For the last twenty years or more I have been doing work on public health. A key part of that work has been studying conspiracy theories during pandemics. I first started working on this topic when I was doing research on HIV/AIDS in Latin America. While I spent time in Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, I heard many conspiracy theories about HIV/AIDS: it was designed in a US military lab to control populations in developing countries or that pharmaceutical companies had found a cure that they kept secret to ensure their profits from HIV treatments. Upon returning home I heard a great deal of HIV denialism -the belief that AIDS was not caused by a virus- in my classes from my students. It’s hard to believe now, but twenty years ago there were many students who would argue passionately that HIV was caused by drugs or pesticides sold by Monsanto.
In the years that have followed I have written about the conspiracy theories that have surrounded everything from Zika to the 2009 influenza pandemic. What has always struck me about these conspiracy theories is how much recycling they entail. The same narratives are reused no matter the new health threat that emerges. Sometimes I think that I have worked on this topic for too long, and that I am at risk of repeating my own arguments. But these theories matter. Why would a pregnant women in a Zika affected area put on insect repellent if she doesn’t believe that the vector is a mosquito?
Ebola is a classic example of the damage these theories can cause. I have a new paper out that asks why there was such a difference in how social media companies responded to conspiracy theories about Ebola and COVID. It’s a brief essay but I hope that it will provoke some discussion.
Shawn Smallman, 2023
Smallman S. Conspiracy Theories and Ebola: Lessons Learned Important for Future Pandemics. Norton Healthcare Medical Journal. 2023; 1(1). doi:10.59541/001c.77445