40 years of fake news: AIDS, a textbook case of scientific misinformation

Home 40 years of fake news: AIDS, a textbook case of scientific misinformation
Written by Doug Hampton

(AFP) – From the disinformation operations carried out by the KGB to the fake remedies promoted on the internet and the censorship of the Vatican, the history of AIDS has been punctuated by conspiracy theories, revived by the Covid epidemic.

In a video broadcast in mid-April, in the middle of the Sidaction campaign, and viewed thousands of times before being deleted on Youtube for example, a user claims to tell “the truth” about AIDS: “a fake pandemic” invented to sell “false treatments”.

Revisionist theories which have experienced “an upsurge since the Covid epidemic”, assures AFP the director of Sidaction, Florence Thune. Even if for 40 years, the questioning of the existence of HIV has “always been there, like a little music in the background”, they have been reactivated by “social networks” and the pandemic.

The Sida Info Service association shares the same observation. “We have calls from people who wonder about the origins of the virus or believe that the therapies are just intended to make more money for the labs”, explains Dr Radia Djebbar, medical coordinator.

“The fascinating thing about conspiracy theories is that they don’t evolve, they just spread”, analyzes Professor Seth Kalichman, specialist in social psychology at the University of Connecticut, “disinformation is like jelly and does not adapt to scientific advances”.

Because disinformation on AIDS is as old as the disease itself: in 1983, in the midst of the Cold War, the KGB set up operation “Infektion”, aimed at making people believe that AIDS was developed in a secret laboratory in the States. States, a rumor circulating around the world for almost ten years.

The Spanish flu or more recently the H1N1 epidemic were already dragging their share of disinformation, recalls the sociologist Arnaud Mercier: “it’s always the same + background + cognitive sauce: faced with the unknown we need to find certainties, without waiting for the time of science”.

Which explains why these theories are very similar to those that circulated during the Covid.

– “the idea that it suits someone” –

The theories on the origins of AIDS have never ceased, according to Arnaud Mercier: “with any deadly epidemic emerges the idea that it suits someone, and everyone sees in it the fact of the enemy: in the case of AIDS, rich countries to eradicate the poor, for example, or laboratories to make money”.

Africa, hard hit by the virus, has also been at the forefront of disinformation on the subject, at the highest level of the authorities: assuring that AIDS was not linked to HIV but to poverty, the former president South African Thabo Mbeki has delayed his fellow citizens’ access to antiretroviral treatment for years.

The disinformants also sell fake remedies, which they claim are much more effective than the “killer” drugs of “Big Pharma”, according to their well-rehearsed rhetoric. The naturopath Irène Grosjean ensures for example that one can cure it with seeds, raw vegetables and fruits.

Among the promoters of “miracle cures” for AIDS, Luc Montagnier, yet co-discoverer of HIV, himself said that fermented papaya juice could cure HIV-positive people.

In the case of HIV, the sexual dimension of the transmission of the virus has reinforced stigmatization and misinformation: “let’s not forget that the disease has long been called + gay cancer +”, recalls Arnaud Mercier.

Against a backdrop of homophobia and repression of certain sexual practices, Catholic authorities in particular have contributed to spreading a dangerous message, like Pope Benedict XVI who affirmed in 2009 that the distribution of condoms aggravated the problem of AIDS.

Today, 40 years after the discovery of HIV, “the main problem is the lack of knowledge of the virus, especially among young people”, underlines Dr Djebbar, deploring “a drop in state subsidies for awareness in the middle school, and a rise of the religious”.

“Some believe they took a risk by kissing a colleague, while others, on the contrary, believe they are immune because they are heterosexual,” she laments.

Misconceptions that hinder screening: according to AIDS Info Service, 1/3 of infected people have not been screened.

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