Homophobic misinformation circulating about monkeypox on social media is hampering efforts to curb the disease’s spread, research conducted on behalf of MIT Technology Review has found.
There have been 2,093 confirmed cases of the virus reported worldwide as of June 17. So far cases have mainly been identified among men who have sex with men, according to the World Health Organization. Its director in Europe, which is the epicenter of the current outbreak, sounded the alarm this week, warning that the authorities need to do more to contain the disease.
That job is being made harder by false, often homophobic theories that are spreading on all major social media platforms, according to research carried out for MIT Technology Review by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. These false claims are making it harder to convince the public that monkeypox can affect everyone, and they could dissuade people from reporting potential infections.
Some of this misinformation overlaps with familiar pandemic conspiracy theories, attacking Bill Gates and “global elites” or suggesting that the virus was developed in a lab. But much of it is directly homophobic and attempts to pin blame for the outbreak on LGBTQ+ communities. Some Twitter posts claim countries where anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is illegal are the areas where monkeypox cases are highest, or call the virus “god’s revenge.” In a video shared on Twitter last month, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia falsely claimed that “monkeypox is really only transmitted mostly through gay sex.”
Homophobic comments on articles about monkeypox that have been liked thousands of times on Facebook have been allowed to remain online, with one specific piece that garnered hundreds of disgusted reactions shared more than 40,000 times via Telegram.
A YouTube video on a channel with 1.12 million subscribers includes false claims that monkeypox can be avoided simply by not going to gay orgies, getting bitten by a rodent, or getting a prairie dog as a pet. It has been viewed more than 178,000 times. Another video, from a channel with 294,000 subscribers, claims that women contract monkeypox by coming into “contact with a man who probably has some other contact with another man”; it has been viewed close to 30,000 times. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Such stigma has real consequences—infected people who may not want to discuss their sex lives are less likely to report their symptoms, making it harder to trace new cases and effectively control the disease.
In reality, the virus can affect anyone, and is oblivious to people’s sexual identities or activities. Misinformation framing monkeypox as exclusively affecting men who have sex with men could convince people they’re at a lower risk of contracting and spreading it than they actually are, says Julii Brainard, a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia who works on modeling public health threats. “A lot of people are going to think, ‘That doesn’t apply to me,’” she says.
None of this is helped by the fact we’re still not sure about all the ways in which monkeypox could be transmitted, or how it’s currently spreading. We know it’s spread through close contact with an infected person or animal, but the WHO has said it is also investigating reports that the virus is present in human semen, suggesting it could also be sexually transmitted, although sequencing data has so far provided no evidence that monkeypox acts like an STD. It’s also not known which animal acts as monkeypox’s natural reservoir (the host that maintains the virus in nature), although the WHO suspects it is rodents.
Although it’s still unclear how or where the outbreak started, the WHO believes that outside of some countries in western and Central Africa where the virus is regularly found, it started spreading person to person, primarily among men who have sex with men, after two raves in Spain and Belgium. While typical monkeypox symptoms include swelling of the lymph nodes followed by a breakout of lesions across the face, hands, and feet, many people affected by the most recent outbreak are exhibiting fewer lesions, which are developing on the hands, anus, mouth, and genitals. This difference is likely to be related to the nature of the contact.
Misinformation around monkeypox often capitalizes on the homophobia that’s already present in society, says Keletso Makofane, a health and human rights fellow at Harvard University. People spreading misinformation often fixate on the ways men have sex with each other, he says.
Community-based organizations that serve men who have sex with men have been doing a good job at communicating accurate information that doesn’t stigmatize them, he says, encouraging people to be aware of changes in their bodies or their partners’ bodies and to seek help if necessary.
Ads on the gay dating app Grindr directing users to health providers and monkeypox information have also reached a wide audience. “I think there’s more awareness among gay people [about monkeypox] than outside,” Makofane says.
While we should be taking the monkeypox threat seriously, we do not have reason to panic right now, says Derek Walsh, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“The way monkeypox spreads means it is unlikely to be like the covid pandemic and spread as widely, and we already have effective vaccines,” he says. “We really just need to be vigilant and avoid stigmatizing anyone that catches it.”