A round of new public policy polls show that awareness of monkeypox is growing in the United States—and so are conspiracy theories about it, many of which have been directly repurposed from false claims made about COVID-19. While the far-right uses monkeypox to peddle anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories and prominent anti-vax figures have already declared they won’t take the disease seriously, there’s evidence that a broader suspicion could, once again, be taking root. There’s also a noticeable—if still minor—percentage of people who don’t know what to believe about the disease, creating a fertile market for conspiracy peddlers.
The main source of information we currently have about monkeypox conspiracy theories is from a poll released on July 29 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. We know from other polling in May that most Americans said then they weren’t paying attention to the monkeypox outbreak, but the Annenberg poll seemed to show that awareness of the disease is starting to grow. While about 80 percent of respondents said they weren’t worried about catching monkeypox in the next few months, 69% percent of the respondents knew that monkeypox usually spreads via close, prolonged contact with an infected person, suggesting they’ve been hearing the disease.
But that’s also where things immediately began to get a bit dicey: another 26 percent of respondents weren’t sure if that basic fact—that monkeypox spreads via close contact—was true. Additionally, 51 percent of the
respondents weren’t sure if a monkeypox vaccine exists, although one has been licensed for use by the FDA (the same vaccine used to prevent smallpox).
And further questions on specific conspiratorial beliefs about monkeypox showed that a few conspiracy narratives are already circulating, even if they remain in the extreme minority. Some 34 percent of those surveyed weren’t sure whether or not it’s true or false that monkeypox was “bioengineered in a lab,” something for which there is absolutely no evidence. Lab leak theories about COVID-19, of course, have circulated widely, even while there’s still no definitive evidence that’s what happened. (Three preprint studies published in February showed that COVID emerging via a wet market is still most persuasive to experts. Two of those studies have since been released with peer review, though they still don’t answer precisely which animals were most likely involved.)
Respondents were also asked whether monkeypox “was intentionally released by scientists to deflect attention from the failures of the Biden administration.” Only a small minority—10 percent in all—said that idea is probably or definitely true. And 21 percent weren’t sure whether it’s true or false that monkeypox is caused by exposure to a 5G signal, another repurposed COVID conspiracy theory.
In all, while monkeypox conspiracy theories remain on the fringe, there’s evidence that uncertainty, lack of good public health communication, and a huge number of conspiracy peddlers always looking to ride the latest wave, could create more public suspicion about monkeypox and the vaccine used against it. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an anti-extremism think tank, has referred to what’s happening as “cut-and-paste conspiracies,” repurposing the same ideas that found success during COVID.
“Many of these communities, and the influencers within them, are now acutely aware of the successes of their “plandemic” disinformation playbook,” two ISD analysts wrote, “which sought to delegitimize public health officials, and their institutions.”
The Annenberg study authors are keenly aware that we’re already running out of time to stop the spread of bad, false, or damaging beliefs about monkeypox. “The time to reduce susceptibility to misinformation about monkeypox is now,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, was quoted as saying in a news release about the polling. “It is critically important that public health professionals offer anxious individuals accurate information about the ways in which this virus is transmitted and infection prevented. Vaccinating those who are at highest risk should be a national priority.”
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