The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a pandemic of disinformation, sometimes called the "infodemic." In the US, while it would have seemed unthinkable up to 5 years ago, the biggest source of disinformation has been President Donald Trump (look here).
Trump lost the 2020 election, and barring an overt coup attempt may be gone by January 20, 2021. However, that does not mean we should expect the infodemic to go away as well. In fact, another big source of disinformation since the onset of the pandemic has been Trump's faithful followers, including politicians at national, state, and local levels in the US. We noted the onset of disinformation about the virus propagated by Trump supporters here, including the case of Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), who pushed the erroneous idea that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan.
Since then we have noted many other cases in which Trump supporting US politicians have peddled disinformation about the pandemic. We present here some notable cases that have gotten attention in the news media, in chronological order by publication date.
Joanne Wright, candidate for US House of Representatives in California, Promoted Conspiracy Theories about Pandemic Origin
Sen Cotton's ill-conceived theories quickly inspired other Trump true believers.
A GOP House candidate in California has repeatedly tweeted conspiracy theories regarding the novel coronavirus, a fast-spreading flu-like disease that has spurred a wave of online misinformation.
The tweets, from Republican hopeful Joanne Wright, underline how widespread coronavirus-related conspiracy theories have become as even politicians tout debunked claims linking the disease to governments and public figures.
Wright has tweeted multiple times over the last few weeks about the coronavirus, suggesting the virus may be manmade or even connected to prominent Democrats, the Los Angeles Times first reported.
In one tweet, from Feb. 28, Wright questioned whether Microsoft founder Bill Gates is connected to the virus, a conspiracy theory that has made its way from the fringes of the online ecosystem to the center. She also tied the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, to Democratic mega-donor George Soros and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
'Doesn’t @BillGates finance research at the Wuhan lab where the Corona virus was being created?' Wright tweeted, earning hundreds of retweets and likes. 'Isn’t @georgesoros a good friend of Gates? Isn’t it always when @HillaryClinton tweets that fire and brimstone hits us? Check Gates Foundation and Clinton Foundation for stock sells.'
The day before, responding to a tweet espousing a largely debunked theory on the origins of the virus from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Wright tweeted, 'The Corona virus is a man made virus created in a Wuhan laboratory. Ask @BillGates who financed it.'
Wright was defeated in the primary election, but other Republicans soon jumped into the fray.
Former Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), Father of Current Sen Rand Paul (R-KY), Dismisses Coronavirus Death Rate Estimates
Calling Fauci 'the chief fearmonger of the Trump Administration,' Paul wrote in a column on his website that Fauci 'testified to Congress that the death rate for the coronavirus is 10 times that of the seasonal flu, a claim without any scientific basis.'
At the time, Politifact said that in fact there was good, if incomplete evidence for Dr Fauci's estimate of the death rate. The current consensus is still that the coronavirus death rate is approximately ten times that of seasonal influenza.
Fooling people into thinking that COVID-19 is no worse than seasonal influenza likely would lead them to think they need no more precautions against it than they take for influenza. It also distracts them from considering that one reason that influenza is now not so much feared is that a relatively effective vaccine for it is widely available.
Rep Louis Gohmert (R-TX) Claimed Germany has a "Powder" that can Cure Coronavirus
'It is being used in Germany as a mist,' Mr Gohmert said. 'Health care workers go through a misting tent going into the hospital and it kills the coronavirus completely dead not only right then.'
'Any time in the next 14 days that the virus touches anything that’s been sprayed it is killed.'
This was nonsense
Head of the German Hospital Association, Dr Jörn Wegner, told Ms Mekelburg [of Politfact] that the congressman’s claims are incorrect.
'What your congressman said is absolute nonsense,' Dr Wegner said. 'There are no such tents and there’s no powder or magical cure.'
Note that Rep Gohmert had scoffed at wearing a mask to prevent infection, but then became infected with COVID-19 (look here).
Deceiving people into thinking that effective chemical measures to eliminate COVID-19 exist may lead to them neglecting simple preventative measures that actually may work.
Republican Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Mike Turzai Said Children Without Underlying Conditions Are Not at Risk from COVID-19
'Guess what, they’re not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue,' said Turzai, whose comments came in a video he recorded from his Allegheny County home and later shared on social media.
Turzai declined to provide any evidence that he relied on when he made this claim.
it’s true that children are far less susceptible than adults. But his claim that other children are totally safe is incorrect, according to a study published recently in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.
Again, fooling people into thinking that COVID-19 is less dangerous that it is may lead them to neglect public health guidelines.
Republican Candidates for the US House of Representatives Promoted Trump's Use of Hydroxychloroquine to Prevent COVID-19
'@realDonaldTrump taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off coronavirus is a kick-ass move that proves why he is the bravest and strongest of all American presidents,' James P. Bradley, a Republican U.S. House candidate in California, tweeted.
'You’d have to be extremely naïve to believe that none of these Democrats knocking @POTUS are also taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure,' Errol Webber, a GOP congressional candidate in California, tweeted after Trump touted taking the drug.
In an interview, Lauren Boebert, a Republican congressional candidate in Colorado running to the right of GOP incumbent Scott Tipton, criticized those who were quick to go against the treatment.
'With the way the media hates President Trump, if taking hydroxychloroquine was truly bad for him, they’d be encouraging it rather than having a meltdown,' Boebert tweeted on May 20.
In Congress, two sitting House members also promoted in media interviews their own experience with the drug, including Roger Marshall. The Kansas doctor is running in a crowded GOP U.S. Senate primary in the reliably red state and looking to win out over longtime Trump supporter Kris Kobach.
He told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week that he and members of his family were taking the drug prophylactically.
'I would encourage any person over the age of 65 or with an underlying medical condition to talk to their own physician about taking hydroxychloroquine and I’m relieved President Trump is taking it,' Marshall told the Journal.
A conspiracy-filled approach to the issue came from Josh Barnett, an Arizona GOP challenger in the state’s deeply Democratic 7th District whose chances at making it to the House are slim.
He tweeted: 'If hydroxychloroquine is soooooo dangerous then why are Democrats so against @realDonaldTrump taking it? Do they suddenly care about him and his health? LOL NO! Its because it works and they don't want anything to fix Covid and rev this economy back up.'
However, the article also noted that by the time of its publication
By late April, Trump’s own Food and Drug Administration warned that 'hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19.'
Research on the drug has continued to be troubling since. A new study published Friday by The Lancet also failed to show a 'a benefit of hydroxychloroquine,' when it comes to COVID-19 and more alarmingly described 'a greater hazard for in-hospital death with COVID-19.'
Note that Bradley, Webber and Barnett lost in the general election. However, Boebert won a seat in congress, and Marshall won a seat in the Senate.
Again, pretending that effective treatments for COVID-19 exist may lead to people to neglect prevention measures.
North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest Announced Masks "Don't Work"
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who’s running for governor against incumbent Democrat Roy Cooper, said scientific evidence doesn’t support mask mandates.
'There have been multiple comprehensive studies at the deepest level held to scientific standards in controlled environments that have all said for decades, masks do not work with viruses,' he told a reporter for The Hendersonville Times-News.
His statement overlooks recent studies, news stories, CDC guidance and the advice of one of President Trump’s top pandemic advisors. While face coverings alone can’t guarantee protection from a virus, recent studies show they do reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Clearly, deceiving people into thinking that masks have no benefits will mitigate against them using face coverings that may reduce viral spread and reduce their own likelihood of infection
Rep Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) Minimized COVID-19 Risk
Between Memorial Day and mid-June, Texas’s hospitalization rate shot up by 36 percent, a fact that Crenshaw has downplayed. 'If you just hear 36 percent increase, that does sound like a lot. … In reality, it’s under 500 additional hospitalizations out of a state of 30 million people,' he said on his podcast. 'So it’s really not a lot. … We’re so far away from being in over-capacity or even close to it that it’s laughable.'When a Harris County judge said around the same time that Texas 'may be approaching the precipice of a disaster' Crenshaw blasted her for 'pure and simple fear mongering.'
More than 100 doctors, medical professionals, and emergency room physicians in the Houston area have signed their names to a letter condemning Republican Rep. Daniel Crenshaw for spreading misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been ravaging the Texas city hard in recent weeks.
Dan Crenshaw, on the other hand, has spewed lies for the past four months — minimizing the threat we face and spreading dangerous disinformation for self-indulgent headlines
Of course, people who believe Crenshaw's disinformation are less likely to take actions to reduce the spread of the virus and their own risk of infection.
Former Kansas Secretary of State, then Republican Senate Candidate Kris Kobach Claimed that Death Rate from COVID-19 was Inflated to Hurt Political Chances of President Trump
Kris Kobach, who is running for a Senate seat in Kansas and previously served as its secretary of state, appeared on a YouTube channel and claimed the number of cases and deaths was a lie.
'I believe that the numbers are being cooked,' he said. 'The books are being cooked.'
During his interview on the show National File, Mr Kobach said hospitals were misdiagnosing coronavirus cases and repeated Mr Trump's claims that more testing would result in higher numbers.
'There are so many things that are happening that indicate that they are overstating the positive numbers. Of course, we've all heard about hospitals, they will test someone who comes in for a liver problem, or for an auto accident, and they test positive and they are – or people who die of something else, but they're also Covid-positive, they'll be treated as a Covid death,' Mr Kobach said.
'And of course, the fact that we have whatever the number is, five times, four times as many tests now as we did in March. And so, if you're testing a greater population, you're going to see a proportional increase in the number of positive results.'
Kobach offered no proof of his allegations of "cooked" numbers, and no evidence that these numbers were exaggerated has appeared since. His claim that high numbers are mainly a result of increased testing has been refuted by later increases in hospitalization and death rates. The claim amounts to the logical fallacy of the appeal from ignorance (also called appeal to ignorance), that is, per Logically Fallacious:
The assumption of a conclusion or fact based primarily on lack of evidence to the contrary. Usually best described by, 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.'
Kobach (and Trump and many others) implied that if we were to try less vigorously to find cases of COVID-19, there would be fewer cases of it. In reality, there would just be fewer diagnosed cases. People who had COVID-19, but were undiagnosed, would be more likely to spread the disease than those who were correctly diagnosed, and less likely to receive medical care that might reduce their symptoms or risk of death.
Kobach lost in the Kansas primary.
Republican Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert Promoted Hydroxychloroquine as COVID-19 Cure
Republican State Senator Jason Rapert used his position as chair of a key legislative committee to hear from doctors who support the use of hydroxychloroquine in the fight against COVID-19 and to grill the state health secretary over the department's guidance when it comes to prescribing the drug.
'I've got people in this state, in my own district, who were given Hydroxychloroquine and it turned them around,' said Rapert of Conway, who co-chairs the Joint Insurance and Commerce committee.
He chaired a hearing in which hydroxychloroquine proponents provided anecdotes of patients who received the drug and got better. However, there is no good evidence that the drug benefits patients with COVID-19. Some people who got the drug may have gotten better, but that does not mean that the drug caused them to get better.
Again, conning people into believing that there are simple, cheap drugs that effectively treat the disease may lead them to think there is no point in trying to prevent the spread of infection.
Sen Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Senator-Elect Roger Marshall (R-KS) Claimed COVID-19 Death Rates were Exaggerated
Ernst said she ... is 'so skeptical' of the official numbers.
'These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?' she said to the crowd on Monday, according to a report by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
'I heard the same thing on the news. ... They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. ... I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.'
At that point,
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the disease has infected more than 6 million people in the U.S. and killed about 185,000 Americans. Of those deaths, 1,125 were reported in Iowa, according to the state website at midday Wednesday.
Sen Ernst's skepticism may have derived from posts from supporters of conspiracy theory QAnon,
In recent tweets, supporters of QAnon misrepresented CDC figures, stating that the government’s health agency had reduced the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths to just over 9,000. Trump tweeted the false information, which was later taken down by Twitter for violating platform rules.
Of course, it would be easy for a sitting US Senator to see the best evidence available about COVID-19 death rates, and to get advice from experts in public health about such rates.
Condemnation from across the Iowa medical community has been relentless this week in the wake of Sen. Joni Ernst’s suggestion hospitals are inflating the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths for financial gain.
On September 6, 2020, The Hill reported that then Representative
Marshall, who is a doctor, pointed to the theory based on the 6 percent statistic in a Facebook post Sunday.
'This week the CDC quietly updated its COVID-19 data to reflect the number of deaths from COVID-19 only,' he wrote, adding that it was 'only 6%,' according to a screenshot posted by KSNT.
Facebook removed the post, with a spokesperson saying it violated 'our policies against spreading harmful misinformation about COVID-19 since it misstates CDC data about the deadliness of the disease.'
It would appear to be unethical for a physician to deliberately spread such disinformation that might mislead people into thinking that COVID-19 is not a serious problem.
Sen Rand Paul (R-KY) and Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) Claimed Herd Immunity is Beneficial
Dr. Anthony Fauci slammed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during a Senate hearing on the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday when Paul incorrectly claimed that the high number of infections in New York show that lockdowns don’t work, and when Fauci challenged him, noting the current low positive test rate in the state, Paul erroneously said it is lower because of herd immunity.
Fauci said Paul 'misconstrued' what happened in New York, adding that Paul has done so 'repetitively in the past,' and while mistakes were made, the state has gotten its positive test rate to '1% or less' because they’ve followed CDC guidelines—and Fauci accused Paul of “not listening” to what CDC Director Robert Redfield said about the infection rate and not understanding herd immunity.
Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health said Paul 'almost' understands the complex issues of immunity and cross-reactivity and keeps sharing 'nonsense that is largely incorrect,' while 'Dr. Fauci patiently lays out the facts.'
Again, as a Senator Paul could easily get access to the best data and opinions from top experts. Again, Rand Paul is a physician, so it would appear to be unethical for Paul as a physician to be spreading such "nonsense."
Michigan’s top Senate Republican lawmaker says he is in favor of rolling back many of the measures put in place by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration to limit COVID-19 spread and believes 'an element of herd immunity' needs to happen in the state.
In comments to MLive following a rally protesting strict COVID-19 restrictions, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, said he feels Michigan residents understand that COVID-19 is real, contagious and requires precautions.
'I just simply don’t believe we need to continue to have the oppressive mandates that we’ve had,' he said. 'There’s no business that I know of that will put their customers, their employees, their patrons, their families at risk.'
In response, as reported by the Detroit News on October 12, 2020, a group of experts including
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Dr. Thomas File, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America; Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Ashish Jha at the Brown University School of Public Health; and Dr. Carlos Del Rio at Emory University School of Medicine
Wrote a letter
'If 'herd immunity' were to begin after about 80% of the state’s population has been infected, as some believe, then 6.5 million more Michiganders would still need to contract COVID-19,' the experts wrote. 'At the current mortality rate, this would mean more than 30,000 additional deaths — more than four times the number of deaths to date.'
So by promoting "herd immunity" as a public health policy in the absence of a vaccine, these legislators would likely condemn many people to die. Such promotion of herd immunity may approach a crime against humanity, given that the definition of such crimes according to the United Nations includes:
any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.
South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem Said Increased Testing Led to an Apparent Surge in Cases
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday blamed South Dakota’s recent surge in coronavirus cases on an increase in testing, even as the state saw a new high in the number of people hospitalized by the virus.
There are currently no open general-care hospital beds in the southeastern part of the state, which contains the two largest hospitals, according to the Department of Health. Hospitals are dealing with both an increase in COVID-19 patients and people needing other medical care. The hospitals in Sioux Falls do have about 41% of their Intensive Care Units available.
'We have triple the amount of testing that we are doing in the state of South Dakota, which is why we’re seeing elevated positive cases,' Noem said. 'That’s normal, that’s natural, that’s expected.'
The Republican governor did not explain how an increase in hospitalizations would be connected to an increase in testing. The state has also seen one of the nation’s highest positivity rates for testing in the last 14 days, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. The roughly 23% positivity rate is an indication there are more infections than tests are indicating.
Note that Governor Noem again seemed to be employing the appeal from ignorance logical fallacy. Her use of this fallacy to deceive people into thinking that the virus is less prevalent than it is could lead them to neglect reasonable precautions to prevent its spread.
Sen Ron Johnson (R-WI) Claimed Wisconsin had "Flattened the Curve" While Cases were Increasing, and Promoted Hydroxychloroquine as a Treatment of COVID-19
Wisconsin on Wednesday reported a record 48 deaths from the coronavirus and admitted its first patient at a field hospital as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson falsely claimed the state had flattened its curve of COVID-19 deaths.
The Republican from Oshkosh contended the public had been tricked into 'mass hysteria' a day after state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, the chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, maintained there is nothing more the government can do to combat an illness that had killed 1,681 in Wisconsin as of Wednesday.
'Generally deaths are still pretty flat because we've flattened the curve,' Johnson said during a call hosted by business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. 'We've gotten better at treating it.'
He made the comments just hours before the state released figures showing the last seven days were the deadliest of the pandemic, with 173 deaths due to the virus between Oct. 14 and Wednesday.
Health officials don't see the issue the way Johnson does.
'Of course the curve has not flattened and we don't have the virus under control,' said Patrick Remington, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist and director of the preventive medicine residency program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Then, on November 20, 2020, the Journal-Sentinel reported that during a Senate hearing:
held this week by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, about controversial treatments for COVID-19, including hydroxychloroquine — a drug that studies have found to be ineffective and in some cases dangerous when treating the disease.
During the hearing, Johnson pushed a baseless theory that the medical community was working to deny patients drugs such as hydroxychloroquine because they were cheaper than other treatments.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration revoked the emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine in June because of its lack of effectiveness and cited its potential for serious cardiac adverse events and other potential serious side effects.
Dr Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health
later tweeted, 'Today was a very, very odd day.'
He added that 'the hearing was a testament to how politicized science has become.'
'I shared evidence of studies that have failed to find benefit of HCQ,' Jha tweeted. 'Three other witnesses shared personal experiences. And suggested my testimony was reckless because it would deny people access to lifesaving HCQ.'
He added, 'I found myself defending evidence, doctors, and scientists. There are key issues we need Congress to be airing right now. Hydroxychloroquine isn't one of them.'
Once upon a time, politicians usually realized what they did not know about science, health care, and medicine, and so consulted with experts before making pronouncements on such topics. Now they seem not to know what they do not know, and may delight in propagating rank disinformation for political benefit.
So, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, prominent Republican politicians have asserted:
- conspiracy theories about the origins of the pandemic (eg, it came from a Chinese laboratory, Bill Gates was somehow responsible, etc)
- that the case rates and death rates have been exaggerated, partly by "excess testing," or by health care professionals for financial gain, or by others to politically damage President Trump
- that unproven therapies actually can treat the infection
- but that herd immunity without a vaccine can be safely achieved
All were false, and all mirrored similar disinformation spread by President Trump and his associates (look here).
In the US, the pandemic is currently out of control. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are at record levels. A major cause of this disaster is that many people in the US are refusing to follow reasonable public health guidelines, including remaining physically distant from other people as much as is practical, wearing a face covering when such distancing is not possible, and frequent hand washing. Much of this resistance is fueled by ignorance, misleading information, and disinformation. President Trump has been a major source of disinformation, along with his followers and supporters, and with hostile foreign powers and various anonymous sources.
Trump may be on his way out, but his followers seem committed to propagating disinformation. Some of his most influential are Republican politicians, including members of congress, members of state legislatures, and various state and local officials. All of them could easily have access to accurate information and expert opinion the pandemic.
Shame on them for ignoring evidence and logic, and instead spreading disinformation that may be increasing disease, disability, and death.
It is up to all of us to combat such disinformation whenever we can, and call out and condemn its perpetrators. History will not look kindly on them. Meanwhile, there are lives to save.