When Disinformation Turns Into Politics
“The most outrageous lies are the ones about Covid 19. Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust. I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I’m sick of it.”
This tweet by the self-proclaimed “Hollywood conservative”, Chuck Woolery, was shared by no other than President of the United States Donald Trump. Such claims seem absurd, given the hundreds of thousands of lives claimed by the novel coronavirus and the abundant footage showing medics and overwhelmed hospitals fighting the pandemic globally. But evidence is of little matter, since all of it is a part of a world conspiracy anyway; therein lies the strength of conspiracy theories, which have inundated the American public sphere.
On January 22 this year President Trump reassured Americans that “It’s going to be just fine” and the administration had the situation under control. He repeated his words at the end of the month and promised in February that come spring, the virus is “going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Back then, the number of Coronavirus casualties in the US is around 170,000. Media publications underscore that the novel Coronavirus has claimed more lives than the Vietnam war, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and all mass shootings in the country combined. Evidence points out that the number of fatalities would be significantly lower had the US implemented effective measures in time.
After four years in office, President Trump’s political tactics are no secret to anyone: he manages one of the most developed economies and democracies in the world in a “reality show” style, churning out one controversial claim after another, in a vitriolic fight with traditional media who are critical of his performance. Consequently, Americans and the world are more familiar with the President’s eccentricities than important political schemes or key legislative changes.
In the United States, conspiracy theories have for years been used for political ends to dilute important debate, and have seriously harmed democracy and democratic institutions, a fact made obvious by the pandemic. In the case of the Coronavirus, there were immediate consequences of disinformation since the virus infects believers and non-believers alike. Such an example is Florida resident Brian Hitchens, who believed the pandemic was a “fake crisis” until getting seriously ill himself.
Disinformation has consequences
The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that “calls to poison centers regarding exposures to cleaners and disinfectants have increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.” In a speech on July 9, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden claimed that President Donald Trump had advised Americans to drink bleach. Despite Trump speculating on the use of bleach and ultraviolet light to treat COVID-19, Biden’s claims are inaccurate.
Among the former showman’s key strategies is that he never outright endorses conspiracy theories, that was the case with these disinfectants. During a press conference on April 23, President Trump speculated that someone must check if disinfectants can be “injected” into the body, for example the lungs. Most of his tweets that have been verified as disinformation use speculative language, making it easy for them to be dismissed or interpreted as an innocent joke: “isn’t it interesting, that…”, “some people think that…”, “some people say…”, “maybe it is possible…” and so on. As was the case with Woolery, the President sometimes shares without further comment other people’s unverified claims or similar non-factual statements made by media he likes.
Meanwhile, a third of respondents in a CDC survey “engaged in non-recommended high-risk practices with the intent of preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission.” Around 20 percent of respondents washed their fruit and vegetables with bleach and used household detergents on their skin or hands. Under 10 percent have ingested or gargled household cleaners, soap water or bleach. The CDC stresses that a comprehensive communication strategy is of major importance when it comes to the safe use of disinfectants against SARS-CoV-2. Outbreak prevention must be based on the current scientific consensus and coordinated on national, state, and local levels, the report adds.
Viruses do not care about politics
Such a comprehensive campaign seems impossible given the current political climate. Wearing a mask and even the existence of the virus itself became ideological issues in a matter of months: only around 35 percent of Republicans are worried about the virus compared to 68 percent of Democrats. These results are in stark contrast with established tendencies which show that Republicans are traditionally more likely to be concerned about potential threats. But President Trump is more of a by-product than a main reason for these trends.
As everywhere else in the world, the health crisis accelerated or exposed already existing trends. In a detailed study of manipulation and disinformation in the United States, Harvard scientists Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts concluded that the current toxicity in American public debate is a result of the accumulation of multiple trends over recent decades. From the 70s and 80s onwards, the “deregulation of cable and elimination of the fairness doctrine in broadcast created the institutional conditions for divergent organizational strategies to explore the markets for listeners and viewers” the team writes, thus creating competing media ecosystems. Consolidation of distribution is particularly pronounced in right-wing media, and the research points to the fact that the conservative media system is extremely prone to the dissemination of disinformation, including misinformation coming from foreign sources.
The consequences of interpreting the truth according to ideology are not as immediate in politics as when science is concerned — the viruses do not care what one’s political allegiances are. This is probably among the main reasons why platforms such as Fox News radically changed their editorial policy on the virus in March, from denying the gravity of the disease and comparing COVID-19 to the seasonal flu to calling the pandemic “a health emergency”.
The gap between science and politics is most obvious in the relationship between President Trump and one of the most prominent American experts in the field of infectious disease — Dr Anthony Fauci. Dr Fauci is a member of the American Coronavirus Task Force, formed at the end of January, and quickly came into prominence. The immunologist, who graduated medicine from Cornell, has won multiple awards and has over 50 years of experience in healthcare.
The relationship between the President and Dr Fauci deteriorated fast in March and April, after the expert refused to back several controversial claims made by Trump, including his insistence that the measures be lifted as quickly as possible. On April 12, Dr Fauci said that an earlier reaction by the government could have saved many lives. One day later, President Trump retweeted #FireFauci, and at the end of the month he openly stated that he does not agree with Dr Fauci’s expertise.
Fast forward two months and the gap between the two is now enormous: while Dr Fauci warns of a “worrying rise” in contamination, President Trump continues to claim that “the virus is going away”. On July 7, the President once again said he disagrees with Dr Fauci’s prediction that cases in the US might reach a daily count of 100,000. For the first half of August the average number of new cases was 52,000.
Disinformation is contagious
“Analysis of over 25.5 million tweets over 10 days identifies 5,752 accounts that coordinated 6,559 times to spread mis- and disinformation regarding the coronavirus for either commercial or political purposes. Almost all politically motivated activity promoted right-wing governments or parties”, according to Australian research.
The conspiracy theory that the virus is a Chinese biological weapon has generated over 5 million impressions on Twitter and has been shared mostly by profiles that support Trump, the Republicans, and another conspiracy theory, QAnon (another conspiracy theory created in 2017 on 4chan platform, which claims that there is a ‘deep state’ determined to sabotage President Trump).
There are examples from all over the world — from Turkey and Saudi Arabia all the way over to Spain. Political posts on Twitter connect the virus with far-left or far-right ideology, but according to research, these conspiracies rarely leave the marginal bubble where they are propagated. This is where mainstream media comes into play: tabloids, for example, share sensational but untrue information to generate readership. They give their platform to conspiracy theories, regardless of whether their goal is mockery or parody.
The American president also shares all sorts of theories, because it helps his popularity with his core base, although recent data shows that his (mis)handling of the crisis has led to a serious drop in confidence. It’s no surprise since this drop came after President Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine as treatment for COVID-19, although its effectiveness has been questioned and the drug might have dangerous side-effects. He also has quoted a pastor and doctor who believes that ovarian cysts are the result of intercourse with demons and witches in your dreams.
When disinformation is legitimized at such a high level, the results are swift to follow. Research shows that Americans who rely for their COVID-19 news mostly on the White House are more likely to downplay the pandemic. They are also more likely to have heard of hydroxychloroquine as a form of treatment, and nine out of ten people who rely on the Administration for Coronavirus news are Republicans. They are also the most hostile towards the media.
What’s more, disinformation requires fact-checking and disproving, leading to its endless repetition and sharing by legitimate news sources. By these means, a similar share of Americans have also received disinformation about these topics: treating the virus with Vitamin C, that the virus could disappear in the summer, and the connection between virus and 5G networks.
Nothing new on the disinformation front
Historical perspective remains crucial to understanding current events. Conspiracy theories have always been a part of American culture, and the universality of the English language makes spreading conspiracies around the globe easier than ever before. The sinister plots against the United States have changed over the centuries: from the Illuminati at the end of the 18th century, to the theory that the Austrian emperor will send Catholics into the new Republic as a means of conquering it, or that the British are conspiring against the American economy. Only the characters of such fables change, the narrative remains the same: it’s us against them, good vs evil.
A second important factor are economic and social conditions. What politicians and conspiracy theorists have in common is that people look to them for security and solutions to painful public issues. President Trump, who is a classic charismatic leader, was elected in times of deep institutional crisis and his electorate sees him as the sole saviour of the nation.
As far as conspiracy theories go, psychologists say that they provide simple explanations to complicated processes which provoke anxiety, anger, and other strong emotional reactions. Their advantage is that they talk of events hidden from plain sight, with little proof, dealing in rumours and speculations. They also rely on the classic fallacy that “even if there is no proof something exists, there is no proof it doesn’t”. These myths guarantee the stability of the core-argument (for example that the coronavirus is a plan to microchip all of us), since all proof and sound argument can be rejected because it is trying to further hide the conspiracy.
The above-mentioned characteristics make conspiracy an excellent political instrument: if the virus is a plot invented by Democrats to ruin the US economy and the President, the latter cannot be criticized for his failings as a leader and worsening an already bad situation. Propaganda offers an escape from political accountability and an impenetrable shield for ideological convictions. Any not-so-well-intended politician looking for personal gain is free to exploit this.
What is worrying in this case is that there is no way of knowing how many coronavirus victims are also victims of the infodemic. What is surely true is that when disinformation becomes a part of politics during a crisis, sooner or later everyone loses.
Joanna Elmy is a staff writer of Toest, an independent, ad-free online platform. She has a bachelor degree in international relations and English from the New Sorbonne University in Paris, France. She’s currently doing a master’s degree in political communication at the University of Amsterdam, where she studies propaganda rhetoric and digital disinformation.
This article is part of the Infodemics’ Chronicle from Bulgaria, which is under the umbrella of the global #FreedomFightsFake campaign of FNF. The campaign is in cooperation with the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria. Find the article in the original in Bulgarian here: