Brad Moline, a fourth-generation Iowa turkey farmer, saw this happen before. In 2015, a virulent avian flu outbreak nearly wiped out his flock. Barns once filled with chattering birds were suddenly silent. Employees were anguished by having to kill sickened animals. The family business, started in 1924, was at serious risk. His business recovered, but now the virus is back, again imperiling the nation's poultry farms, the AP reports. And this time, there's another pernicious force at work: a potent wave of misinformation that claims the bird flu isn't real.
"You just want to beat your head against the wall," Moline said of the Facebook groups in which people insist the flu is fake or, maybe, a bioweapon. "I understand the frustration with how COVID was 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 led farmers to cull millions of birds and threatens to add to already rising food prices. It's also spawning fantastical claims similar to the ones that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, underscoring how conspiracy theories often emerge at times of uncertainty, and how the internet and a deepening 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 to justify reducing the supply of birds in an effort to drive up food prices, either to wreck the global economy or force people into vegetarianism. "There is no 'bird flu' outbreak," wrote one man on Reddit. "It's just COVID for chickens." Other posters insist the flu is real, but that it was genetically engineered as a weapon, possibly to touch off a new round of COVID-style lockdowns. A version of the story popular in India posits that 5G cell towers are somehow to blame for the virus. The reality of the outbreak is far more mundane.
Farmers have already culled millions of fowl to prevent the spread. Zoos around the US have moved exotic bird exhibits indoors, and wildlife authorities are discouraging backyard bird feeding in some states to prevent spread by wild birds. The first known human case of the H5N1 outbreak in the US was confirmed last month in Colorado; most human cases involve direct contact with infected birds, so the risk to a broad population is low. While details vary, conspiracy theories about avian flu all speak to a distrust of institutions, and a suspicion that doctors, scientists, veterinarians, journalists, and elected officials around the world can no longer be trusted. Conspiracy theories flourish during times of social unease, said John Jackson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "There isn't a phenomena on the planet, whether it’s the avian flu or 5G, that isn't already primed for conspiracists," he said.
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