As avian influenza spreads in birds, conspiracy theories about the disease infect the internet

By Matt Field | May 18, 2022

Chicks. Chicks hatch from their eggs. Credit: Otwarte Klatki/Andrew Skowron. CC BY 2.0.

As H5N1 avian influenza spreads in birds around the United States and elsewhere, causing farmers to cull tens of millions of chickens and other farmed birds, baseless conspiracy theories about the severity of the bird flu and its origins are spreading with it. On TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, users are questioning whether the virus is a bioweapon, suggesting it’s a ploy by Bill Gates, and claiming a TV interview with a former CDC director offers proof that the disease outbreaks were planned or that the flu news was designed to scare people. None of which is true.

So far, only two humans—one in Colorado and one in the UK—are known to have contracted the H5N1 flu virus that’s circulating now. Both had direct contact with infected birds.

The posts about bird flu are reminiscent of false conspiracy theories that circulated during an earlier time in the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media users are calling the outbreaks among birds a “plandemic,” a term popularized by those who pushed a range of false claims about the coronavirus pandemic. Across, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter, users have repurposed a video clip of former CDC Director Robert Redfield calling COVID-19 a wakeup call for a future avian influenza pandemic that could occur, if a form of bird flu were to mutate and become easily transmissible to and among humans. In March, on the Christian network Trinity Broadcasting Network, Redfield said bird flu could be “the great pandemic” of the future. Redfield was raising the alarm over what such a crisis could entail, but the social media posts appeared to use the clip to bolster outrageous allegations.

TIk Tok post.
A TikTok post falsely claiming that bird flu outbreaks were planned.

“Wow. So the former CDC director who, for the record, was very much involved in and entirely aligned with Dr. Fauci on the response to COVID-19 is telling us in no uncertain terms that yes bird flu will be the next plandemic,” one TikTok user said. On Twitter and Facebook, users posted the video, along with this text:  “Former head of the CDC Robert R. Redfield confirming the next scamdemic will be bird flu which will kill ‘10 to 50 percent’ of the population.”

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Other posts implied that Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist who often found himself the target of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, is behind the avian influenza scare in order to boost his investments. “Bird flu … yeah right! It’s Bill gates because organic farms animals are his biggest competitors of fake meat. Bill gates is the biggest threat for humanity…change my mind!” one Twitter user wrote.

A Twitter post.
A false claim about bird flu on Twitter.

The AP first reported the spread of bird flu conspiracy theories on Tuesday, noting that some online posters are claiming that avian influenza is a manufactured bioweapon or that it is spread by 5G cellphone towers, false claims that have also been made about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The wire service noted that while the virus is rarely harmful to people, it’s having a devastating impact on poultry operations, where farmers have culled millions of birds in Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota and elsewhere. One man in Colorado was diagnosed with an avian influenza infection in April. He had been working to cull infected birds.

According to the CDC, officials began detecting the H5N1 flu in the United States in January. Since then the virus has been found in wild and farmed birds in 35 states and has affected some 37 million birds. The last time officials detected the virus in the country was in 2016.

With an ongoing pandemic, inflation concerns, baby food shortages, and a war in Ukraine, current events were already providing all but endless fodder for conspiracy theorists to use in online efforts that capitalize on fear. Bird flu appears to be just one of the latest examples.

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Kirsten
Kirsten
6 months ago

I think it’d be really important to stop “upgrading” conspiracy myths to theories. These are not theories, as they are built to conceal cause and effect rather to make hypotheses about cause and effect testable.