Swine flu hysteria triggers numerous conspiracy theories

Img: Disc of the 'War of the Worlds' broadcast. Credit: PhantomS

A quick Google search under "swine flu" and "conspiracy theory" will dredge up all manner of alleged causes of the mysterious virus, proving that imaginations become most febrile during times of hysteria.

In a "War of the Worlds" scenario, conspiracy theories over the cause of the swine flu range from a government (usually the U.S.) cover up over a bioterrorism attack, to the testing of a secret military weapon gone wrong, through to a dastardly plot by big pharmaceutical companies, to even blaming U.S. Republicans for alleging cutting pandemic funds from the first Obama budget. Indeed, the blogosphere has been awash with rumours.

Some have blamed the Mexican drug cartels for the release of the virus, while others follow a more predictable 'Al-Qaeda is responsible' line. Some have even blamed the pork industry's competitors (presumably beef and chicken) in a scare campaign against the consumption of pork.

One particularly pervasive rumour surrounds the fact that the virus seems only to have been lethal to Mexicans. One has been confirmed dead from the virus in Texas, but the victim was a Mexican toddler living temporarily in the United States.

This theory suggests the swine flu is in fact some form of anti-Hispanic biological warfare. Adding alleged 'evidence' to this theory is that the U.S. president has only just returned from Mexico as part of a broader visit to Latin America.

"I find it odd that this recent outbreak of swine flu first appeared in Mexico about the time President Obama was visiting there," writes one blogger, before asking: "Does anyone else find that suspicious?"

The number of conspiracy theorists attempting to put blame for the outbreak at Obama's door seems to have only been surpassed by those suggesting the outbreak doesn't actually exist and is avtually a cover, or blind. But for what? How about to deflect public attention from everything from the economic crisis and climate change, to the recent public debate in the U.S. over torture allegations made against military and CIA operatives during the Bush administration.

President Obama this week earmarked an extra $1.5 billion USD in funding to fight swine flu; however, he has refused to close the border with Mexico. The move has prompted more criticism from right-wingers who claim the president is endangering his own citizens.

Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, which normally show themselves as a force for good in quickly getting information to the public (i.e., recent earthquake disasters), have this time proven to be something of a breeding ground for fast growing conspiracy theories.

Many have criticised the abbreviated nature of media such as Twitter for the spread of such rumours, whereby users have only 140 characters to put down their 'thoughts'. They argue the limited messages leave more room for hyperbole and less for reasoned comment.

In an NPR report, the following misinformation was tracked verbatim in Twitter's messages, known as Tweets:

"I'm concerned about the swine flu outbreak in us and mexico could it be germ warfare?"

"In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town....SWINE FLU = DANGER"

"Good grief this swine flu thing is getting serious. 8/9 specimens tested were prelim positive in NYC. so that's Tx, Mexico and now Nyc."

"Short Ribs! How long before the Swine Flu hysteria crashes the pork market? 2 hours? 3?"

"be careful of the swine flu!!!! (may lead to global epidemic) Outbreak in Mexico. 62 deaths so far!! Don't eat pork from Mexico!!"

"Swine flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people....beef and chicken have always been meats of choice"


"Be careful...Swine Flu is not only in Mexico now. 8 cases in the States. Pig = Don't eat"

With the wide and varied conspiracy theories seemingly spreading faster than the virus itself, global health ministries must be considering the best course of action to quash these pernicious rumours. Do they spend valuable time denying them, only to risk being accused of a cover up and creating unnecessary panic? Or simply ignore them altogether and hope they will disappear?

Then again, they may be to busy preparing their respective nations for the expected pandemic to worry.

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