Friday, October 31st, 2014

The Internet's overreach on the Ebola outbreak

Soldiers stand guard at a roadblock outside Kenema, Sierra Leone, Aug. 8, 2014. (New York Times)
Soldiers stand guard at a roadblock outside Kenema, Sierra Leone, Aug. 8, 2014. (New York Times)

As the Ebola outbreak grows in Africa, misinformation about the epidemic is spreading about the crisis here in America.

The culprit: the Internet.

Several conspiracy websites have raised questions lately about a "bioweapons lab" in Sierra Leone being the source of the virus. Questions like, "What's behind the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone? Could it possibly be a U.S. bioweapons project gone amuck?"

Some of the websites tie the "bioweapons lab" to billionaires George Soros and Bill and Melinda Gates.

"At the epicentre of the current Ebola epidemic is the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, which houses a U.S. a (sic) biosecurity level 2 bioweapons research lab with links to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Soros Foundation," reads an excerpt shared on sites like RumorMillsNews.com and BeforeItsNews.com.

There’s no proof of Soros and Gates funding a bioweapons lab in Kenema, one of the largest cities in Sierra Leone with a population of about 150,000. And there’s really no case that a bioweapons lab in Kenema is behind the outbreak.

"The assertion is absurd," said Chris Williams, spokesman for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation did provide a $1 million Ebola-related grant to support emergency efforts in West Africa by UNICEF, he said.

A spokeswoman for Soros’ Open Society Foundations also said it does not fund any labs, much less a bioweapons lab, in West Africa.

We can’t exactly pinpoint the reason people are connecting Soros and the Gateses to the Ebola outbreak, our best guess is people are trying to insinuate they had something to do with creating the current crisis.

One blogger who invoked the Soros/Gates connection, Dublinsmick, referenced the website of the "viral fever bioweapons lab inside Kenema Government Hospital," saying it "read like a roll call of New World Order organizations."

The New World Order is a popular conspiracy theory whereby a group of wealthy elites plan to take over the world.

As for the "bioweapons lab," it appears to be a reference to the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium, which has focused its work on Lassa fever -- a viral disease with symptoms that resemble Ebola but is more common than Ebola in that area.

So no connection to Soros and the Gates’ and no bioweapons lab. This claims is Pants on Fire.

The Obama connection

Bloggers are also behind a claim that "President (Barack) Obama signed an executive order mandating the detention of Americans who show signs of ‘respiratory illness’."

This, too, rates Pants on Fire.

The executive order in question is much more targeted than the article describes, it isn’t aimed at Ebola, and while it allows health officials to quarantine someone with a highly contagious disease, it does not mandate it.

On July 31, Obama modified a 2003 executive order from President George W. Bush. The original order listed the communicable diseases for which the Department of Health and Human Services was authorized to issue an isolation or quarantine order.

Obama updated a particular reference to SARS to include a broader array of possible respiratory illnesses. But the update has nothing to do with Ebola or the current outbreak. Ebola is not a respiratory disease (the most prominent symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting) and the original 2003 executive order already listed Ebola.

Also, the updated order does not "mandate" the apprehension and detention of people who show signs of respiratory illness.

Wendy Parmet, a law professor at Northeastern University School of Law, is one of three legal scholars who prepared a report for the American Civil Liberties Union that warned about overreach by the government in responding to pandemics. While Parmet said the new text is very broad, it has clear limits.

"It only applies to those with symptoms of a disease that have caused or have the potential to cause a pandemic, or have the potential of causing mortality or serious morbidity," Parmet said. "I wouldn’t think the typical cold would apply."

In fact, the order specifically excludes the flu.

Lastly, the order is limited it who it could affect. The Department of Health and Human Services could only isolate people as they enter the country or attempt to travel from one state to another.

In other scenarios, the power to isolate or quarantine individuals rests with the states, Parmet said.