Ebola Conspiracies: A Tale of Two Daily Mail Articles

A newspaper chortles about dubious Ebola stories while spreading one of its own.


The Simpsons

The Daily Mail's story about Ebola conspiracy theories begins by describing a yarn in which the epidemic's victims are now literally rising from the dead. In the Mail's usual write-first, ask-questions-later style, the paper declares that this story "went viral" without bothering to look into how many people who shared it knew damn well that it was a joke. (The tale came from a humor site, and while I've learned the hard way that satire can zoom over people's heads, it's not exactly unthinkable that people might forward a story about zombies and even play at being frightened about it as a form of fun.) The article then covers several other bits of online hearsay, such as a YouTube video that claims The Simpsons "predicted" the crisis with a throwaway Ebola gag in 1997. (In other words, the show mentioned Ebola two years after the press heavily covered an Ebola outbreak in Zaire.) This theory does not seem to be a joke, though I suspect that somewhere between 90 and 99 percent of the people sharing it just think it's funny.

The other items in the Mail piece are more serious, though one of them—a rumor that drinking salt water can prevent or cure the disease—doesn't really qualify as a conspiracy theory, given that no one is conspiring in it.

But there's one Ebola conspiracy theory that's missing from the report. It goes like this:

Terrorist group Isis may be considering using Ebola as a suicide bio-weapon against the West, according to a military expert.

The virus is transmitted by direct contact with an infected person who is showing the symptoms—and it wouldn't be difficult for fanatics to contract it then travel to countries they want to wreak havoc in, according to a military expert.

Capt. Al Shimkus, Ret., a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, said that the strategy is entirely plausible.

That's The Daily Mail again, in a story published a day before the piece on conspiracy theories. To the reporter's credit, he goes on to quote several people explaining why this would be a rather stupid and difficult terror strategy that isn't likely to work, but of course the headline highlights the alleged threat, not the debunkers.

The ISIS scenario is a conspiracy theory by any reasonable standard—terror cells are conspiracies, right?—and it isn't a very plausible one. But it's one that the Mail takes seriously, so it doesn't get listed with the others. An old saying comes to mind, something about motes and beams.

Bonus link: I wrote a book about conspiracy theories, and it just came out in paperback.