalist who focuses on conspiracy theories, wasn’t surprised when he saw QAnon believers, professional conspiracy influencers like David Icke and media outlets like InfoWars were copy-pasting disinformation tropes to a new virus. I spoke to him about why it’s happening, how the conspiracies keep spreading and what it means for the rest of us.

You’ve been studying conspiracy theories for years. Were you expecting to see those copy-paste conspiracies with Monkeypox?

I’d say they are pretty much identical. Monkeypox conspiracies focus on the timing of the outbreak, the virus’ real origin and the usual “cui prodest” (who profits from it?) issue. There is a constant cross-pollination between different conspiracy theories, and conspiracy communities often copy-paste each other. According to Professor Ted Goertzel, conspiracy theories form a “self-perpetuating network of beliefs because they all support one another.” So no, it was not surprising at all.

The Covid-19 pandemic also created a sort of conspiracy “playbook” that could be effectively applied to other infectious diseases — a playbook designed to spread disinformation, delegitimize public health officials and institutions, and stoke fear and hesitancy on vaccines.

Like Covid-19, Monkeypox is being weaponized to attack Black and LGBTQ+ communities across the world. In the end, these kinds of conspiracy theories always have some racial, homophobic, and transphobic undertones.

Why do you think we see this overlap and repeat in narratives? 

Conspiracy theorists have these encompassing sets of ready-made narratives that can be applied to different events and situations, and that is why we are seeing overlapping and recurring claims. It is also very convenient for them: you just pick a story from somewhere, change some details and run with it.

To put it more bluntly, they are basically “flooding the zone with shit” — as famously put by Steve Bannon — and seeing what ultimately sticks. Plus, as journalist Pauline Talagrand said in a recent interview with Politico, “the conspiracy sphere is an empty shell of sorts that aggregates as news unfolds.” We have seen it with Covid-19, then with the invasion of Ukraine and now with Monkeypox.

With Covid, Trump, the war in Ukraine and now Monkeypox, it feels like conspiracy theories, in general, are becoming more and more normalized and mainstream. What overall global trends are you seeing?

These are very frightening and complicated times, and conspiracy theories have always tried to “render the inexplicable explicable, the complex comprehensible,” as scholar Rob Brotherton wrote in his excellent book Suspicious Minds.

In a sense, it’s nothing new. What’s relatively new is their normalization and mainstreaming, which is driven by many factors — including the rise of social media, the growing media polarization, and radical right-wing populism.

Donald Trump is the most famous case study, but he is far from being alone. Mainstream parties and politicians all across the Western world are increasingly incorporating conspiracy theories into their propaganda. In France, for example, the racist and dangerous “great replacement” theory — a theory that inspired several extreme right-wing terror attacks — dominated the latest presidential campaign.  

Conspiracy theories are also very useful because they are cheap and effective political weapons. This is a trend that is not going away so easily, and it will likely continue to evolve and stay with us.

CONTROLLING CORONA NARRATIVES ON SHANGHAI (AND NORTH KOREA)

Back in April, my colleague Isobel Cockerell relayed a powerful story of one man’s escape from the notoriously strict Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai — here is a longer version of that testimony. For 65 days, schools, workplaces and several factories in China’s largest city remained closed, fences were installed around the city to limit people’s movement, commercial food deliveries were banned and even emergency access to hospitals was restricted. 

On June 1, Shanghai authorities lifted restrictions and began to let the city’s 25 million residents roam free again. But a few days ahead of time, they sent censorship instructions to the media on how to write about it. China Digital Times has published and translated a leaked excerpt from the instructions, forbidding journalists from using the word “lockdown” (reasoning that Shanghai never formally declared a lockdown), urging them to emphasize that the measures were “temporary, conditional, and limited” and warning them not to promote the idea of a “comprehensive [return to] normality,” lest a need for restrictions should return.

China’s state censorship apparatus has also been busy controlling messaging around North Korea’s handling of Covid-19. Since the start of a Covid outbreak in April 2022, North Korean authorities have imposed regional lockdowns, but overall the country appears to be taking a looser approach to Covid restrictions than its ally China, though the information vacuum in and around North Korea makes all of this difficult to verify.

For about a month, Chinese censors have been patrolling social media and aggressively removing mentions of Pyongyang’s Covid policy, writes independent digital outlet NKNews. The objective: to shield Beijing’s cherished “zero-COVID” approach from an unflattering comparison with its neighbor.

John Delury, an expert on China-DPRK relations and lecturer at Yonsei University in Seoul explained the dynamics to NKNews: “I think Chinese netizens are venting and mocking how they’re falling behind North Korea, how this extreme approach of their own government to not live with any Covid has [put] them into a giant hermit kingdom.”

WHAT WE’RE READING 

More voices on Shanghai: Journalist Lian Qingchuan, who couldn’t visit his mother before she passed due to Covid-19 restrictions in Shanghai, wrote a moving essay on his experience and posted it on WeChat, where it was promptly deleted for “violating relevant laws and regulations.” China Digital Times re-published and archived it. Read it here.

How did an entrepreneur determined to find a cure for Covid-19 become an avid anti-vaxxer? You might have heard of the Covid-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF), an organization created to research off-patent drugs to combat coronavirus. Its founder, Steve Kirsch, is now a prominent figure in the anti-vax movement. Despite his impressive credentials in electrical engineering and computer science, in his most notorious endeavor — a quest for finding a cure for Covid-19 — he ended up completely disregarding science. Read about Kirsch’s dubious rise to fame in this piece by Jonathan Jarry, a Science Communicator from McGill University in Montreal.

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