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Ebola, Russians And The Danger Of Wild Conspiracy Theories

Too many guns, too much Internet, and grandiose conspiracy theories can become a life-or-death decision.

NPR had a story this morning about attacks on healthcare professionals treating Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

When Ebola hit last August, rumors started swirling that the disease is a hoax — or brought by the government and foreigners as a way to make money and even kill off people in an area that's been a hotbed of government resistance....

While frontline Ebola workers have faced assaults on the job throughout the outbreak, beginning around February, the attacks have become more brazen. Ebola treatment centers have been repeatedly attacked. In late April, gunmen stormed in while a local response team was meeting and shot an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization.

And increasingly, even regular health workers ... are being targeted. Often at home.

The head of the area doctors' association has described multiple incidents to NPR — including one in February when attackers broke into the house of a government nurse while he was sleeping and made his wife watch as they shot him dead with a bow and arrow.

Maybe you think that's the reaction of superstitious, backward people from the Third World who have nothing in common with the citizens of our First World country. I'm not so sure. Around the time I was listening to the NPR report, I was reading this story in The New York Times:

A town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada recently found itself at the center of a baseless conspiracy theory that predicted an attack on a school fund-raiser.

All because of an innocuous tweet from James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director.

Scott Maddock, the principal of the Grass Valley Charter School in Grass Valley, Calif., was unaware of the conspiracy theory when he arrived at work on a normal-seeming Monday morning late last month. But when he checked his voice mail, he heard from a man identifying himself as “a patriot,” alerting Mr. Maddock to the “threat.”

“He was warning us that something was going to happen at our Blue Marble Jubilee school fund-raiser and that we should contact the authorities,” Mr. Maddock said. “He kept saying that he is not behind it, but he has a credible source.”


↓ Story continues below ↓

... Two days earlier, on April 27, Mr. Comey had shared a tweet listing a handful of jobs he had held in the past alongside the hashtag #FiveJobsIveHad.

Hundreds of others had done the same before and since, but a small fringe group of conspiracy theorists seized on the tweet, claiming that it contained a coded message.

By removing letters, the hashtag could be shortened to “Five Jihad,” they argued. And a search for the abbreviation formed by the first letters of the jobs he listed, G.V.C.S.F., led to the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation, whose fund-raiser was scheduled for this weekend.

Mr. Comey, they concluded, was broadcasting an attack, perhaps as a distraction from other pending news.

People actually believed this convoluted theory about Comey's response to the #FiveJobsIveHad hashtag (which seemed extremely innocuous while it was trending). Eventually the fundraiser had to be canceled -- in part because officials feared that someone might show up strapped in response to the completely imaginary threat:

Mr. Maddock and Wendy Willoughby, the president of the foundation, had started to hear from parents who were worried not about the predicted attack, but about the people who believed in it.

What if one of them showed up, armed, to protect against a threat that simply did not exist, as had happened at a popular Washington pizzeria two years ago?

The Russians know that America is full of uninformed, credulous people, as another Times story notes:

The cellphones known as 5G, or fifth generation, represent the vanguard of a wireless era rich in interconnected cars, factories and cities. Whichever nation dominates the new technology will gain a competitive edge for much of this century, according to many analysts. But a television network a few blocks from the White House has been stirring concerns about a hidden flaw.

“Just a small one,” a TV reporter told her viewers recently. “It might kill you.”

The Russian network RT America aired the segment, titled “A Dangerous ‘Experiment on Humanity,’” in covering what its guest experts call 5G’s dire health threats. U.S. intelligence agencies identified the network as a principal meddler in the 2016 presidential election. Now, it is linking 5G signals to brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors and Alzheimer’s disease — claims that lack scientific support.

QAnon ... the anti-vaxx movement ... are we sure Americans are more sophisticated than the Congolese?

The NPR story suggested that the standard procedure for Ebola treatment, which involves removing patients from the community, might be part of the problem. (It may no longer be appropriate because it's possible now to vaccinate family members and other contacts.)

Now, can you imagine an outbreak of a disease in America about which people already have suspicions? Now imagine that the outbreak takes place in a community of skeptics, especially skeptics who are wary of outsiders. Maybe the members of the community already believe in arming themselves, as so many Americans do. And maybe the treatment involves removing people from their homes.

Would the reaction to the outbreak in America might be similar to the anger in the Congo? I wish I could say I couldn't imagine it, but I can.

Published with permission from No More Mr. Nice Blog

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