Homophobic misinformation is making it harder to contain the spread of monkeypox
That job is being made harder by false, often homophobic theories that are spreading on all major social media platforms, according to research carried out for MIT Technology Review by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. These false claims are making it harder to convince the public that monkeypox can affect everyone, and they could dissuade people from reporting potential infections.
Some of this misinformation overlaps with familiar pandemic conspiracy theories, attacking Bill Gates and “global elites” or suggesting that the virus was developed in a lab. But much of it is directly homophobic and attempts to pin blame for the outbreak on LGBTQ+ communities. Some Twitter posts claim countries where anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is illegal are the areas where monkeypox cases are highest, or call the virus “god’s revenge.” In a video shared on Twitter last month, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia falsely claimed that “monkeypox is really only transmitted mostly through gay sex.”
Homophobic comments on articles about monkeypox that have been liked thousands of times on Facebook have been allowed to remain online, with one specific piece that garnered hundreds of disgusted reactions shared more than 40,000 times via Telegram.
A YouTube video on a channel with 1.12 million subscribers includes false claims that monkeypox can be avoided simply by not going to gay orgies, getting bitten by a rodent, or getting a prairie dog as a pet. It has been viewed more than 178,000 times. Another video, from a channel with 294,000 subscribers, claims that women contract monkeypox by coming into “contact with a man who probably has some other contact with another man”; it has been viewed close to 30,000 times. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Such stigma has real consequences—infected people who may not want to discuss their sex lives are less likely to report their symptoms, making it harder to trace new cases and effectively control the disease.
In reality, the virus can affect anyone, and is oblivious to people’s sexual identities or activities. Misinformation framing monkeypox as exclusively affecting men who have sex with men could convince people they’re at a lower risk of contracting and spreading it than they actually are, says Julii Brainard, a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia who works on modeling public health threats. “A lot of people are going to think, ‘That doesn’t apply to me,’” she says.
None of this is helped by the fact we’re still not sure about all the ways in which monkeypox could 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 is also investigating reports that the virus is present in human semen, suggesting it could also be sexually transmitted, although sequencing data has so far provided no evidence that monkeypox acts like an STD. It’s also not known which animal acts as monkeypox’s natural reservoir (the host that maintains the virus in nature), although the WHO suspects it is rodents.
Although it’s still unclear how or where the outbreak started, the WHO believes that outside of some countries in western and Central Africa where the virus is regularly found, it started spreading person to person, primarily among men who have sex with men, after two raves in Spain and Belgium. While typical monkeypox symptoms include swelling of the lymph nodes followed by a breakout of lesions across the face, hands, and feet, many people affected by the most recent outbreak are exhibiting fewer lesions, which are developing on the hands, anus, mouth, and genitals. This difference is likely to be related to the nature of the contact.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”