Memes and Fake News Are Destroying Our Ability to Fight Zika, Study Says

Miami has seen a lull in Zika cases lately, which makes sense because it's low season for Florida's mosquitoes. But once the weather warms up, clouds of Aedes aegypti will return with the virus.

Fighting the virus hasn't been easy. Pesticides aren't very effective and have run up against public pushback. But a new study says another problem has also hampered anti-Zika efforts: the flood of memes, #fakenews articles, and straight-up incorrect reporting that followed the virus.

There has been "a steady accumulation of communications tying the Zika health threat to already culturally charged issues," researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center wrote in a December study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Risk Research. "The voice of public health officials furnishing the public with precautionary advice is only one in a chorus, whose other members include a collection of advocacy groups all seeking to leverage public anxiety over Zika into greater attention to their special cause."

The study's lead author, Yale University professor Dan M. Kahan, is well known for his research into the psychology of climate-change denial. He found that similar false narratives are preventing a science-based approach to battling Zika.

Kahan's report cites a host of incorrect claims from both right- and left-wing websites: The study zeroes in on the fake claims that undocumented immigrants spread Zika, as well as the idea that global warming will make the Zika crisis worse.

According to the study, this kind of framing prevents people from seeing the Zika outbreak with a clear head. People who are frightened by immigrants will become unnecessarily frightened by Zika, for example, while people who don't believe in global warming will feel like they don't have to do anything to fight Zika because they think climate change is a hoax.

The opposite is also true: People who fear climate change might become unnecessarily terrified of Zika, while people who are pro-immigrant might dismiss anti-immigrant articles as a hoax and subconsciously dismiss Zika too.

"The researchers found that the memes were able to affect people’s concern about Zika virus, depending on their cultural worldview," a recent Annenberg news release stated.

In other words, when you start throwing politically polarizing topics around while discussing a health crisis, people forget they're actually in the middle of a health crisis.

The study cites other cases where politics clearly got in the way of science: In 2011, a host of right-wing blogs made salacious claims about the HPV vaccine, calling it a "slut shot" or an unsafe product from a corrupt pharmaceutical company. Thus, the study says, it's the only vaccine recommended for "universal application" by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that isn't administered to everyone.

The study goes a long way toward explaining exactly what happened during last summer's Zika explosion in Miami. Residents broke into factions: Some didn't believe the virus was a threat; others thought we were living in a crisis zone, and others believed the virus was a government-perpetrated (or Bill Gates-perpetrated or Monsanto-perpetrated) hoax.

Those factions then went to war with one another online. Nobody, it seemed, got a perfectly clear picture of how to continue fighting the virus: Some advocated for pesticide spraying, some people left town, and others went about their daily lives like nothing was wrong.
The study's results mirror many of the same concerns people felt during last year's election cycle — that is, an inability to distinguish fact from fiction.

"This kind of communication effectively disables members of certain groups to define what is true and what is not,” Kahan, the author, said in a release. “And that is a public health concern as much as the disease itself.”
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.