In the late 1970s at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the United States government conducted a series of clandestine experiments on inmates in return for early release, as part of an experimental biological weapons program. However, due to now-fatal oversight, an experimental virus tested on the inmates began to spread to the general population they came into contact with upon release, with catastrophic results. That virus was HIV, and thus began the Aids pandemic that has claimed at least 30 million lives… Or was it that HIV was released deliberately, as an attempt at population control in Africa? Or curbing American homosexuality? Or was it the WHO what dunnit? Or God?
None of the above is true – but all are theories as to the “true” origins of the Aids virus, as opposed to the official explanation: that it made the leap from apes at some point in the 1930s.
Conspiracy theories around HIV are rife: a US study of more than 500 African Americans found that nearly half of participants believed the Aids virus was hand-made. More than 60% of those polled in another study believed the government was not “telling the truth” about Aids.
It’s clear that a significant number believe that behind one of the worst diseases of modern times are secrets “The Man” doesn’t want us to know. Theories as to the “truth” range from the outlandish to the downright sinister.
The world is overcrowded, William Campbell Douglass M.D. tells us, and this is a problem. Not a problem to men on the street, but a problem to the “World Planners”. They are on a mission to exert absolute control over humanity, the shadowy overlords pulling the strings of our puppet governments. But exponential population growth has become a hurdle that must be overcome if Earth’s population is to be returned to an “optimum controllable level”. Enter HIV, a “virocidal attack on the non-Communist world”. When not denouncing the New World Order, Douglass finds the time to impart words of wisdom for us:
The Aids virus can live as long as ten days on a dry plate. So, are you worried about your salad in a restaurant that employs homosexuals? You’d better be.
The (Anti-)Gay Disease
Alan Cantwell Jr. M.D. has his own twist on this theory: that HIV is an explicitly anti-homosexual disease, deliberately spread in the American gay community through the use of tainted Hepatitis B vaccination shots. He cites the very fact that his “man-made theory of Aids is totally ignored” as strong evidence that “a covert genocide program against certain “undesirables” and third world people” exists.
So far so plausible. Whilst obviously untrue, the preceding theories do not totally fall outside the realms of sanity. Jerry Falwell, the infamous baptist pastor, had very different ideas. Aids was, in his view, nothing less than “the wrath of God against homosexuals”. Jehovah doesn’t just hate the gays, he’s actively engaged in smiting them.
Perhaps most worrying of all the conspiracy theorists are the denialists: those who simply and totally deny that Aids exists. The Duesberg Hypothesis, named after its lead proponent Peter Dueberg, claims that what we characterise as the Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome is in fact the result of other factors and risks like drug use and promiscuity: HIV is nothing but a harmless passenger virus. Whilst numerous documented cases of infection without any engagement in “at-risk activities” exist, the Duesberg Hypothesis has nonetheless had high-profile adherents in the past, including South African ex-president Thabo Mbeki.
So why do people reject mainstream explanations and believe these outlandish conspiracies? A common reason cited is that people have a tendency to think that big events must have big causes. Whether it’s the 9/11 attacks, the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana, it is in some ways more comforting to believe that great machinations are at play than that any lone nut with a rifle and steady hands can kill the President. In the same way, that a disease as deadly and unstoppable as Aids can be the result of simple natural selection is a somewhat terrifying prospect.
But this isn’t the only reason. When traditional social structures fail certain social groups they turn to alternate ones: alternative authorities, alternative communities, alternative truths. A common sociological explanation of the continued existence of criminal gangs is that they help to provide an alternative social hierarchy and “identity” for their members, often after being failed by mainstream society. In short: people want to belong.
If we then look at the people who were most affected by the Aids epidemic at least, first – drug users, prostitutes, gay communities, black communities – then it comes as no surprise that they have turned to non-conventional sources in search of an explanation. After all, the very fact that AIDS was perceived as a “gay disease”, and hence comparatively unimportant, demonstrates the second-class status of many early sufferers.
If you already feel disenfranchised, if you already feel like the authorities are neglecting your plight, you are far more likely to go to counter-cultural sources of truth: conspiracy theories.
Aids’ status as a “gay disease” has rightly been rejected, but globally it continues to affect people on the fringes of the mainstream: the poor, the drug-users, the uneducated. As any clichéd Hollywood revolutionary knows, an idea is almost impossible to destroy once planted, and so it comes as no surprise that such ideas continue to prosper. A theory implicating the very authority that neglects you, in doing so giving purpose to your misery, is always going to be an attractive one.
There’s also the innate distrust of science that permeates so much of modern culture. You only have to look at the scare around the MMR vaccination “causing autism” – a totally unsubstantiated and false claim – to see how quick people are to search for someone to blame.
But there’s more. In a final, perverse twist, the first theory mentioned – that it was created by the US military in the 1970s and tested on inmates – was itself part of a deliberate conspiracy by the KGB to smear the American government at the height of the Cold War. The truth of Operation “INFEKTION” only became known after the fall of the USSR, with Russian PM Yevgeni Primakov admitting the truth in 1992.
To what degree Operation INFEKTION helped fan the flames of conspiracy, and to what degree theories sprung up out of distrust and disinformation, we’ll likely never know.
The truth will out
What is the truth of the matter? Whilst movies like Contagion would have us believe we can trace the genesis of a disease back to its very first infection, the reality is not that straightforward. We simply do not know when HIV first emerged, though the first known case was in the Congo in 1959 – twenty years before the CIA/US military/WHO/global military-industrial-pharmaceutical-complex supposedly engineered the virus.
Scientists believe that at some point in the 1930s, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) mutated and made the leap into humans. Who the first case was, and the exact path the disease took in the 50 years before it became a global issue, will almost certainly remain forever a mystery.
But this isn’t just about the truth: the proliferation of conspiracy theories has serious negative effects. Whether its denialist rhetoric convincing people they don’t need to take precautions, or religious-tinged arguments justifying inaction, the consequences are clear.
When people follow these theories, people will die.