Bad science and bogus treatments African American people's AIDS conspiracy beliefs best understood in terms of social anxiety and distrust, not ignorance

Roger Pebody
Original Article:

The idea that AIDS was created as part of a government-led conspiracy to decimate the African American population remains salient to a significant minority of black people, according to qualitative research published in the January edition of the American Journal of Public Health. The researcher argues that such rumours and narratives are the product of a deep-seated feeling of distrust towards the government, born out of African American people’s history, and are therefore particularly difficult to change. People holding these beliefs are unlikely to be reassured by factual information from sources they consider to be untrustworthy.

Jacob Heller’s sociological study was based on two sources of data. Firstly, newspaper articles, blogs, television shows, comedy routines and other media that made reference to HIV/AIDS rumours or conspiracy narratives. Secondly, six focus groups conducted at a college in New York state in which all participants were of the same ethnic group – either white, African American or Hispanic. As a research methodology, focus groups can shed light on the shared understandings of people who belong to the same social group as well as the manner in which individuals are influenced by their peers.

There were marked differences in the discussions which took place in the different focus groups. Conspiracy theories and rumours rarely came up in the white and Hispanic groups.

But Heller noted a recurring theme in African American discussion of HIV and AIDS, found both in the public discourse and during his focus groups. For example, in 1992 the film director Spike Lee said:

“I’m convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease. They got one thing wrong, they never realized it couldn’t just be contained to the groups it was intended to wipe out. So now it’s a national priority. Exactly like drugs became when they escaped the urban centers into White suburbia.”

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