Coronavirus Is Creating a Fake-News Nightmarescape

Donald Trump Jr.’s comments to Fox & Friends on Friday might be the purest example of the sort of misinformation that’s spreading almost as quickly as the coronavirus. “For [Democrats] to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people, so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning, is a new level of sickness,” he said. “You know, I don’t know if this is coronavirus or Trump derangement syndrome, but these people are infected badly.” To some extent, propaganda has always cropped up alongside mass disease—the whole black-cats-and-bubonic-plague thing, for example—but as technology has evolved, and information reaches exponentially more people exponentially faster, the potential for misinformation to spread has become correspondingly voluminous. “The scariest thing about this virus is the fact that there are a lot of people out there who don’t believe this is a scary virus,” a biomedical investor told me. “This is a bad one, and you’ve got people conspiring that it’s a hoax made to get Trump thrown out of office.”

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When HIV/AIDS first sprang up in the 1980s, conspiracy theories about the disease became ubiquitous. In the U.S., rumor spread that you could catch it from doorknobs or swimming pools. One largely believed rumor held that AIDS was developed by the Central Intelligence Agency to kill off African Americans and gays. It was arguably the first global pandemic in the age of 24-hour cable news, which began around the same time the disease really started to spread, and helped fill the empty hours of television, injecting fear into the arteries of America. On top of that, add smartphones, social media, fake news, Donald Trump, and the far right’s politicization of everything from sporting events to where you drink your coffee to the brand of sneakers you wear, and you have the perfect setup for a virus to go viral, and a bunch of conspiracy theories to spread around the globe before the truth has time to tie its shoelaces.

Coronavirus, or Covid-19, isn’t just a severe acute respiratory syndrome with a terrifying incubation period; it’s also the first true epidemic of a polarized, plugged-in era. Other diseases have come along since the age of the internet, but none have been politicked in an era when the president gives social-media-born conspiracy theories and the CDC equal weight. During the 2002 SARS outbreak, while we had things like Excite and GeoCities, there was no such thing as social media (Myspace arrived on the scene a year later, but it never became a hub for news distribution). When bird flu surfaced in 2013, it didn’t kill enough people to become a true global pandemic, and Trump was still just a conspiracy-toting reality-TV star, rather than the conspiracy-toting president. At the time, the White House did its best to dispel rumors around the disease, as opposed to surfacing or creating them.

This time around, the president is proclaiming at his rallies that coronavirus is a “hoax” constructed by the Democrats. Conspiracy theorists on YouTube say it’s a false flag (I’m not even going to link to the videos), and QAnon theorists on Reddit are regurgitating the insanity that it’s all part of another deep state plot to overthrow the government. Other false stories have deduced that the Defense Department created the virus to target China. Millions of tweets argue a number of conspiracy theories, including that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation cooked up the virus—for what purpose, God only knows. Rush Limbaugh is telling his millions of listeners that media emphasis on the virus is designed to destabilize the stock markets in a threat to Trump’s presidency, and that coronavirus is “the common cold, folks.” (Fact-check: It is not.)

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