Monkeypox Disinfo is just like Covid Disinfo—plus homophobia—Mother Jones

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once upon a time, Alex Berenson was a The New York Times Journalist covering key stories, from the Iraq War to Hurricane Katrina to the Bernie Madoff scandal. But over the past several years, he’s focused increasingly on a new pet project: owning lips. In his Substack newsletter “Unreported Facts,” Joe attacked Biden, mocked the pro-choice movement, and complained of inflation to “tens of thousands of subscribers.”

One of Berenson’s favorite topics has been the underestimation of Covid vaccines – and it is this work in particular that has made him a star. Before Twitter kicked him off the platform for spreading misinformation about vaccines last year, he had hundreds of thousands of followers. Substack’s newsletters from Berenson over the past month have been mostly the same: He criticizes “media wake-uppers about Covid vaccines” and describes Pennsylvania Senate Democratic candidate Jon Fetterman as a “fat-fortified cannabis activist.”

But earlier this week, Berenson set about a new target: the increasing global spread of the monkeypox virus. In a post titled “Is it monkeypox or monkeypox?” Public health authorities “almost had another epidemic on the go – the perfect way to distract the media’s shiny-haired robots from the complete failure of mRNA vaccines,” Berenson wrote. He then goes on to state that monkeypox is a disease of gay men. “Are you a gay man who likes sex with a lot of gay men?” he wrote. “Maybe in the bathroom? Maybe optional names? Maybe with the methamphetamine bump on the side? no? are you sure? … Okay. Don’t worry about the monkeypox thing then.”

With those two points — a supposedly exaggerated illness plus some homophobia — Bronson did what anti-vaccine activists do best. He’s managed to build on his previous talking points and turn to the current news cycle, meticulously weaving recent headlines into a grand conspiracy theory with necessary villains and outrageous profit.

It seems that no topic is too far away for these fanatics to exploit. I recently reported on anti-vaccine influencers adopting the pro-Kremlin ideology and promoting dangerous misinformation about infant formula shortages. But the monkeypox outbreak provides particularly fertile ground because it allows misinformation suppliers to recycle many of the same talking points they developed for Covid. The addition of homophobic rhetoric is particularly toxic, as it likely unites anti-LGBTQ extremists with Covid denial. As an epidemiologist and AIDS activist Greg Gonsalves put it on Twitter Earlier this week, this could have been “that moment when homophobia meets far-right pandemic politics.”

Let’s dispense with a few facts for some context: The monkeypox outbreak hasn’t even gone by a month; The World Health Organization reported the first cases on May 13. The total has now exceeded 250 cases in 16 countries. The disease, which causes flu-like symptoms and painful and fatal lesions in about 3-6 percent of cases, is endemic to parts of Africa, where outbreaks can often be traced back to contact with animals. Although monkeypox can be transmitted between humans, it’s not nearly as transmissible as Covid — it usually requires close contact to spread, says Derek Walsh, professor of microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Walsh, whose lab studies smallpox viruses, a class of diseases that includes monkeypox and its more deadly cousin, smallpox, emphasized in an email that although there have been many cases in the current outbreak among men in the LGBTQ community, “there is no reason to believe now.” It has mutated to spread sex only among men who have sex with men.”

Contrary to what Berenson has claimed, Walsh said, the fact that the disease has spread so far in this particular group is likely a coincidence. It is possible that early patients “transmitted it simply because of close contact with sex, not necessarily sex itself and sex alone, before we realized the outbreak.” In fact, a senior WHO adviser told the Associated Press earlier this week that he believed the outbreak was a “random event” that occurred and spread to cheers in Spain and Belgium.

Rumors that monkeypox is a disease of gay men serve as a profound reminder to public health experts of the terrifying early days of the HIV epidemic in the mid-1980s. Gonçalves warned of this dynamic in a Tweet topic on monkeypox earlier this week. “There are always people willing to use disease to stigmatize and scapegoat,” he wrote. The United Nations issued a similar warning this week saying that “lessons learned from the AIDS response show that stigma and blame directed at specific groups of people can quickly undermine the response to an outbreak.”

One stream elusive The conspiracy theory linking homophobia to the anti-fax movement is that monkeypox isn’t monkeypox at all — rather, influencers claim it’s a side effect of HIV from Covid vaccines. In a lengthy Instagram story called H(!) V/pox, an anti-vaccine account called @theshinedontstop, which has 88,000 followers and also engaged in pro-Putin rhetoric, put forward this theory, using alternate spellings to avoid misinformation algorithms. The story goes: “There are many reports of people who received c(0)^!dv * (c) (!ne, and then were diagnosed with A!D$.” (This is not true). “Now… they claim for the time The first ever… munkeepox is sexually transmitted and spread via gay and lesbian festivals.

Other accounts have shared misinformation that may not be overtly anti-gay, but it’s still troubling. For example, one widely shared memes features a banner that reads, “Monkeypox is a cover story for the acquired shingles vaccine. Changed my mind.” Another image shows a still from the Austin Powers movie saying, “The fear of Covid is easing. Release monkeypox!!!”

Influencers aren’t the only ones promoting myths about monkeypox. Alex Jones, a far-right radio host and Trump ally, claimed that the Covid vaccines caused this. Last week, Representative Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ge) adopted an old conspiracy theory — that Bill Gates engineered Covid for profit — and simply replaced the disease. “Bill Gates is very concerned about monkeypox because it is something that, it seems, can make a lot of money,” she said on her Facebook Live. The leading doctors in the field of anti-vaccines have also embraced the reason. In his recent Substack newsletter, Dr. Paul Alexander, a former Trump adviser who has also been a staunch supporter of anti-vaccine truck driver convoys in Canada and the United States, speculated that Covid vaccines may have left us vulnerable to other diseases. He wrote: “Our immune systems may now be put at serious risk (in vaccinated people) due to the Covid vaccine.” “Monkeypox may be tipping.” (The idea that Covid vaccines weaken the immune system has been debunked.)

On May 20, Dr. Aaron Khairati, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior who was fired from his position at UC-Irvine for refusing to receive a COVID vaccination, suggested in a tweet on Twitter. route To his 157,000 followers that monkeypox virus was so intentionally issued by powerful global public health authorities in order to enrich the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture vaccines and treatments. As evidence for this theory, he cited a simulation exercise conducted last year in which epidemiologists practiced pandemic response planning using a hypothetical outbreak of monkeypox as an example. This conspiracy theory has been widely repeated, including by the Robert F.

The truth, it is not surprising, Much less exciting. Epidemiologists often use simulations to prepare for outbreaks – this type of planning is an important public health tool. The fact that experts included simulations of an outbreak of monkeypox indicates that they considered it likely. “While you may hear on the news that scientists were surprised by this outbreak, that’s not entirely true,” Walsh said. “We’ve been watching monkeypox adapt to human-to-human transmission in Africa for several decades, so it was only a matter of time before that happened.” Walsh said he was appalled to suggest that monkeypox is in any way linked to Covid vaccines. He said, “We are testing people,”So the simple fact is that we know it’s smallpox, not herpes or HIV.”

However, non-dramatic facts do not seem to gain momentum as easily as sweeping accounts of powerful people with nefarious motives. Social media platforms seem to be struggling to keep up with the onslaught of monkeypox content. Twitter says in its community guidelines that users may not “share false or misleading information about Covid-19 that could lead to harm.” Substack has no such policies. Neither of these companies responded to a request for comment on their policies regarding monkeypox misinformation or anti-gay rhetoric. A spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, noted that fact-checking organizations it works with have been monitoring monkeypox content. Penalties for sharing such content range from demotion in the visibility algorithm to removal. The spokesperson did not specifically address homophobic accounts of monkeypox, but my quick Facebook search turned up several examples of posts that described monkeypox as the result of a “wrong” lifestyle.

It’s possible that social media platforms carefully censor monkeypox content not so much for homophobia as they are for straightforward misinformation. In his Substack post, Berenson dismissed the idea that Covid vaccines cause monkeypox. “[Y]You can totally go to Alex Jones and start screaming about how the DNA/AAV Covid vaccines are giving us monkeypox! He wrote. “Do you know what happens to my blood pressure when jerks wake up on Twitter Compare me to Alex #@$%TG$Jones? If you get whipped, you’ll know why.” Here’s a tactic: By distancing himself from some of the wildest conspiracy theories, Berenson, who has not responded to my request for comment, makes his homophobia seem plausible by comparison. Throughout the pandemic, rogue scientists and other influential opponents have profited Their qualifications are to gain credibility and separate themselves from the tin-hat crowd.

The spread of this kind of misinformation on social media is a particular source of frustration for Walsh, who watches in horror the fact that the truth about an illness he has studied for years is being misrepresented by conspiracy theorists. “It’s really disappointing that some people are posting this kind of thing maliciously, but I think that’s their intent,” he said. “Maybe they know very well what they’re doing.”

Images from left: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash, Radek Pestka/Unsplash, Christian Buehner/Unsplash, Daniel Schludi/Unsplash, BSIP/UIG/Getty, Martin Sanchez/Unsplash, Sushil Nash/Unsplash

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