Stories

Fake news and the flu

With today’s understanding of how viruses spread, it would be reasonable to assume the terrifying death toll of the Spanish flu pandemic could never occur again. But we still need to factor in the poisonous part fake news is likely to play.

Words by Hannah Mawdsley and photography by Thomas S G Farnetti

  • Essay

In the final year of the First World War a deadly pandemic spread rapidly around the world. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–19 infected up to a third of the world’s population and killed up to 100 million people.

Health authorities and doctors were largely powerless – they had little idea what this malady was or how to cure it. The only measure that helped was quarantine, and governments implored each other to keep the pandemic out at all costs. In November 1918, for example, New Zealand’s government warned Australia that “mortality is appalling… [the] only effective measure your side will be to prevent introduction of epidemic pneumonia into Australia”.

It’s hardly surprising that rumour and misinformation were rife. The Spanish flu hit at a time when bacteriologists had enjoyed the acclaim of decades of successful discoveries, including the pathogens responsible for various high-profile diseases like tuberculosis and cholera. But the pathogen responsible for Spanish flu remained a mystery and, with little helpful guidance available from the medical community, the world was ripe for the proliferation of ‘fake news’.

Biologists beg a fantastical winged pathogen: “Come on, precious, tell us who you are!”

Popular culture sought to understand the pathogen in creative ways, often portraying it as some kind of insect or devil.

Conspiracy theories abounded and blamed the pandemic on the war – often, unsurprisingly, on the enemy. In Rio de Janeiro, the newspaper A Careta reported that the pandemic had been purposely spread around the world by German submarines, with innocent people “falling victim to the Germans’ treacherous bacteriological creation”.

Conspiracy theories abounded and blamed the pandemic on the war – often, unsurprisingly, on the enemy

Artist Jordan Baseman delved into newspaper archives to find traces of peoples’ everyday experiences of the pandemic while researching for ‘Radio Influenza’, a digital artwork marking the centenary of the Spanish flu. Baseman encountered many examples of fake news and misinformation, particularly about the way that the pathogen spread.

He found that: “The flu was blamed on foreigners (anywhere in the world, not just the UK), on Jewish people, on dancing, on jazz music, on the bombing of the soil as a result of the war, and on pretty much anything else you could think of.”

The significant death tolls did not reflect well on governments or public health authorities. Baseman’s research found that authorities were almost “universally presented as useless and slow… bumbling officials” who pontificated without providing “any real support or assistance”.

A Brazilian newspaper cartoon shows a German submarine using Spanish flu as a weapon of war.

A cautionary tale

Some people took full advantage of the chaos and confusion. One of the most dramatic features of the Spanish flu virus was the psychosis that accompanied infection for many victims – from mild hallucinations to severe delirium, and even extreme violence. Baseman found that this known symptom was used by some as ‘fake news’ to try to hoodwink those in authority:

“Influenza was often used as a reason by people as an excuse to carry out crimes. The flu took the blame for… bad behaviour, of a less severe variety: petty theft, truancy, irrational behaviours and any out-of-character and impulsive acts. Sometimes the flu was a genuine and valid reason for some calamity, but often times, the flu seems to be used as a dodge.” 

More: A yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans is blamed on an influx of new immigrants.

One hundred years on, the Spanish flu is a cautionary tale of the devastation that new infectious diseases can cause. Although we now have some vaccines, they are not universally applicable to all flu strains.

A new vaccine would take at least six months to develop, and in today’s ever more interconnected world and the technology of intercontinental flight, we are vulnerable to such an outbreak. Recent modelling for a similar virus today suggests a global toll of over 30 million deaths.

Professor Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, has pointed out the dangers of scientific evidence and governmental advice being drowned out by ‘fake news’ in the modern digital world. And in the last few years rising levels of death from measles and other preventable diseases have been linked to false rumours spread on social media.

If we face another deadly pandemic, this spread of misinformation could have a potentially catastrophic effect on our ability to contain the outbreak.

About the contributors

Photograph of Hannah Mawdsley

Hannah Mawdsley

Author

Hannah Mawdsley is a historian of memory, and her PhD thesis focused on the evolving memory of the Spanish Flu over the past century. She now works for the National Trust in London.

Photograph of Thomas S G Farnetti

Thomas S G Farnetti

Photographer

Thomas is a London-based photographer working for Wellcome. He thrives when collaborating on projects and visual stories. He hails from Italy via the North-east of England.