Online discussions about bird flu are recycling COVID-19 narratives

Online discussions about bird flu are recycling COVID-19 narratives

A slew of headlines has the public questioning the American health system, pandemic preparedness, and whether or not milk is safe to drink. No, it’s not COVID-19 all over again, but rather a reaction to an avian influenza outbreak, also called H5N1 or bird flu, that first started in early 2022. The surge of information—and false claims—that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping the way people discuss bird flu now. To better understand how conversations about vaccines and COVID-19 have influenced bird flu conversation, we analyzed social media, news, video, and online discussion posts for the past three months (February 6-May 6 2024).

The trendline shows U.S. vs global mentions of bird flu, both generally and in the context of vaccines, over the period from February 6 to May 6 across social media, news outlets, blogs, forums, video platforms, and other online sources. Sources defined as U.S. must include a U.S. geolocation to be included in the dataset.

In late March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that avian influenza had been detected in American dairy cattle. In early April, online discourse about the ongoing bird flu (H5N1) outbreak rose sharply following the first recorded case of a human contracting the virus from a cow. Reports of the virus being detected in cow’s milk have kept the outbreak in the news and social media conversations. Since February 6, bird flu has been mentioned in over 1.3 million posts globally, with nearly 70 percent of mentions originating in the U.S.

Much of the content is focused on information sharing and growing concern, especially when the virus “jumped” to mammals. However, the topic has also drawn conspiracy theories and false claims, in many cases circulated by the same accounts that promote disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and other routine vaccines. The following summarizes misleading and false bird flu narratives that have circulated online within vaccine discourse in the last month.

WHO and global health conspiracy theories

Bird flu has been folded into existing conspiracy theories about Disease X and the WHO pandemic accord, which some users falsely claim are schemes to control the global population. Posts express distrust in WHO and global health figures like Bill Gates, criticizing their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and arguing that the current bird flu outbreak has been fabricated in order to “push” new vaccines on the public. Within these conspiracy theories, posts rehash false claims about mRNA safety and imply that mandates for bird flu vaccines will soon be required. In reality, WHO has assessed the risk of bird flu to the general public as low, and public health authorities are continuing to track the spread of avian influenza.

Claim that bird flu is 100 times worse than COVID-19

Many discussions about bird flu aim to place it into the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some social media posts fear mongering to increase engagement. In early April, a United Kingdom-based tabloid reported that a bird flu pandemic could be “100 times worse than the COVID-19 pandemic,” a quote that prompted similar tabloid stories in the U.S. and fueled online conversations and conspiracies for weeks. Some questioned the timing of the news and speculated that it would be used to promote a new vaccine. While bird flu has a higher reported mortality rate than COVID-19, there is no evidence to support the “100 times worse” claim, which appears to have been hyperbole to emphasize the potential danger of the disease if it suddenly became a threat to humans. Health officials who have tracked bird flu for decades say that the risk to humans remains low.

Opposition to bird flu vaccines and outbreak protections

Negative associations with previous pandemic restrictions also provide fruitful ground for some social media posts to oppose the bird flu vaccine and any type of outbreak precautions. Some social media users have declared that they will not comply with any measures put in place to combat outbreaks if “bird flu becomes the new covid.” Other users seem suspicious that an H5N1 vaccine already exists or that others are in development for an infectious disease that has circulated for decades. In one example, a user asks “How’s it possible that the @US_FDA has already approved a ‘H5N1 Bird Flu Vaccine’ for a possible outbreak? … How’s it possible to have back to back ‘Pandemics?’” The FDA approved the first H5N1 vaccine in 2007, a decade after the first human outbreak in Hong Kong. Several avian flu vaccines have been licensed since, including a vaccine approved for those at high risk of exposure in 2020. And as public health experts know, just because the world experienced a pandemic recently, this doesn’t preclude another pandemic in our near future; climate change, globalization, and other factors increase pandemic risk.

2024 election conspiracies

For some social media users, the recent spikes in cases of bird flu are part of a planned conspiracy to disrupt the 2024 election. Online conspiracists have claimed that the outbreak will be used to manipulate the upcoming election, with some doubting the CDC’s credibility on pandemics. This aligns with the continued politicization of public health since 2020; a 2023 poll found that 49 percent of Republicans trust CDC recommendations compared to 87 percent of Democrats.

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