How A Wired Magazine Story Morphed Into “Brain Eating Vaccine” In 3 Easy Steps

A pack of brain-hungry zombies lumbers down an American street.

Look out, zombies. If the Internet is to be believed, you may soon have some brain-eating competition.

Since we love to watch Google Trends and have done so for a while now, very little surprises us these days. On the whole it’s a great window into what’s going on in the world and what the English-speaking segment of the internet is thinking about (and consequently searching). Occasionally, though, Google Trends is an interesting window into what the paranoid crazies of the world are paranoidly crazy about, and today was one of those days, with “brain eating vaccine” shooting to the top of the chart. What is a brain eating vaccine and where did this trending topic come from? Let’s take a quick look at the making of a trending conspiracy out of a reasonably benign magazine profile in just three steps:

  1. The August issue of Wired magazine is released. It includes a story on the work of Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor who’s working on a vaccine that may someday mitigate the harmful long-term effects of stress hormones, which are major contributors to a huge number of health issues. Though the article mentions a “stress vaccine,” it’s a vaccine that would minimize the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to stress hormones on things like the brain and immune system, not literally a vaccine that would stop anyone from experiencing stress.
  2. When the Wired article becomes available online, it’s quickly picked up by London‘s Daily Mail where it’s aggressively paraphrased and a little sensationalized from 6800 words down to less than 400. These 400 words in the Daily Mail imply that Sapolsky is working to create a vaccine that will eliminate feelings of stress.
  3. Based on the Daily Mail article, the kind of people who are worried that world governments are conspiring to sterilize and/or pacify their populations through drugs in their water supplies conclude that Sapolsky is working to rid us of our emotions via his vaccine project. Since this theoretical vaccine would work by altering brain chemistry (like caffeine or antidepressants), the excitable folks decide that it’s going to destroy people’s brains and thus encourage their readers to search for “brain eating vaccines” in order to draw attention to this pressing issue. Since Google Trends is very much about the delta of a given search term, and most of the time there are likely very few searches for “brain eating vaccine,” a few thousand searches for the term are probably enough to push it to the top of the chart.

And there you have it, the journey from a reasonably unexciting magazine story to trending internet conspiracy theory. While we shouldn’t be surprised at how things are quickly misinterpreted and magnified in the echo chamber that is cyberspace, it’s rare that the “system” is so efficient and that the path is so clear. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: let’s be careful out there.

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  1. robbin ezinga says:

    the Daily Mail article isn’t terribly good, but it’s well within the usual realm of science reporting. the article is bad, but there’s not the slightest hint of a “brain eating vaccine” in it.
    Alex Jones actively misrepresents that article — and dozens of others — in a 15 minute video; he’s the culprit, and it’s a bit of a stretch to pin the blame on what is pretty average science reporting.

    Of course, the endless stream of low quality and sensationalist “journalism,” about science and everything else is helping to feed this paranoia in subtler ways, but that’s another story.

    and here’s the Daily Mail article itself, since there doesn’t seem to be a link to it here yet.

    1. Sam says:

      Not sure how we missed adding the link to the Daily Mail article, which we’ve since added. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  3. [...] to turn an innocuous science story into a brand, spanking new conspiracy theory in three easy steps. (Hint: Step #2 is The Daily Mail) Leave a Reply Click here to cancel [...]

  4. Rick says:

    Who is the author of this? Will he be lining up for this shot? I won’t. I feel stress for a good reason because the world is a stressful place. If I had no stress then I might not care about what they’re putting in the vaccines.

    The medical system must be profitable in our current system. This is problematic.

    1. Anonymous says:

      RTFA. This doesn’t eliminate feelings of stress.

  5. Dave says:

    It is however perfectly viable that the research done by the reporters that supposedly misinterpreted the whole issue so wildly, actual know more than you or at the very least interpreted the statements more accurately that you were able to? It is interesting however the eagerness to dismiss credible concerns over an issue that at the very least deserves some coverage rather that the insightful news reports on Paris Hilton and other celebrity icons. So I would urge that you use your talents and position to put out accurate well thought out piece’s like the reporters you are discrediting instead of knee jerk reactions that frankly make you look a little bit slow, but of course if you do feel that celebrity news and inane rubbish is more your thing perhaps you should stick to that in the future instead of getting involved in grown up reports for people who like to think for themselves.

    1. Paul D says:

      “It is however perfectly viable that the research done by the reporters that supposedly misinterpreted the whole issue so wildly, actual know more than you or at the very least interpreted the statements more accurately that you were able to?”

      You can’t be terribly familiar with the appalling, reactionary nonsense that is The Daily Mail.

  6. ovigia says:

    it’s not the first time that a vaccine with a perfect legit objective is turned into something very different! “In the 1990’s the UN’s World Health Organization launched a campaign to vaccinate millions of women in Nicaragua, Mexico and the Philippines between the ages of 15 and 45, allegedly against Tentanus, a sickness arising from such things as stepping on a rusty nail. The vaccine was not given to men or boys, despite the fact they are presumably equally liable to step on rusty nails as women.

    Because of that curious anomaly, Comite Pro Vida de Mexico, a Roman Catholic lay organization became suspicious and had vaccine samples tested. The tests revealed that the Tetanus vaccine being spread by the WHO only to women of child-bearing age contained human Chorionic Gonadotrophin or hCG, a natural hormone which when combined with a tetanus toxoid carrier stimulated antibodies rendering a woman incapable of maintaining a pregnancy. None of the women vaccinated were told. ”

  7. BuelahMan says:

    Nothing to see here. Swallow your Fluoride and STFU.

  8. Peter says:

    Dave is an idiot.

    1. Dave says:

      Peter is an idiot.

      1. daen says:

        Neither Peter nor Dave are devoid of idiocy …

  9. TheTulsan says:

    Right there it is in the original article: ‘It [the virus] had evolved to start expressing its genes whenever its host FELT overburdened by the world.’ [emph mine] The Machine IS working on a stress vaccine for ‘feeeeeelings.’ Jones’ artful confabulation was right again! BTW: search ‘sapolsky lithium’!

  10. jojo says:

    It’s really great to see that more than half the comments here aren’t supporting the medical conspiracy that advocates the sterilization of third world women, the neurological maiming of children by unsuspecting parents trying to do the right thing, or this Sapolsky vaccine. Speaking of the Sapolsky vaccine, reading the articles associated with it has really caused a stress response in my bio-vessel, unfortunately for you wimps towing the line out there (calling us conspiratorial and idiots) it’s not the flight response that has been activated. Provided this natural biological response (as nature intended) we will not back down, so get on-board, or get the hell out of the way.

  11. Justin says:

    Too funny…

  12. [...] A strange process involving The Daily Mail creates brain eating vaccines. [...]

  13. MJS says:

    It might be useful to point out why Dr. Sapolsky is engaging in this endeavor in the first place. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, actually damage brain cells. Especially vulnerable are hippocampal cells continually produced by neurogenesis. This destruction is not good; it is more accurate to turn the expression around and say “brain-eating stress.” The vaccine is intended to prevent the brain damage caused by stress. If it works, many mice will be saved from stress-induced dementia.

  14. FE says:

    Great post, I like this blog and bookmarked it. Keep up the god work

  15. Erwin Alber says:

    Sorry about typos, please use this corrected version:

    Vaccines are already destroying children’s brains, so what’s new or sensational about this claim by anti-vaxers?

    Vaccines also destroy people’s health and well-being, with the result that many later resort to psychiatric drugs to numb their pain.

    Vaccination, fluoridation and psychiatric drug use chemically lobotomise people, rendering the use of ice picks obsolete. Some people would regard this as scientific progress, I guess much like being vaporised by an atomic bomb is progress compared to being perforated by a crossbow bolt.

  16. [...] This great article uses the “brain-eating vaccine” conspiracy as an example. [...]

  17. [...] not usually the kind of people who tell you the sky is falling (we’ll save that for the brain eating vaccine crowd), but you might want to sit down for what we’re about to tell you. According to [...]

  18. Megan ky26 says:

    Read the article whole article here:

    Clearly a lot of statements about stress being linked to “the total absence of control.” This is clearly a vaccine developed to calm stress due to “subordination.” So believe that ‘conspiracy theorist’ is the equivalent of ‘crazy person without facts.’ Or you can read it and realize what they don’t want to stress us and keep us from being productive.

  19. [...] know it’s popular these days to distrust the government, but in this case we think NASA’s probably on the up and up. Did they learn something cool [...]

  20. Kashari says:

    What is it on the Computer. Man