President Trump said that Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats to destroy his presidency. He claimed his impeachment was a Democratic hoax too and last week he said the coronavirus — or at least media coverage of the coronavirus — was one as well.
None of those were hoaxes. But that doesn’t mean hoaxes don’t exist. In fact, when it comes to the coronavirus crisis, disinformation, propaganda and hoaxes abound. Ironically, one of the sources is, you guessed it, Russia.
According to the Washington Post:
A top State Department official said Thursday that Russia is behind “swarms of online, false personas” that sought to spread misinformation about coronavirus on social-media sites, stressing the “entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play.” …
The tweets themselves floated a number of harmful conspiracy theories — suggesting, for example, that the coronavirus had been created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or was the result of a bioweapon. Some of the tweets linked to YouTube videos, according to the State Department document, suggesting the problem went beyond Twitter
That’s unnerving, to say the least. But the story is confusing, with social media platforms insisting they are uninformed about these activities and the government refusing to share its methodology.
Unsurprisingly, the right wing has eagerly jumped on some of the disinformation, such as the lie that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon. In fact, one of the president’s most fervent supporters, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, went on national TV to spread it, doubling down when called on it by experts. It’s unclear where Cotton got his “hypothesis” but it had already been debunked by numerous sources at the time he was telling millions of people it was possible.
As Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post, “There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered. The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates conspiracy theory took hold deep in the right-wing fever swamp early on. BuzzFeed reported on it back in January:
A false rumor that the coronavirus outbreak is a plot by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates is being spread by supporters of the pro-Trump QAnon movement and the anti-vax community. A QAnon YouTuber named Jordan Sather warned his followers on Tuesday that the coronavirus was a “new fad disease” and claimed the release of the virus that causes it was “planned.” Following Sather’s heavily retweeted thread, the conspiracy theory traveled across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
If these rumors and lies were started by the Russian government it just proves, once again, that they know their targets. But the truth is that Americans don’t really need their help. The right-wing media is doing a great job of misleading half the country all by themselves.
Recall that a week or so ago, Rush Limbaugh insisted that the coronavirus was just a common cold and it was being “weaponized” to use against the president. Rush wasn’t the only one spreading this nonsense. According to AFPFactcheck, it turned up on Twitter and Facebook, with people sharing images from old medical textbooks saying that coronavirus is the common cold. (Yes, the common cold is a coronavirus, but the “novel coronavirus” COVID-19 most certainly is not the common cold.)
Half a dozen different Fox News programs have blamed the homeless population for spreading the disease, despite absolutely no evidence that has happened. This fits with their evident programming directive to demean and degrade the homeless population as often as possible, particularly in states that didn’t vote for Donald Trump.
In fact, most of the disinformation coming from the right-wing media is in service of protecting the president’s fake reputation as the greatest leader the world has ever known. Since he is a font of confusion, ignorance and misinformation on the subject, they end up making their audience and all the people their audience comes in contact with vulnerable to the illness.
For instance, Trump appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Wednesday night and made this daft comment:
We have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better.
Trump to Hannity on WHO saying coronavirus death rate is 3.4%: “I think the 3.4% number is really a false number. Now this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations … personally, I’d say the number is way under 1%.”
Astoundingly irresponsible. pic.twitter.com/uC9c03zX31
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 5, 2020
Apparently, Trump thinks that a lot of people going to work while infectious is no big deal, except to the extent that they don’t get counted and all the deaths that occur from exposure to people who don’t know they carry the virus look worse than they really are. Or something.
With approximately 100,000 CoronaVirus cases worldwide, and 3,280 deaths, the United States, because of quick action on closing our borders, has, as of now, only 129 cases (40 Americans brought in) and 11 deaths. We are working very hard to keep these numbers as low as possible!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2020
That tweet makes you wonder if they’re “working very hard to keep these numbers low” on purpose. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is by not testing people — which is what’s happening.
The upshot is that the president continually suggests that the threat of the virus is being overblown and that he’s doing a “fabulous job” in dealing with it anyway. Needless to say, if anyone says otherwise, it’s a hoax.
His minions on Fox News are happy to help spread the good word.
Hannity, sounding more like a North Korean broadcaster extolling the virtues of the Dear Leader than like a member of the free press, claimed that President Obama had ignored the swine flu outbreak until thousands of people had died:
Do you guys realize that Hannity devotes a few minutes of his show every night to being a reply guy of The View? pic.twitter.com/pOPX28nOo1
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) March 6, 2020
Channeling the president’s view that a miracle might end the pandemic, Fox News host Jesse Watters went with a little Kumbaya:
You want to know how I really feel about the coronavirus, Juan? If I get it, I’ll beat it. I’m not lying. It’s called the power of positive thinking and I think America needs to wake up to that. I live in Manhattan, I got off work the other night, went straight to the subway. Asian guy sits down to me — mask on. What do I do? Finish the ride, then I go home and I order Chinese food. I’m not afraid of the coronavirus and no one else should be that afraid either.
That’s easy for him to say. Pity the vulnerable people he and anyone who listens to him might infect with that cavalier attitude. But I suppose it’s better than this nihilistic greed-head:
This is absolutely horrifying.
Rick Santelli on @CNBC says we should consider giving coronavirus to everybody to just get it over with.
That way it won’t wreak so much havoc on the economy.
This is your brain on capitalism.pic.twitter.com/Uv5UYyKtxy
— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) March 5, 2020
Trump held a town-hall meeting on Fox News on Thursday night and once again praised himself to high heaven for his masterful handling of the crisis. Being the sunny optimist that he is, he found the upside in the whole thing:
Trump’s tendency to treat real problems as PR problems to solve through misdirection and lying is on very dangerous display as COVID-19 worsens. https://t.co/fc9HEkM6SN
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) March 6, 2020
I suspect that if you see a person wearing a MAGA hat these days, it might be wise to steer clear. If they are watching Fox News or listening to Rush, it’s doubtful they are taking the precautions that would protect themselves, and you, from this virus. Why would they? As far as they know, their very stable genius leader has everything in hand. If anyone says otherwise, it’s just another hoax.