A day and a half after the president tested positive for COVID-19, the conspiracy theories and disinformation around his condition are rampant, driven in part by his own administration’s mixed messages and evasiveness about the specifics of how sick he actually is.
On Saturday morning, the doctors treating him at Walter Reed Medical Center refused to answer specific, straightforward questions at a press conference about Trump’s condition, like how high his fever had been, and whether he has been on oxygen since testing positive for the virus. Minutes later, an unnamed person “familiar with the president’s health” told White House reporters the president’s vitals had been “very concerning” and “the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care.”
“We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery,” the source said, adding confusion to the lack of clarity about the president’s condition.
Online, conspiracy theorists on both the left and the right speculated that Trump had either been much sicker than we’d been told — or not sick at all but rather using a fake diagnosis as part of an elaborate power play.
As the US faces a moment of great uncertainty — what happens if the president is incapacitated by COVID-19? Can we rely on the negative test results of the leaders who are in line to step in? — that chaos is being amplified by the maelstrom of conspiracy theories and distrust that Trump himself has helped create.
The crisis comes in the wake of four years of Trump spreading disinformation about everything from immigration to windmills. Some on the left question anything Trump says, and some on the right question anything the media says.
The White House’s total lack of precision isn’t helping. During the press conference, the doctors also said that they were “72 hours” into Trump’s diagnosis and that he had been administered an experimental antibody treatment “48 hours ago.” Shortly after the conference, the White House released a statement from the president’s doctor Sean Conley saying that he’d misspoken and meant that it was day three after the president’s diagnosis on Thursday and not 72 hours, which would have pushed the president’s diagnosis back to Wednesday — when he traveled to Minnesota for a campaign event. The statement from Conley also said he’d misspoken about the 48-hour period after he had been given the experimental antibodies — another doctor had mentioned the 48-hour period during the conference rather than Conley. The multiple confounding and inaccurate statements from the White House led to further doubt about the state of the president’s health.
Even before Trump confirmed he had COVID-19, conspiracy theories about why he would potentially halt his presidential campaign and go into quarantine were already swirling around the internet.
“Just learned that [Trump advisor] Hope Hicks tested positive for Covid,” the actor Bette Midler tweeted out around midnight to 2 million followers. “Timing’s so interesting. I guess Trump’s quarantining will mean no rallies, and no more debates. Convenient. It’s awful to always think the worst, but after four years of relentless lying? Can’t be helped. No trust left.”
The tweet has been retweeted more than 4,400 times and has been liked over 31,000 times.
“The reason why we’re seeing conspiracies and just doubt come from folks both on the left and the right have a lot to do with all of the misinformation related to coronavirus that’s happened over the past few months, particularly ideas that the president has advanced himself,” Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and one of leading researchers on media manipulation and disinformation, told BuzzFeed News.
Middler wasn’t the only person that was skeptical of the president’s announcement — the doubt that quickly formed from hundreds of other people in the replies and quote tweets of Middler’s tweet and more broadly across the internet paint a picture of a country that has widely embraced conspiracy theories in the lead up to the election and as the pandemic spread across the country.
Even before the confusing press conference from Trump’s doctors and the contradictory statement about the president’s health from a White House source on Saturday, the conspiracy theories flourished.
One photo widely circulating on Twitter highlighted innocuous bumps in the president’s suit and stray hairs on his head to suggest that he was wearing “a portable oxygen concentrator in his pocket with the nasal cannula going up his back,” as one person tweeted, while he walked to Marine One to be helicoptered to the hospital on Friday.
A June survey from Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans had heard of a conspiracy theory that the pandemic had been planned by powerful people — of the 71% who’d heard of the conspiracy theory, 36% said that they “definitely” or “probably” believed that it was true.
Just surveying the replies to Middler’s conspiracy theory show how widespread this kind of thinking has been this week.
“Same thought here, how can we trust any statement from Trump. ‘The boy who cried wolf 20,000 times too often....” one Twitter user said in response to Middler.
“I hate to be so cynical but I don’t believe it’s true. Could be a political stunt to show how he pulls thru it with no symptoms to prove how 'safe' it is to get it. Also gets him out of the next debate without having to do it himself,” another tweeted.
Michael Moore, a progressive filmmaker and former surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, posted similar conspiracies in a lengthy Facebook post that he then linked on Twitter, where he called the president a liar and asked readers why they would believe him now.
“We must be skeptical. We must always remain skeptical when it comes to Trump. He may have it. But it’s also possible he’s lying. That’s just a fact,” Moore warned his followers.
“HE MAY USE THIS TO PUSH FOR DELAYING/POSTPONING THE ELECTION,” Moore wrote later in the post. “The constitution does not allow for this, but he doesn’t give a f*ck about the constitution. He and his thug Attorney General Barr have no shame and will stop at nothing to stay in power.”
The uncertainty of what happens next for the US after Trump’s diagnosis is fueling the misinformation and conspiracy theories, said Mike Rothschild, an expert in debunking conspiracy theories.
“It’s very destabilizing. We're at a moment in our country where we have absolutely no idea what happens next. Trump could be completely fine. He could be asymptomatic and recover well and be completely fine. Or he could die. Or be on a ventilator and incapable of making decisions. There are a lot of ways this could go really bad," Rothschild said.
Especially with a void of clear, reliable information about hugely consequential events, people are more inclined to believe unlikely schemes and plots are afoot, Rothschild said.
“And when you have an event like this, a world-shaking event that doesn't have a predetermined outcome, people fill in the knowledge gaps with conspiracy theories … that's why JFK conspiracy theories persist.”
The potential national security crisis that could come out of this situation could be exacerbated by the spread of left-wing conspiracies, Donovan said.
“On the left, there’s a lot of dangerous speculation going on suggesting that this is an advantage that the president may get over Biden if he emerges and survives having had coronavirus,” she said. She warned that the news could also offer opportunities for foreign governments to meddle in the election by amplifying public outrage.
Conspiracy theories aren’t just popping up in the realms of “resistance” Twitter where factions of voters who detest the president discuss the election and the president’s actions — they’re spreading on far-right corners of the internet too, including among believers of QAnon, a collective delusion that alleges President Donald Trump is fighting a Satanist cabal of elites who abuse children.
In some of those spaces, conspiracies about Biden and racist notions that China is responsible for the coronavirus (that the president has also pushed) have melded into conspiracies that coronavirus is an attempt to bring Trump down by the Biden campaign and China.
“Could Trump catching COVID-19 technically be viewed as an assassination attempt on our president by the Chinese?” tweeted DeAnna Lorraine, a right-wing conspiracy theorist.
“If we don’t deal with this now, it’s not that we’re going to see a war break out with China,” Donovan said. “But we’re going to see hate crimes against people who are Chinese, Chinese Americans, and Asian people in general because there’s such a culture of fear and misunderstanding that’s been created for some people in the United States about coronavirus.”
One entirely unfounded QAnon theory is that Trump would at some point be whisked away to a secure location while mass arrests of Democratic politicians ensue.
After the president announced his positive test with the tweet “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”, QAnon believers online dissected his wording to come up with the theory that he was in fact sending a message that “WE WILL ALL GET THROUGH THIS TO GET HER,” as one believer tweeted, “her” being Hillary Clinton.
“QAnon tells this very compelling story, and it's a story that its believers really want to be real and have invested an enormous amount of time and effort in being real,” said Rothschild. “They’re digital soldiers, they are fighting not just a political party that they have disagreements with but the literal forces of Satan.”
Trump has a long history of engaging in conspiracy theories since well before he was president. That was especially clear with his aggressive promotion of the false conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not actually born in the United States.
“He wasn't a politician until he started embracing conspiracy theories,” Rothschild said.
He said it’s not surprising Trump is handling the situation in a way that doesn’t directly dispel the uncertainty about what’s really happening.
“These are his people, so when something like QAnon comes down the pipe, he’s not going to denounce it. He's going to do everything he can to throw red meat to those people because those are his people,” he added.
Donovan added that the embrace of conspiracies that popped up in the hours after Trump announced his diagnosis is just a part of larger problems that the country is going to have to face in the months after the election.
“Trump has set up a situation where there’s going to be some doubt about the veracity of the election results,” Donovan said. “This new development really exacerbates an already intense situation.”
Jane Lytvynenko contributed reporting to this story.