Monkeypox disinformation is already a scourge. This TikTok pediatrician is fighting back

Erica Hellerstein

 

For the last few years, Dr. Zach Rubin, a U.S.-based pediatrician, has been publishing snappy TikTok videos debunking medical misinformation to his over 160,000 followers on the platform. 

This time, Rubin decided to take on Monkeypox, a rare virus closely related to Smallpox that can cause rash and flu-like symptoms and has been spreading quickly around the world. Rubin’s latest 12-second video features the physician debunking a handful of Monkeypox myths he has come across online.

Rubin’s work dispelling health misinformation since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has given him insight into the narrative similarities between coronavirus and Monkeypox myths. Coda reporter Erica Hellerstein talked to him about how conspiratorial thinking around Covid has seeped into Monkeypox — and how doctors are fighting back.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This newsletter for the last few years has been tracking how Covid-related disinformation and misinformation have been shaping our world. Now we’re seeing an onslaught of misinformation around Monkeypox. Can you break down the types of misinformation that you’ve been coming across?

Some people are being inflammatory about what Monkeypox is and saying that it’s a gay disease. Which I’m concerned about because a lot of the reporting almost looks eerily similar to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, and the initial reporting of it saying that it’s a gay disease. That type of rhetoric, which has been permeating the internet, is going to stigmatize this community and make it harder to combat outbreaks when people aren’t going to be as forward and upfront about telling people about their symptoms. 

There’s also always something about Bill Gates. He had warned about smallpox outbreaks in the past and was calling on more funding for it at some point. But people say, “No he’s trying to control people and he planned this.”

Another thing to note is that in terms of what is the actual severity of this disease, I think people aren’t really getting a grasp on it. And so some people are actually fear-mongering to one extent, and to another extent completely minimizing it. 

Sometimes people use panicked rhetoric to scare people to say, “Well now the government’s going to try to control what you do again and put you in lockdown.” There’s anti-vax rhetoric coming out as well. People are already saying, I’m not going to get a Monkeypox jab. But there’s no plan at this point for universal Monkeypox vaccination or smallpox vaccination. It’s highly unlikely, and it’s highly inflammatory for people to even suggest that that would even be the case.

During Covid, the conversation very quickly became politicized and so disinformation and misinformation purveyors started to speak with politically inflected rhetoric. Are you seeing any discussion around Monkeypox politicized in a similar way?

I saw a video this morning by a prominent anti-vaxxer who has had a pretty large social media following and she was talking about how she is happy that she has a Second Amendment right to bear arms because the World Health Organization could come and take over the United States. I’ve seen that kind of rhetoric floating around, surrounding this idea that people are going to try to control your life again. It’s all around this idea that lockdowns are the worst thing that’s ever happened.

We’re still in a Covid-19 pandemic and I think a lot of the pandemic rhetoric is bleeding into what’s happening with Monkeypox — again as a way to scare people or confuse people. 

As someone who is combating misinformation online, I wonder if you ever worry that it can also give too much oxygen to some of those claims and how you navigate that balance?

When we have a crisis and people try to act like they’re professionals, these platforms can amplify those messages.

I think what people need to remember is that the vast majority of adults in this country use social media or the internet to look up health information whether we like it or not. So by not addressing these issues it does in effect lead to potentially poor outcomes. It’s not something that we can just ignore. 

We need to figure out ways to help amplify people who are credible experts. Because what misinformation allows does is it preys upon people’s emotions. So the more emotional response you get in someone, the more likely it’s going to push that content out further and further to more people.

In other Infodemic news by Isobel Cockerell

Readers from the U.K. are hooked on the British government’s “partygate” scandal, which dominated British headlines this week. A long-awaited report on boozy, illicit lockdown gatherings at Downing Street was at last published. It was released alongside pictures of the prime minister raising a glass of champagne, and detailed how drunken staff vomited, got into a scuffle, and spilled wine on the walls during numerous “bring your own booze” lockdown events, while the rest of the country was quarantined indoors. A “humbled” Boris Johnson isn’t the only one to face the music over Covid parties — Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández is dealing with his own lockdown scandal. Dubbed “Olivosgate” after the name of the presidential residence where the party was held, photos have emerged of a 12-person birthday dinner thrown at the height of Argentina’s strict lockdown, when even funerals were banned. A judge agreed to the President’s offer to donate $25,000 to a vaccine research institute in order for the case to be dropped. 

The Nicaraguan Ministry of Health is facing accusations of using expired Sputnik Light and Pfizer vaccine doses on the population. Sources within the health ministry leaked the information to Confidencial, which corroborated the information, and says the vaccines had expired in January and February of this year. In Central America, a number of countries facing vaccine hesitancy and rollout problems have struggled to vaccinate their populations before the vaccines’ expiry date. We’ve reported on the case of Guatemala, where more than 5 million vaccine doses were left to spoil, while hundreds of thousands of doses have been lost in Honduras and Panama. Around the world, the health data analysis company Airfinity estimates that a staggering 240 million doses of Covid vaccines have passed their expiration dates since the beginning of the vaccination campaign.

In Kazakhstan, a fiery encounter between a student and a numerologist —  someone who holds pseudoscientific beliefs in the connection between numbers and real-life events — has gone viral on social media. The school had invited the numerologist to their careers day, to consult with children on how to develop their various “strengths.” Then, a student stood up and confronted him about his warped beliefs, to peals of laughter in the room. “Big change-makers are born on the 4th. But Tesla’s Elon Musk was born on the 1st. And how do you explain that Einstein, who turned the whole world of physics upside down, was born on the 5th?“, the student says. He then asks “Why do you only pick the examples that fit your narrative?”

A well-known film director, Kana Beisekeyev, first drew attention to the video on his Instagram page, accusing the numerologist of bullying and the school administration of pushing pseudoscience on children. Numerology is one of many pseudoscientific techniques that has been rapidly gaining popularity in former Soviet countries. Particularly active on Instagram, numerologists have hundreds of thousands of followers and their consultations cost hundreds of dollars.

What we’re reading

Monkeypox is, as expected, triggering new conspiracy theories. And Bill Gates is the central character, with #BillGatesBioTerroist trending across social media platforms. And QAnon-aligned Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene is pushing the theories heavily. Forbes’s Bruce Y. Lee has the rundown

Stigma, poverty and religious beliefs compound anti-abortion laws in Ghana. And the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S. threatens the agency of women living all over the world, particularly in those countries where abortion is already outlawed and accompanied by massive stigma. For the Guardian, Ghanian-American author Bisi Adjapon writes about the devastating effect of the ending of Roe in Ghana.

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