From the new APPC/CCP Working Paper, Culturally Antagonistic Memes & the Zika Virus:
3.1. Why Zika
The focus of the study was the impact of culturally antagonistic-meme generating communications on the perceived risks of the Zika virus.
We selected the Zika virus for two reasons. The first is that we are confident there isn’t currently meaningful cultural dissensus on Zika at the current time. For over five months, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (2016a) has been tracking U.S. public opinion on the disease. Attention early on spiked and then leveled off, and is now rising again; knowledge about the health effects of the virus and about effective means of self-protection have proven uneven; certain misunderstandings about the link between the virus and microcephaly have persisted, albeit at modest levels (Annenberg Public Policy Center 2016b).
But nothing in this mix varies meaningfully with ideology, religion, or like forms of cultural identity. There is reason to be apprehensive about the speed with which members of the public are progressing in their understanding of key facts about the virus. But the evidence suggests that culturally diverse members of the public are progressing in unison, much in the manner one would expect under the “normal,” nonpathological process contemplated by the AH-CCT Model (Figure 1).
At the same time, there has been a steady accumulation of communications tying the Zika health threat to already culturally charged issues (Figure 3). The voice of public health officials furnishing the public with precautionary advice is only one in a chorus, whose other members include a collection of advocacy groups all seeking to leverage public anxiety over Zika into greater attention to their special cause.
Among these are anti-immigrant groups. These actors suggest that the spread of Zika is likely to be accelerated by undocumented aliens as well as lawful immigrants from Zika-affected regions. “Latin America’s Zika virus is the latest undocumented immigrant to hit our shores,” one commentator caustically notes (Malkin 2016). It’s obvious from the “available evidence” that “open borders contribute to the vulnerability of the United States to the virus” (Corsi 2016). “People from Central and South America, ground zero for Zika and other infectious diseases including tuberculosis, dengue, Chagas, Chikungunya and schistosomiasis, make up nearly 15 percent of the illegal-immigrant population in the U.S.” (Malkin 2016). “[A] drain on our economy, a peril to our national security, and a drag on our souls,” illegal immigrants are now “hazardous to our health, thanks to sloppy U.S. immigration laws acting as incubators for diseases once foreign to North America — like the untreatable Zika virus” (Abruzzo 2016).
Climate change advocates have also latched onto Zika. “Zika is the kind of thing we’ve been ranting about for 20 years,” one observes. “We should’ve anticipated it. Whenever the planet has faced a major climate change event, man-made or not, species have moved around and their pathogens have come into contact with species with no resistance” (Milman 2016). Now “thanks to climate change” Zika could “soon enjoy a greater reach” (Mercer 2016), “spread[ing] deeper” into now secure areas of the U.S. (Gillis 2016). Of all the “tragedies stemming from global warming,” including the “floods and droughts and storms, the failed harvests and forced migrations, . . . no single item on the list seems any more horrible than the emerging news from South America about the newly prominent Zika disease” (McKibben 2016). “We need to face up to the fact that pushing the limits of the planet’s ecology has become dangerous in novel ways.” “The Republicans are in denial about climate change, but in the real world, we can feel it . . . . It’s also an invitation for breeding mosquitoes and putting Americans at risk all across the United States” (Johnson 2016).
The situation presented, then, furnishes an ideal one to extend previous research. The tropes that inform advocacy material linking Zika to other culturally contested issues are replete with the accusatory and resentment-focusing tropes featured in highly polarized risk disputes. Yet in no previous study has there been an opportunity to test the impact of such tropes in relation to an issue not already the subject of at least modest contestation.
It is possible, of course, that the explanation for the patchwork of contestation and tranquility that forms the fabric of public risk perception is some as-yet undetected factor intrinsic to particular risk sources. It is perfectly plausible to believe, too, that deeper, historical influences render a particular risk source either impervious or distinctly amenable to controversy of a particular form, in particular societies. But through an appropriately constructed study, one can test the alternative hypothesis that it is the contingent advent of exposure to culturally antagonistic memes that triggers such conflict, and accounts for its complexion and intensity. The study we conducted was aimed at furnishing evidence relevant to assessing the relative plausibility of these alternative conjectures.
Abruzzo, S. Illegals, not American travelers, may be bringing Zika to our shores. Brooklyn Daily (Feb. 5, 2016), available at http://www.brooklyndaily.com/stories/2016/6/all-britview-zika-virus-2016-02-05-bd.html.
Annenberg Public Policy Center. Annenberg Science Knowledge Survey (2016a). Available at http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/science-communication/ask/.
Annenberg Public Policy Center. More than 4 in 10 Mistakenly Think Zika is Fatal, Symptoms are Noticeable. Annenberg Science Knowledge Survey (Mar. 10, 2016b). At http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/more-than-4-in-10-mistakenly-think-zika-is-fatal-and-symptoms-are-noticeable/.
Corsi, J. Zika Virus Joins List of Diseases Brought by Illegals. WND (Feb. 1, 2016), available at http://www.wnd.com/2016/02/zika-virus-joins-list-of-diseases-brought-by-illegals/#
Gillis, J. In Zika Epidemic, a Warning on Climate Change. N.Y. Times, A6 (2016).
Johnson, B., Dem Leaders: Climate change stoking Zika, which could b ‘greater threat’ than Ebola. PJ Media. (Apr. 26, 2016), at https://pjmedia.com/news-and-politics/2016/04/26/dem-leaders-climate-change-stoking-zika-which-could-be-greater-threat-than-ebola/
Malkin, M. Chicken Little Chuckie Schumer: America's Disease-Fighting Phony. National Review (Feb. 3, 2016), available at www.nationalreview.com/article/430713/zika-virus-illegal-immigration-connection.
Mercer, G. The Link Between Zika and Climate Change. Atlantic (2016).
Milman, O. Climate change may have helped spread Zika virus, according to WHO Scientists. Guardian (Feb. 11, 2016), at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/11/climate-change-zika-virus-south-central-america-mosquitos