By Raquel Miguel, Researcher at EU DisinfoLab
- The COVID-19 infodemic showed how a health crisis could turn into an information crisis. The monkeypox outbreak in the spring of 2022 offers the first test to evaluate to which extent society has learned the lessons of that infodemic.
- EU DisinfoLab analysed monkeypox-related hoaxes debunked in France, Germany, and Spain from May 1st to September 30th, 2022 and compared them to those during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Most hoaxes related to monkeypox were merely recycled from pandemic-related disinformation. Only one was slightly different but not original, as it had already circulated during other health crises.
- The study explores whether recycling hoaxes by disinformation transmitters offers a possibility for the counter-disinformation community to improve their strategies and even predict the deceptive narratives that will circulate in future virus outbreaks. The recycling of disinformation suggests the need for the counter-disinformation community to move away from a crisis-by-crisis approach towards a more systematic response.
- Pre-bunking might be a viable way to detect hoaxes even before they pile up into a new infodemic threat.
If the 2016 US elections were a milestone for political disinformation, the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 was definitely a milestone for health disinformation. Even then, health disinformation was not new: numerous hoaxes had surrounded viruses such as the swine flu, H1N1, Ebola, AIDS, or even diseases such as cancer. The global outreach of COVID-19, coupled with unprecedented access to technology and information, led the WHO to speak of an infodemic.
From false medical advice to denialism, from opposition to containment measures to anti-vaccine narratives, disinformative narratives continue to populate our information environment. Unsurprisingly, the monkeypox outbreak in the spring of 2022 was also susceptible to a mis- and disinformation wave. Like COVID-19, it triggered a health epidemic based on a new and less-known variant of a previously existing virus, with cases emerging globally. Given these similarities, it can be the first test to evaluate whether the lessons learned from the pandemic can help prevent a new infodemic.
Besides recycling narratives, monkeypox-related disinformation was also exploited to relaunch coronavirus-related falsehoods in various European countries. This blogpost intends to compare deceiving narratives on the two health crises in order to highlight their resemblance not only content-wise, but also in terms of sentiments awaken and communication strategies employed.
The circularity of health disinformation suggests that if disinformation actors can take advantage of recycled narratives in the face of new epidemics and other emergencies, the counter-disinformation community can do the same. Therefore, a more proactive approach – for example, pre-bunking – could offer a more efficient way to tackle disinformation systematically to go beyond reacting to an imminent threat.
The analysis is based on a sample of 34 debunks by German, Spanish, and French fact-checkers collected from May 1st to September 30th, 2022. Monkeypox-related hoaxes are then compared to recurrent COVID-19 deceptions to detect similar narratives and identify different ones.
3. HEALTH DISINFORMATION NARRATIVES: REVIVING AND REUSING OLD HOAXES
In a nutshell:
- 25 of the monkeypox-related hoaxes (73%) are identical or similar to those that already circulated on COVID-19.
- 8 of the hoaxes (24%) about monkeypox are also related to COVID-19.
- Just 1 hoax (3%) is different and shows a new approach to monkeypox-related disinformation.
3.1 Recycling the same narrative
Virus denialism and relativism
During the coronavirus pandemic, denialists claimed that the COVID-19 virus did not exist and was mistaken for common influenza. In other instances, initial denialism gave way to a relativism that, while acknowledging the existence of the new virus, failed to recognise its seriousness.
Similar narratives appeared, denying the new monkeypox outbreak and claiming it was shingles disease. In some cases, this had a dual intention: on the one hand, denying the disease while attacking the COVID-19 vaccine; on the other hand, claiming that shingles were a side effect of the vaccine.
Other hoaxes circulated, denying the effectiveness of medical tests designed to detect both viruses. Conspiracies claimed that PCR tests are ineffective or defective in returning false positives both of COVID-19 and monkeypox. The intention is two-fold: to foster denialism and to sow doubts about the scientific tools available to fight the health crisis. Moreover, the narrative attacks the pharmaceutical industry’s alleged appetite for economic gains at the expense of public health.
The “plandemic”: conspiracy labs and Bill Gates
Another widespread deception promotes the human-made origin of these viruses. These narratives are pushed either to blame a specific country (e.g., China, the United States, Ukraine) for geopolitical purposes or to encourage conspiracy theories, for instance, related to the deep state and a world depopulation scheme.
The biolabs theories point to the intentional nature of both outbreaks, blaming the global elite represented and, among others, Bill Gates.
Alternative cures and vaccine scepticism
Health-related disinformation also pushed claims that alternative treatments are the most effective but are not being used or taken into account to reaffirm further that authorities have no intention of putting an end to the emergency. In the case of COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, or hand-made remedies were pointed as false cures. Later, hydroxychloroquine and doxycycline were also mentioned as remedies against monkeypox.
Suspicion over the relatively rapid development of new vaccines to deal with new viruses also prompted various hoaxes. These claimed that vaccines were still experimental and not tested enough or scams to enrich pharmaceutical companies, producing no real effects or causing harmful health consequences.
In addition, disinformers also targeted vaccination campaigns as a whole. For example, a false call for COVID-19 vaccinations caused chaos in a Spanish town. During the monkeypox outbreak, false information circulated about an alleged mass vaccination action and misleading claims about different countries’ management of vaccination campaigns.
The Simpsons have been misused to predict dozens of events over time. COVID-19 and monkeypox were not exceptions for seemingly harmless theories searching for clickbait that perpetuate conspiracy beliefs.
3.2. Narrative cross-fertilisation
In some cases, disinformation on both viruses appeared within the same hoax. The new monkeypox outbreak was used to reinforce anti-vaccine stances, framing the epidemic as a consequence or side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.
3.3. A new dimension: stigmatising homosexuality and fostering racist narratives
Monkeypox disinformation differs from COVID-19 mainly because of a specific narrative: the alleged link between contracting the virus and engaging in homosexual relationships. Although marginal hoaxes that related to COVID-19 targeted the LGBTQ+ community, a direct link between the infection and homosexuality did not appear (according to the data collected by EU DisinfoLab). However, this causal connection is particularly striking in the case of the monkeypox. Yet, this narrative is not original but recalls the discrimination, ignorance, and abuse surrounding the AIDS epidemic, offering further evidence of the interconnection between different diseases and recurrent deceiving narratives.
It is worth mentioning that public blaming of homosexuals goes beyond the hoaxes debunked by fact-checkers, appearing also in other discourses. Explicit mentions by institutions or public figures spread the idea that the LGBTQ+ community was the only one affected by the virus, contributing to their stigmatisation.
Apart from hoaxes, the monkeypox outbreak was instrumental in pushing racist discourse against Africa, just like COVID-19 hoaxes often promoted Sinophobic narratives. The WHO even renamed the strains of the monkeypox disease to remove references to African regions amid concerns about discrimination.
Moreover, political satire against German institutions also exploited racist stereotypes. For example, the image below shows a protest in Frankfurt holding a poster that reads: “Monkeypox appears mainly in banana republics”, reads the sign, while one user commented that “this is why Germany is in danger.”
4. PREDICTABILITY AND PRE-BUNKING
The reuse of health-related hoaxes from one epidemic to the other suggests a basis for narrative predictability. Pre-bunking can be the first step in recognising disinformation’s pattern of repetition, thus tackling an infodemic proactively rather than simply reactively. First Draft defines it as “the process of debunking lies, tactics or sources before they strike” and considers that “it is better to prevent misinformation from spreading at all than to try to debunk it once it’s spread”, reaching and potentially affecting the public.
Pre-bunking can be a sensitive topic, as some critics even consider it censorship. In fact, there is also a fear that this can backfire if, by trying to anticipate the narratives, new hoaxes are created or fueled.
However, there are valid reasons to engage in pre-bunking. Acknowledging a pattern of repetition (e.g., in medical disinformation) can prepare the community to deal with the next crisis before it becomes another infodemic. This way, it would be possible to create effective counter-narratives with a systematic rather than case-by-case approach. Moreover, predictability is also the basis for the development of any potential automation process based on anticipation.
- The blogpost showed that most disinformative narratives related to the monkeypox epidemic have been revived, recycled, and reused from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Moreover, disinformation on a new topic typically attracts the same communities as observed during the war in Ukraine. For instance, an EDMO BELUX report evidenced that the same groups went from anti-vaccine stances to pro-Russian disinformation. In this case, the communities that believed COVID-19 disinformation is very likely to believe monkeypox disinformation.
- The monkeypox brings on a more robust (but not new) stigma to the LBGTQ+ community, evidencing that disinformation plays on the same fears and thus, not only does it attract the same communities regardless of the topic, but it also victimises the same groups.
- The hoaxes related to monkeypox display again that disinformation is constantly repackaged, allowing for some predictability and the possibility of developing rapid counter-measures.
- The impact risks of health and medical disinformation showed that the counter-disinformation community needs to build a systematic capacity to act rather than react. Together, health experts could develop a proactive instead of a reactive approach. In this mission, pre-bunking can be an ally.