That task is complicated by false, often homophobic, theories circulating across all major social media platforms, according to research conducted for MIT Technology Review by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. These false claims make it harder to convince the public that monkeypox can affect anyone, and they could discourage people from reporting potential infections.
Some of this misinformation overlaps with well-known pandemic conspiracy theories attacking Bill Gates and “global elites” or suggesting the virus was engineered in a lab. But much of it is directly homophobic, trying to blame LGBTQ+ communities for the outbreak. Some Twitter posts claim that countries where anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is illegal are the areas where monkeypox cases are highest, or call the virus “God’s Vengeance.” In a video shared on Twitter last month, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene falsely claimed that “monkeypox is really only transmitted through gay sex.”
Homophobic comments on articles about monkeypox, which garnered thousands of likes on Facebook, were allowed to stay online, with one particular article that elicited hundreds of disgusted reactions being shared more than 40,000 times via Telegram.
A YouTube video on a channel with 1.12 million subscribers falsely claims that monkeypox can be avoided simply by not going to gay orgies, being bitten by a rodent, or getting a pet prairie dog. It has been viewed more than 178,000 times. Another video from a channel with 294,000 subscribers claims that women contract monkeypox by “contacting a man who is probably still in contact with another man”; It has been viewed nearly 30,000 times. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not respond to requests for comment on the release in a timely manner.
Such stigma has real consequences — infected people who may not want to talk about their sex lives are less likely to report their symptoms, making it harder to detect new cases and effectively control the disease.
In reality, the virus can affect anyone and is unaware of people’s sexual identity or activities. Misinformation suggesting that monkeypox only affects men who have sex with men could convince people they’re at less risk of contracting and spreading the disease than they actually are, says Julii Brainard, a senior research fellow at the University of East Anglia working on modeling public health threats. “A lot of people will think, ‘That doesn’t apply to me,'” she says.
None of this is supported by the fact that we’re still unsure how monkeypox might 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’s also investigating reports that the virus is present in human semen, suggesting it’s also transmitted sexually could, although sequencing data have so far provided no evidence that monkeypox acts like a sexually transmitted disease. It is also not known which animal acts as the natural reservoir of monkeypox (the host that receives the virus in nature), although the WHO suspects rodents.
Although it is still unclear how or where the outbreak began, the WHO believes that outside of some countries in west and central Africa where the virus regularly occurs, the virus has spread from person to person, mainly among men, following two raves who have sex with men in Spain and Belgium. While typical monkeypox symptoms are swelling of the lymph nodes followed by an outbreak of lesions on the face, hands and feet, many people affected by the recent outbreak have fewer lesions on the hands, anus, mouth and throat develop genitals. This difference is probably related to the nature of the contact.