Politically Driven Public Health Disinformation – the Latest Examples: Dread Infections, Porn Causing White Male Impotence

It used to be all about the money. We had previously noted deceptive public relations practices, including orchestrated stealth health policy advocacy campaigns, to sell health policies favoring big health care corporations.  Third party strategies used patient advocacy organizations and medical societies that had institutional conflicts of interest
due to their funding from companies selling health care products and
services, or the influence of conflicted leaders and board members. 
Some deceptive public relations campaigns were extreme enough to be
characterized as propaganda or disinformation.

Also, we had previously noted health care leaders often were unfamiliar with, unsympathetic to, or frankly hostile
to their organizations’ health care mission, and/or health care
professionals’ values. Again, most such examples seemed to be generated by leaders who put their
organization’s revenue, often in parallel with their own compensation
ahead of patients’ and the public’s health.

But now, it seems to be all about religous or political ideology.  We discuss examples of disinformation in the health care and public health spheres that seems driven not by people wanting to sell products and services to make money, but by political ideology.

Rumors of Immigrants with Deadly Infectious Diseases

In 2018, we discussed nonsense about migrants supposedly infected with smallpox (look here).  In 2019, there are rumors of other deadly diseases.

[influenza hospital, Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918, for the Spanish Flu epidemic] 

Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis

In April, 2019, Rollcall and the Arizona Republic traced the course of a rumor that Central American migrants seeking US asylum were carrying drug resistant tuberculosis.   According to Rollcall, tt may have been inspired thus:

The unfounded rumor of a public health crisis in Yuma [AZ] follows several viral and misleading stories in conservative media that families seeking asylum from Central America were bringing in dangerous infections.

But the source of the particular story, according to the Republic, was that:

Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot said he was told about 12 tuberculosis cases at a San Luis detention center by federal authorities in a March 23 briefing. He shared that information with Lines and said he stands by it still. 

Here “Lines” referred to one Jonathan Lines, “a former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party,” according to Rollcall. He also is

a board member of the Arizona-Mexico Commission, a 501(c)4 advocacy organization chaired by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey with the aim of boosting bilateral trade, according to an aide.

So,

Lines … lead a delegation of Republican lawmakers along the border. The group also included Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Pete Stauber of Minnesota.

Also on the trip was Dr John Joyce, a member of the US House of Representatives,

13th District [of Pennsylvania] Republican, a dermatologist by trade, [who] is a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump and has echoed his calls for a border wall.

Lines had “made unsubstantiated claims about tuberculosis in a video.”  Joyce posted the video made by Lines to a Facebook page, since taken down. He also made a

bogus claim that immigrants seeking refuge over the Arizona border brought drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis to the U.S.

Joyce made the false claim in a briefing with reporters during a congressional trip led by Arizona GOP Rep. Andy Biggs last week to the U.S.-Mexican border near Yuma, Ariz. The claim was then echoed in the national press.

‘My concern is what about the person who wasn’t coughing and wasn’t recognized as having tuberculosis, and they didn’t come here for treatment for their disease,’ Joyce said. ‘They could be released in a day and a half and be sitting at a restaurant (table) beside you.’

That was all ultimately debunked.

Local public health officials quickly shot down rumors of an outbreak, clarifying that there have been zero cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in the county for the last six to seven years, and further, no present cases of tuberculosis in Yuma at all.

‘I can say, after confirming with the Yuma County Health District, there is no drug-resistant tuberculosis in Yuma County,’ Kevin Tunell, a Yuma County spokesman told the Arizona Republic. ‘Further, there are no cases of tuberculosis involving migrants in Yuma County at this time.’

Who knows, however, how much traction the original warnings about tuberculosis got, and whether those who believed them saw, or credited the attempts to debunk them?

Note here that this little disinformation campaign seem to have been politically motivated, an attempt to justify the Trump administration’s claims about the dangers of migrants at the border, and the need to build a wall.  It is particularly disturbing that the disinformation got picked up beyond the shadowy recesses of the web, to be propagated by political leaders into the main stream media.

Ebola Virus

We do not have such detailed information about he track of rumors of Ebola virus infected immigrants at the southern border.  However, the Associated Press did report in June, 2019,

Texas health officials said Tuesday there are no ‘suspected or confirmed cases’ of Ebola in the state as social media posts have falsely suggested in the wake of immigrants arriving from Africa, including Congo, where an outbreak in has surpassed 2,000 cases.

The false claims, ranging from there is an Ebola ‘outbreak’ in Texas to reports of a few confirmed cases, have been circulating since April. The erroneous claims are also spreading at a time when Border Patrol officials said last week there has been a ‘dramatic’ rise in the number of migrants arriving at the Texas border from African countries, although they remain a small fraction of the total number of migrants apprehended.

We do not have any suspected or confirmed cases of Ebola right now in Texas,’ said Lara Anton, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also unaware of any Ebola cases nationwide, spokesman Benjamin Haynes said.

Note that propaganda accusing hated others of being infected with dread diseases is an old part of the authoritarian playbook.  In particular, from the US Holocaust Museum, the second version of the Nazi propaganda film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew)

contained notorious antisemitic sequences. These scenes compared Jews to rats that carry contagion, flood the continent, and devour precious resources.

Disinformation about disease outbreaks may make it harder to fight real disease outbreaks.  An op-ed in the New York Times by Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, warned

When the next pandemic strikes, we’ll be fighting it on two fronts. The first is the one you immediately think about: understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population. The second is new, and one you might not have thought much about: fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet.

He speculated,

Misinformation can affect society’s ability to deal with a pandemic at many different levels. Right now, Ebola relief efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being stymied by mistrust of health workers and government officials.

It doesn’t take much to imagine how this can lead to disaster. Jay Walker, curator of the Tedmed conferences, laid out some of the possibilities in a 2016 essay: people overwhelming and even looting pharmacies trying to get some drug that is irrelevant or nonexistent, people needlessly fleeing cities and leaving them paralyzed, health workers not showing up for work, truck drivers and other essential people being afraid to enter infected areas, official sites like CDC.gov being hacked and discredited. This kind of thing can magnify the health effects of a pandemic many times over, and in extreme cases could lead to a total societal collapse.

Pornography as a Plot to Render White Males Impotent

Sometimes you cannot make this stuff up.  We have discussed, most recently in April, 2019, here, how many US state legislators have been promulgating resolutions condemning pornography as a major public health hazard, despite the lack of clear evidence to justify this belief.  They seem to have put more emphasis on this supposed threat than on much more evidence-based public health hazards.

[Porn has been around for a long time in the US: Times Square, 1973]

We had speculated that this peculiar focus was based on sectarian religious beliefs about the evils of pornography.

Note that since April, another state legislature has gotten on board.  In May, 2019, the Arizona Republic reported,

Republican senators on Monday adopted a measure declaring pornography a public-health crisis and urging the state to ‘systemically prevent exposure and addiction.

The resolution — approved by the House in February — deems the ‘societal damage of pornography…beyond the capability of the individual to address alone.’

It argues that porn can lead to human trafficking, sexual abuse, infidelity, low self-esteem and eating disorders, among other issues.

The Republican supporters of this measure did not cite any epidemiological evidence about the dnagers of porn. Their Democratic opponents suggested that the state should focus on better substantiated public health threats, such as the measles outbreak, rising suicide rates, and the opioid epidemic.

Instead, per a Republican backer of the measure:

‘Billions of dollars worldwide are being made upon this industry that is poisoning the minds of our citizens,’ [Sen Sylvia] Allen said, calling porn ‘the root problem for many of the other problems that we’re experiencing.’ She said it contributes to sexual activity at young ages, sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.

‘It has morphed into something … horrible,’ she said.

Although perhaps her remarks had a religious tone, religious justification for her non-evidence-based beliefs was not apparent.

In June, 2019, the New York Times reported that the sudden emphasis on the evils of pornography may have come from not just religious fundamentalist beliefs, but political extremism from the deepest internet.  The article opened with this chilling example,

Buried in the anti-Semitic manifesto of the 19-year-old man who recently opened fire in a synagogue near San Diego is a sentence in which he blames Jews for ‘causing many to fall into sin with their role in peddling pornography.’

To enlarge on this example,

some of the suspects in racist attacks and their supporters have invoked the societal ills caused by pornography in manifestos or online forums.

White nationalists, misogynistic clubs and online forums have also drawn a connection between pornography and anti-Semitism. Many of the adherents appear to be young men who blame the prevalence of pornography online for their own struggles and what they perceive as society’s decline.

‘Any right-leaning dude on the internet in 2019 is at least aware of the phenomenon,’ said Daniel Harper, a podcaster who tracks white nationalism online.

For example, a forum on Reddit is a support group of sorts for 440,000 members who take breaks from masturbation and porn for what they believe to be mental, physical and sexual-health reasons. The Proud Boys, a self-professed ‘western chauvinist’ group, encouraged a similar message.

These dark beliefs turn out to be nothing new, but perhaps are having more influence in the current era in which political extremists now seen to be welcomed into the mainstream.

The theory that Jews are trying to control the West by using porn to render white Christian men impotent has deep roots. Among its exponents are several elder statesmen of the current white nationalist movement, such as David Duke, who, in a 2016 Twitter feud posted: ‘Jews dominate porn — why are ‘Christians’ ok with that?’

During the 2018 race to fill Paul D. Ryan’s Wisconsin congressional seat, long shot candidate Paul Nehlen, a self-avowed ‘pro-white’ advocate, was suspended from Twitter for circulating a video titled ‘The Jewish Role in the Porn Industry.’ He has since made other racist comments and been suspended again.

There are also hints that the extemism of white supremicist politics on this topic may not be entirely divorced from the more open condemnation of pornography by some fundamentalist religious groups.

Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said the anti-porn rhetoric was baked into the culture of the violent white supremacist groups he investigated in the 1990s.

‘In any sort of fundamentalist culture, there is a desire to control sexuality, and this one’s no different,’ he said.

Discussion

There have always been snake oil salemen and quck health care practitioners.  Some years ago, proponents of evidence-based medicine (EBM) were dreaming of a world in which honest discussion based on critical thought about the best available evidence from clinical research would lead to a health care revolution.  Early on, though EBM  faced difficulties from deceptive marketing and manipulation and suppression of medical research in service of promotion of drugs, devices, and other medical goods and services.

Now EBM seems under seige by a new wave of propaganda and disinformation, not so much to sell products, but to further religious or political ideologies (for other examples, look here) , or national interests of hostile countries (look here). The health care dysfunction we now see will seem like nothing compared to the dark sort of dysfunction that could be generated by health care and public health based on sectarian beliefs, extreme political ideologies, and the interests of hostile foreign powers. The time for complacency and excuses is past.  Any health care professional who cares about our national future must get on the information barricades and fight for science and the truth in health care.   

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