Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
In the mid-1990s, my mother–a healthcare worker–brought home a library copy of Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone”.
“It’s about a very dangerous disease,” she told me. “It kills almost everyone who gets infected, and there’s no cure.”
Such teasers would have temped the macabre fascination of any ten-year-old, and I happened to be a more advanced reader than most, so I pilfered the book the moment she put it down. Curled in my dad’s leather chair, my stomach squirmed as I browsed the descriptions of hemorrhagic fever. This wasn’t a made-up horror story; this was real.
“Could I get Ebola?” I asked my mother.
“No,” she reassured me. “It’s only in Africa.”
Eighteen years later, that small comfort no longer holds true. The Ebola strain that has killed over 1200 people in West Africa is popping up around the globe. Suspected cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, Austria, and even the United States. Some commentators insist we aren’t concerned enough about Ebola, while others point out that we’re overlooking other deadly diseases that pose a greater threat. As communities struggle to contain Ebola, science must combat not just the virus, but the glut of misinformation transmitted through social media.
In last year’s post, “Tweeting About Bird Flu“, we discussed how social media informed epidemiology. The Ebola crisis shows us a much darker union of illness and information technology as huckster cures abound. After a Nigerian state leader said that saltwater baths are the “magical prescription” for Ebola, Twitter exploded with posts about how people should use the solution (and two Nigerians died from drinking saltwater in an effort to ward off the disease.) Cola nuts, a fraudulent Ebola cure from 1999, are enjoying a resurgence in folkloric popularity. Some people insist Ebola is a divine punishment rather than a consequence of the bushmeat industry. Tragically, some West African media sources disseminate misinformation while “covering the controversy” like the American media does on other topics, casting doubt on accepted science to increase viewership.
Social media also has the capacity to be an ally in the fight against Ebola. Two Liberian rappers have released a catchy–dare I say infectious?–pop tune called “Ebola in Town” that includes lyrics about avoiding bushmeat and physical contact as ways of preventing disease transmission. The World Health Organization has used social media platforms to share legitimate information with the public. But despite these efforts, virulent misinformation continues to spread, and the disease along with it.
Humanity-destrying plagues feature in countless science fiction stories, but what about an epidemic of ideas? Meme theory postulates that ideas replicate and spread just like diseases. What if a popular remedy, such as the Nigerian saltwater, proved more widespread and deadly than the disease it purported to cure? It could spread medical resources even more thinly, or perhaps start an entirely new epidemic.
Social media holds such power over our ideas, it could evolve into digital hypochondria. Imagine rumors of a deadly disease with ambiguous “symptoms”. Not only could people damage themselves with dubious cures, they might resort to extreme behaviors in hope of saving themselves, such as isolating populations believed to be infected. When a Liberian neighborhood was quarantined last week, residents rioted: what would life be like in a community like that, and how would outsiders react if someone escaped? If this seems far-fetched, consider a recent tabloid story claiming the presence of Ebola in New York City. What if a story like that caught on, or couldn’t be successfully debunked? In an age of instant media transmission and idea-sharing, diseases aren’t the only things that can go viral.