Brad Moline, a fourth-generation turkey farmer in Iowa, has experienced this before. In 2015, a virulent outbreak of bird flu almost wiped out his flock.
Barns that were once filled with chattering birds were suddenly silent. The employees were tortured to have to kill sick animals. The family business, founded in 1924, was in serious jeopardy.
His business rebounded, but now the virus is back, once again threatening the country’s poultry farms. And this time, another damaging force is at work: a powerful wave of misinformation claiming that bird flu is not real.
“You just want to bang your head against the wall,” Moline said of the Facebook groups where people insist the flu is fake or maybe a bioweapon. “I understand the frustration at how COVID has been handled. I understand the lack of trust in the media today. I get it. But this is real.”
While it poses little risk to humans, the global outbreak has prompted farmers to kill millions of birds and threatens to add to already-rising food prices.
It also brings forth fantastic claims similar to those that emerged 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 fuel their spread.
The claims can be found on obscure online message boards and major platforms like Twitter. Some versions claim the flu is fake, a hoax used to justify reducing bird supply to drive up food prices to either ruin the world economy or force people to become vegetarian.
“There is no outbreak of ‘bird flu,'” wrote one man on Reddit. “It’s only Covid for chickens.”
Other posters insist the flu is real but that it has been genetically engineered as a weapon, possibly to trigger a new round of COVID-style lockdowns. One version of the story popular in India has it that 5G cellphone towers are somehow responsible for the virus.
As evidence, many of those who claim the flu is fake note that the animal health agencies monitoring the outbreak are using some of the same technology used to test for COVID-19.
“They test the animals for bird flu using PCR tests. That should give you a clue as to what’s going on,” one Twitter user wrote in a post that was liked and retweeted thousands of times.
In fact, PCR tests have been routinely used in medicine, biology, and even law enforcement for decades; Its creator won a Nobel Prize in 1993.
The reality of the outbreak is far more mundane, if no less devastating to birds and the people who depend on them for their livelihoods.
Farmers in states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota have already killed millions of poultry to try to stop the outbreak from spreading. Zoos across the US have moved exotic bird exhibits indoors to protect their animals, and wildlife agencies are discouraging feeding backyard birds in some states to prevent spread by wild birds. The disease has also struck bald eagles across the country.
The first known human case of the H5N1 outbreak in the US was confirmed last month in Colorado in a prison inmate who was helping to cull and dispose of poultry at a local farm.
Most human cases involve direct contact with infected birds, meaning the risk to a broader population is low, but experts across the country are monitoring the virus closely to be sure, according to Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Agency that tracks animal diseases in part to protect the state’s agricultural industry.
“I can guarantee you this is the real deal,” Poulsen told The Associated Press. “We certainly don’t invent it.”
Poultry farms drive the local economy in some parts of Wisconsin, Poulsen said, adding that a devastating outbreak of bird flu could land both farmers and consumers in real trouble.
While details may vary, all avian flu conspiracy theories speak of a distrust of authority and institutions and a suspicion that millions of doctors, scientists, veterinarians, journalists and elected officials around the world can no longer be trusted.
“Americans clearly understand that the federal government and major media have repeatedly lied to them and are being completely corrupted by the drug companies,” said Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopath whose discredited claims about vaccines, masks and the coronavirus made him a prominent source of misinformation about COVID-19.
Mercola’s interest in bird flu dates back years. A 2006 book for sale on his website, which Mercola uses to sell unproven natural remedies, is titled The Great Bird Flu Hoax.
Polls show that trust in many American institutions — including the news media — has plummeted in recent years. Confidence in science and scientific experts has also fallen, along partisan lines.
Moline, the Iowa turkey farmer, said he sympathizes with people questioning what they read 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.
The 2015 outbreak was later dubbed the costliest animal health disaster in US history. Moline’s farm had to cull tens of thousands of turkeys after the flu entered one of its barns. Workers on the farm are now adhering to a hygiene guideline aimed at limiting the spread of virus, including using different pairs of boots and clothing for different stalls.
Conspiracy theories will thrive in times of social unrest or unrest, according to John Jackson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Before the internet, there were probably just as many people who privately doubted explanations for big events, Jackson said. But they had limited opportunities to connect with like-minded people, few opportunities to attract new converts, and no opportunity to share their views with strangers.
Now, the conspiracy theories that are gaining widespread popularity — like the QAnon movement or discredited claims about COVID-19 — work because they give believers a sense of control in a rapidly changing, connected world, Jackson said. They can arise after catastrophes, attacks or plane crashes, but also in times of social upheaval or rapid change.
“There isn’t a phenomenon on the planet, whether it’s bird flu or 5G, that isn’t already primed for conspiracy theorists,” Jackson said. “Now we have the coronavirus that has traumatized us so deeply… we’re looking at the same idea of bird flu with completely new eyes, and we’re bringing different kinds of conspiracy to it.”
Claims that bird flu is a hoax used to drive up food prices also underscore real-world concerns about inflation and food shortages. Concerns that the flu is somehow linked to 5G towers underscore fears over technological shifts. Suggestions that it is used to mandate vegetarianism, on the other hand, reflect uncertainties about sustainable agriculture, climate change and animal welfare.
By creating explanations, conspiracy theories can give the believer a sense of power or control, Jackson said. But he said they also defy common sense in their cinematic fantasies about vast, sprawling conspiracies of millions working with clockwork efficiency to subvert human affairs.
“Conspiracy theories are based on the idea that humans have the ability to keep secrets,” Jackson said. “But they underestimate the reality that we’re not very good at holding them.”
– David Klepper, The Associated Press