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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.