In 2016, along with domestic pro-Trump propaganda campaigns, Russian operatives spread conspiracy theories and disinformation online in an attempt to sow political chaos and sway the presidential election. Now, the misinformation and conspiracy theories swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic provide a grim reminder of how disinformation continues to shape public discourse, with the 2020 elections only months away. Media watchdogs say homegrown disinformation is now a much bigger problem than foreign interference, thanks to President Trump, his reelection campaign and right-wing extremists fueling viral media content shared widely by the president’s supporters.
After suspending U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global pandemic, Trump fired off a letter to the WHO this week accusing the U.N. agency of bungling its initial response to the outbreak due to a cozy relationship with China. The letter makes a number of allegations, and the first contains an obvious falsehood. The White House says the WHO “consistently ignored” credible reports of a virus spreading in Wuhan in December 2019 that conflicted with official accounts from the Chinese government, including reports by The Lancet, a highly respected medical journal. Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor, quickly pointed out that the journal did not publish any such reports in December. The first report detailing a viral outbreak in Wuhan was published a month later on January 24 by Chinese scientists. By then, the WHO had dispatched teams to China and convened an emergency meeting to determine whether the outbreak should be declared an international emergency.
While there are legitimate concerns about the Chinese government’s actions in the early days of the outbreak, Hanson and other experts have defended the WHO’s initial response, which Trump himself praised at the time.
Shortly after the release of Trump’s letter this week, fact-checkers poked holes in Trump’s China-related criticisms as well as additional “concerns” he listed, but the damage was already done. Media outlets scrambled to cover Trump’s latest spat with the agency coordinating a global pandemic response, allowing Trump to inject some of his fans’ favorite erroneous coronavirus narratives deeper into the public discourse: COVID-19 is a “Chinese virus,” and the rising death toll can be blamed on China and “global elites,” who initially attempted to conceal the outbreak and then engaged in a cover-up. According to these narratives, the Democrats are somehow in cahoots with China and the “globalists” (a term often used as an anti-Semitic dog whistle). It’s no coincidence that Trump’s reelection campaign is now promoting a new nickname for the president’s likely Democratic opponent: “Beijing Biden.”
Critics panned Trump’s WHO drama as a desperate attempt to divert attention from his early statements dismissing the dangers of COVID-19 and his administration’s slow response to a public health crisis that has claimed more than 90,000 lives in the U.S. However, it’s also a good example of how Trump uses the media to advance narratives that benefit him politically and fuel conspiracy theories beloved by his base. Repeatedly pointing to China as the source of the virus reinforces Trump’s dubious claim that his decision to restrict travel from China saved “countless lives.” Trump pitches himself as “tough” on China, and his campaign is spending $10 million on ads blaming China for the virus and painting former Vice President Joe Biden as “China’s puppet.” American First, a pro-Trump super-PAC, is also spending $10 million on ads in three swing states accusing Biden of being soft on China.
Trump is known for retweeting conspiracy theorists and spouting lies and falsehoods; he’s interested in narratives that support his reelection, not hard facts. The same goes for his extremist supporters, who stretch these narratives along the contours of conspiracy theories amplified by right-wing talk show hosts and social media propaganda machines. For example, Jack Hibbs, a Southern California megachurch pastor and Trump supporter, told his followers during a broadcast in late March that COVID-19 is a biological weapon launched by the Chinese government. The video appeared on Christian streaming networks and attracted 100,000 views overnight, according to Right Wing Watch, a project of People For the American Way that monitors the activities of right-wing extremists. Rodney Howard-Browne, another megachurch pastor who has prayed over Trump during recent in-person services, repeated this claim around the same time. Trump supporters had already circulated memes claiming COVID-19 is a hoax designed to swing the election for the Democrats, a conspiracy theory that Eric Trump, the president’s son, alluded to on Fox News over the weekend.
Eric Trump’s interview is a prime example of how disinformation circulating among fringe pastors and conspiracy hucksters can be injected into the corporate media by sources deemed “official” due to their proximity to the president. In fact, the source of that disinformation is often the president himself, according to Melissa Ryan, author of a new report detailing right-wing disinformation at Right Wing Watch. Anything Trump says is considered news, and Trump can fuel disinformation with a simple comment or retweet. His legions of supporters work together on social media platforms to boost disinformation and conspiratorial memes. Producers know that what’s popular online will attract viewers on TV, and Ryan said cable news outlets such as Fox News produce “unofficial segments” on viral memes, often relaying disinformation without context.
“President Trump is the master of manipulating social media and getting coverage,” Ryan said in an interview. “Anything he says is amplified by people who agree and amplified by people who are mad at him, and it will be amplified by media outlets because he is the president.”
As president, Trump has immense power to manipulate the media and public discourse in his favor while raising money. Studies show that disinformation and conspiracy theories create distrust in institutions and expert sources. Such distrust allows Trump to shrug off legitimate criticism of his performance as “fake news” and dismiss medical research that questions his claims as a “Trump enemy statement.” Trump and his backers then use these counter-narratives to rile up his base, attracting clicks to their websites and donations for Trump’s campaign. While Trump was attacking the WHO for allegedly acquiescing to corrupt Chinese officials, his campaign sent out fundraising emails for ads praising Trump’s COVID-19 response and accusing Biden of “coddling” China. The “Fake News media and their corrupt Democratic Partners” don’t want anyone to see the Biden attack ad, one email claims, because they don’t care that Biden is “in bed with China.” Another email invites supporters to participate in a “secret plan to CRUSH Beijing Biden.”
The impact of Trump’s media manipulation and the right-wing disinformation is alarming. A Harvard survey conducted in mid-March found that 29 percent of respondents believed the threat of COVID-19 was exaggerated to damage Trump, and an even greater share — 31 percent — said the virus was purposefully created and spread. The belief that the threat was exaggerated was strongly correlated with political support for Trump and his early statements downplaying the dangers of the virus. The belief that the virus was a man-made bioweapon was “related to conspiracy thinking” and was slightly more concentrated among those who identify as Republicans and conservatives than those who identify as Democrats and liberals.
The debate has since shifted from the question of who is responsible for the outbreak (and managing the government’s response) to what should be done to address COVID-19 in the U.S. Conflicts over when and how to reopen society after weeks of stay-at-home orders are now dividing the nation along sharply partisan lines. Polls show that large majorities of Republicans support reopening schools, parks and businesses, while large majorities of Democrats say people must stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19. An outbreak of disease is by definition a public health crisis because it affects everyone, so everyone needs reliable information in order to make decisions about how to stay safe and flatten the curve. In the Trump era, what could have been a public health conversation rooted in medical science has become a divisive debate clouded in all the emotion and spin of partisan politics. Cue the “anti-lockdown” protesters, who are now getting sick and spreading the virus even further.
Come November, voters need reliable information to make decisions at the polls, but if the COVID-19 pandemic is any indicator, disinformation and conspiracy theories could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the next election. Luckily, researchers and journalists have learned a lot of disinformation since the 2016 Russian election interference debacle, which consumed Congress and much of the media for months. While conspiracies and disinformation appear on both the right and the left — liberal journalists have been roundly criticized for shoddy reporting and amplifying conspiracy theorists while investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in 2016 – research suggests that a majority of debunked news on social media skews toward the far right.
Ryan writes that, as the election approaches, journalists and consumers should be on the lookout for news and social media posts that stoke racial tensions, parrot known conspiracy theories, and make sensational claims about voter fraud. Those promoting such claims will demand favorable media coverage and accuse reporters of bias when they are debunked or ignored. These are all hallmarks of a pro-Trump media strategy, and Trump is already fanning the flames by claiming that voting by mail would lead to rampant voter fraud. (There is little evidence of this.)
If the president loses, Ryan expects Trump and his MAGA supporters to cling to conspiracy theories that claim to discredit the results. At that point, it would be all they have left.