In all the uproar over how tech companies have handled an unsubstantiated article about Hunter Biden from the New York Post, one major company has stood apart: YouTube.
It has said nothing. And what it has done, if anything, remains a mystery.
On Wednesday, the New York Post uploaded a one-minute, 17-second video highlighting the key points of the article to its YouTube channel, which has more than 430,000 subscribers. For most of that day, users who searched for “Hunter Biden” on YouTube saw the video at the top of the site’s “Top News” shelf. As of midday Thursday, the video had 100,000 views — a respectable figure but certainly not the stuff of viral videos.
In recent years, YouTube has made changes to its “recommendation algorithm” for what it calls borderline content — the types of videos that toe the line between what is acceptable on the platform and what it considers to violate its policies. As a result of those changes, YouTube limits such content from being recommended and keeps the videos from appearing prominently in search results or on its home page.
About 36 hours after the video was posted, YouTube said it would remain up without restriction. “Given the information currently available, content about this news story is allowed on YouTube. We will continue to evaluate content against our policies as new details emerge,” said Farshad Shadloo, a YouTube spokesman.
The response from YouTube stood in sharp contrast to the immediate and public reaction from Facebook and Twitter. Facebook said it would limit the distribution of the article on its platform so that third-party fact checkers could verify the claims. Twitter said it was blocking the article because it included people’s personal information, violating its privacy rules, and because the article violated its policy on hacked materials.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to subpoena Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, to testify on Oct. 23 regarding the company’s decision to block the article. Mr. Dorsey, along with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google, are also scheduled to testify on Oct. 28 about Section 230, the law that shields technology companies from being held liable for some of the content published by its users.
While the number of views on the New York Post video remain subdued, videos related to the article have done extremely well. A Fox Business interview with Stephen K. Bannon, a former White House adviser who played a role in the article, got more than 275,000 views. An interview on Fox News with Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, about getting locked out of her Twitter account after sharing the Post story garnered 795,000 views.
This week, President Trump exaggerated a position taken by the World Health Organization, saying that the agency had vindicated his derision of lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right,” the president tweeted. “Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right. Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. Open up your states, Democrat governors. Open up New York. A long battle, but they finally did the right thing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2020
Mr. Trump’s message was rapidly shared by thousands online, including the commentator Lou Dobbs and Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, who echoed the president’s rallying cry to “open up” and described the closings as “pseudoscientific” and “tyrannical.”
Since the early days of the pandemic, the president has dismissed lockdowns as unnecessary and harmful, even while the virus continued to blaze across the nation.
Mr. Trump did not say which W.H.O. statement he was referring to. But one of the few published recent comments from a W.H.O. official about lockdowns came from David Nabarro, one of several envoys to the organization on Covid-19.
“We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus,” Dr. Nabarro said earlier this month to the British magazine The Spectator. “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted. But by and large, we’d rather not do it.”
“We really do appeal to all world leaders, stop using lockdown as your primary method of control,” Dr. Nabarro said.
Dr. Nabarro described several potential tolls of widespread lockdowns, which have set off economic declines and higher unemployment rates, and have widened disparities in many parts of the world, including the United States.
Dr. Nabarro has also noted that lockdowns may be necessary under some circumstances. In addition, he has advocated for a multifaceted approach to curbing the spread of the coronavirus — a strategy he recently outlined in a written reflection that highlighted the importance of physical distancing, mask-wearing, accessible testing and contact tracing, among other measures, to pinpoint and suppress outbreaks.
In a statement, Hedinn Halldorsson, a spokesman for the W.H.O., reaffirmed that the pandemic needed to be addressed with such a “package” of protective tactics.
“W.H.O. has never advocated for national lockdowns as a primary means for controlling the virus,” he said. “Dr. Nabarro was repeating our advice to governments to ‘do it all.’”
Some countries, like New Zealand, used lockdowns to great success to tame their outbreaks. Others, like South Korea, were able to circumvent them by pushing hard on testing. All success stories, however, have one thing in common: swift action to acknowledge and beat back the virus.
Lockdowns are extreme, and inevitably come with costs, said Syra Madad, a public health expert and epidemiologist based in New York. But they can afford communities much-needed time to ready other methods of containment.
“Had the U.S. been better prepared and responded faster,” Dr. Madad said, perhaps “lockdowns could have been avoided.”
Falsehoods about election interference are swirling online, stoking calls for violence on Election Day. The rumors touch on everything from ballot boxes to how the “deep state” — a so-called secret cabal of elites — is involved.
The misinformation is worrying researchers who track such content, and who said the volume of lies online had soared. Some of the individual lies are shared only dozens or hundreds of times each, but added together they have attracted millions of likes and shares across social media and are inflaming an already tense electorate, the researchers said.
Election-related misinformation has “been building up virality, using Facebook pages and groups as fertile ground,” said Fadi Quran, a campaign director at Avaaz, a progressive human rights nonprofit that studied some of the rumors.
Here is a sampling of some of the falsehoods making the rounds online ahead of Election Day.
A Democrat-led Coup
The baseless idea of a Democrat-led coup against President Trump has gained the most traction among election-related rumors about violence, according to Avaaz. A New York Times analysis found at least 938 Facebook groups, 279 Facebook pages, 33 YouTube videos and hundreds of tweets spreading the falsehood, mostly in right-wing circles.
On Sept. 14, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, posted a Facebook video pushing the rumor. It was viewed 2.9 million times.
In a text message, Mr. Bongino said the idea of a Democratic coup was “not a rumor” and that he was busy “exposing LIBERAL violence.”
Some election-related lies are also circulating among left-wing groups. For instance, a left-wing Facebook page called The Other 98% posted in August that mailboxes were being blocked by unknown actors to effectively discourage people from voting. The post with the false claim collected 39,000 likes and comments on the social network and reached 18 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing social media.
In total, voting-by-mail rumors have topped election misinformation this year, according to a September analysis by the media insights company Zignal Labs. Nearly a fourth of all the mentions last month about voting by mail on television, in print and in online news — or 3.1 million mentions — amounted to misinformation, Zignal Labs found.
The Covid ‘Scamdemic’
Another election falsehood spreading on Facebook is the notion that an elite cabal, or “deep state,” was interfering with the vote by inventing the coronavirus pandemic.
One post from August that got 795 likes and comments on Facebook was a meme with the caption, “The Covid scamdemic was devised by the Deep State to promote the use of ballots by mail. This is the way the Democrats can create massive election fraud.”
This lie is representative of how the “deep state” is portrayed online as responsible for all sorts of ills against President Trump. In another rumor, the deep state is bent on destroying ballots voting for Mr. Trump. And the deep state is also represented online as being intent on falsifying votes in favor of Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
A ‘Civil War’ on Election Day
Another widespread rumor is that a “civil war” is being planned and will erupt on Election Day. The baseless idea is showing up on sites like that of Glenn Beck, the former Fox News host and conspiracy theorist, according to a Times analysis. Mr. Beck’s Facebook page, which has three million followers, has also pushed the rumor.
Mr. Beck did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“If Trump wins the election BLM and antifa are going to burn this country down,” said another post on a pro-gun Facebook page, referring to the Black Lives Matter racial justice protesters and antifa, a loose collective of far-left activists. “If Biden wins they come for your freedom and your guns. Either way a War is coming. Are you ready?”
The posts about a looming civil war aim to create an atmosphere of fear so that voters are deterred from voting on Election Day, misinformation experts said.
Facebook on Tuesday said it would no longer allow anti-vaccination ads on its platform, in another reversal of its longtime stance of avoiding being the referee on thorny issues.
Facebook had previously shied away from stepping into debates over public health, even as anti-vaccination content on its site proliferated. But this year, it took a stand against false information related to the coronavirus to prevent public harm. It also has removed vaccine-related hoaxes that were identified by global health organizations.
In its updated policy on Tuesday, Facebook went further. The company said it would no longer permit people or entities to purchase ads that actively discourage people from getting vaccinated, or that portray vaccines as unsafe, useless or use other harmful descriptions.
“Our goal is to help messages about the safety and efficacy of vaccines reach a broad group of people, while prohibiting ads with misinformation that could harm public health efforts,” said Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s head of health initiatives, in a company blog post. “We don’t want these ads on our platform.”
Facebook, which has been under pressure for allowing toxic and harmful misinformation to flow across its site, has lately banned an increasing amount of content. On Monday, the company said that it would no longer accept posts that denied the existence of the Holocaust. Last week, the company expanded a crackdown on the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon and also said that it would suspend political advertising after the Nov. 3 election for an unspecified period of time.
The number of content and ad bans stands out because Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has long said that he is a proponent of free speech and of allowing all types of content to be posted on the social network. Facebook did not address its position on free speech on Tuesday.
Facebook has faced scrutiny for the amount of conspiracy theories and propaganda against vaccinations. Those who are against vaccines have been highly active on Facebook, operating in private Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. Tuesday’s move will not remove user-generated content.
The company also will still allow ads that argue against creating government policies for vaccination, but the entities running those ads will need to be “authorized,” Facebook said. Those ads will include a “paid for” label along with the name of the organization.
Mr. Jin also said Facebook will elevate posts from partners at the World Health Organization and UNICEF to increase immunization rates through public health messaging campaigns.
The social network positioned its policy change as part of the regular re-evaluations of content across the site.
“We regularly refine our approach around ads that are about social issues to capture debates and discussions around sensitive topics happening on Facebook,” Mr. Jin said in the blog post. “Vaccines are no different. While we may narrow enforcement in some areas, we may expand it in others.”
But since the early days of the pandemic, experts have had to fight to combat misinformed rumors that the coronavirus emerged from a lab as part of a sinister scientific project.
Last week, yet another piece of unfounded and misleading prose entered the fray: a study, posted online but not published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, contending that the virus is artificial and an “unrestricted bio-weapon” released by Chinese researchers.
The manuscript also baselessly denounced several parties, including policymakers, scientific journals and even individual researchers, for censoring and criticizing the lab-made hypothesis, accusing them of deliberate obfuscation of fact and “colluding” with the Chinese Communist Party.
Though scientists immediately condemned the study as disreputable and dangerous, it rapidly commanded a storm of social media attention, garnering more than 14,000 likes on Twitter and more than 12,000 retweets and quote-tweets within days of its posting. Shared on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, it reached millions of users, and was covered in at least a dozen articles written in several languages.
The paper’s findings, however, have no basis in science.
“It’s ridiculous and unfounded,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University who criticized the study on Twitter the day it was released. “It’s masquerading as scientific evidence, but really it’s just a dumpster fire.”
The publication is the second in a series from a team led by Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese scientist who released an initial paper on Sept. 14, also not peer-reviewed, asserting that the coronavirus was synthetic. Dr. Yan’s background is a little murky. She left her position as a postdoctoral research fellow at Hong Kong University for undisclosed reasons some time ago, according to a July statement from the institution, and fled to the United States. Both papers list Dr. Yan and her co-authors as affiliated with the Rule of Law Society, a nonprofit whose founders include Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, who has since been charged in an unrelated case of fraud.
“That alone should give people pause,” Dr. Rasmussen said of the team’s connection to Mr. Bannon’s nonprofit.
Dr. Yan and her colleagues did not respond to a request for comment.
Their original paper — known as “the Yan report” — was also seized upon by thousands online and reported on in The New York Post, even though experts rapidly debunked its findings. Researchers called it unscientific and said it ignored the wealth of data pointing to the virus’s natural origins.
Close relatives of the new coronavirus exist in bats. The virus may have moved directly into people from bats, or first jumped into another animal, such as a pangolin, before transitioning into humans. Both scenarios have played out before with other pathogens.
“We have a very good picture of how a virus of this kind could circulate and spill over into human beings,” said Brandon Ogbunu, a disease ecologist at Yale University.
It may take quite some time to pinpoint exactly which animals harbored the virus along this chain of transmission, if scientists ever do at all — inevitably leaving some parts of the virus’s origin story ambiguous. Like many other conspiracy theories, the lab-made hypothesis “exploits the open questions in an ongoing investigation,” Dr. Ogbunu said.
But there is no evidence so far to support a synthetic source for the virus.
Dr. Yan’s Twitter account was suspended in September 2020 for pushing coronavirus disinformation. She shared the “second Yan report” from a second Twitter account, which has gained more than 34,000 followers.
Together, the papers written by Dr. Yan and her colleagues lay out what they identified as abnormalities in the genome sequence of the coronavirus. They suggested that those unusual features indicated that the virus’s genome had been purposefully spliced together and modified, using the genetic material from other viruses — a sort of Frankenstein’s monster pathogen, Dr. Yan told Fox News in September. The cousins of the coronavirus that had been identified in bats, they said, were also fake, human-made constructions, thus supposedly quashing the natural origin hypothesis.
The authors also contended that the coronavirus’s genome had been manipulated by scientists to enhance the virus’s ability to infect human cells and cause disease.
But outside experts have found no validity in either Yan report. The first was “full of contradictory statements and unsound interpretations” of genetic data from viruses, said Kishana Taylor, a virologist at Carnegie Mellon University.
And the second Yan report “was even more unhinged than the first,” said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an author of a response debunking the original Yan report.
The supposedly strange features found in the genomes of the coronavirus and its natural relatives aren’t actually red flags at all, Dr. Ogbunu said. Viruses frequently move between animal hosts, changing their genetic material along the way — sometimes even swapping hunks of their genomes with other viruses. And many of the purported abnormalities in the coronavirus are found in other virus genomes.
The notion that the coronavirus was “designed” to be dangerous is also “just nonsense,” Dr. Ogbunu said. Scientists don’t know enough about viruses to predict which mutations would increase their lethality, let alone engineer these changes into new pathogens in the lab.
Building the coronavirus from such a mishmash of genetic templates, as described by Dr. Yan and her colleagues, would also raise herculean logistical hurdles for even the most dogged scientists. Part of this process would require researchers to laboriously tinker with thousands of individual letters in the alphabet soup that is a virus’s genome — an absurdly inefficient scientific strategy, Dr. Rasmussen said.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Dr. Rasmussen said. “And this is not that.”
President Trump owes a lot of money: hundreds of millions of dollars of it.
Whom he owes it to has been the subject of countless conspiracy theories. Lately, liberals and other social media accounts have been spreading rumors, presented as fact, that he owes it to the Kremlin or Russian oligarchs.
After The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s federal tax returns showed that he had personally guaranteed $421 million of debt, questions about who lent him all this money have reached the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. “It’d be really good to know who the president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, owes money to, because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president’s decisions,” Senator Kamala Harris said at last week’s vice-presidential debate.
The answers are not hard to come by.
According to Mr. Trump’s latest financial disclosure report, filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, he owes at least $135 million to a smattering of small financial institutions such as Ladder Capital. His biggest creditor — to whom Mr. Trump owes well over $300 million — is Deutsche Bank. From 2012 through 2015, the scandal-plagued German bank lent Mr. Trump money for his Doral golf resort in Florida ($125 million), his hotel in Washington ($170 million) and his skyscraper in Chicago (at least $45 million).
Why on earth would Deutsche Bank have lent hundreds of millions to Mr. Trump given his track record of stiffing his lenders, including Deutsche Bank itself?
One conspiracy theory is that Deutsche Bank agreed to make the loans because they were backstopped by Russians — the Kremlin or a state-owned bank or an oligarch. If Mr. Trump were to default, it would be the Russians, not Deutsche Bank, on the hook for the losses.
Another, related claim is that after Deutsche Bank made the loans, it sold chunks of them to Russians. It is common for large loans to be syndicated or securitized — in other words, chopped up and sold to investors. In the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, Deutsche Bank did this with some of its large loans to Mr. Trump.
Under this theory, the president would owe the money to Russians, not the German bank.
There is a certain logic to this. Russians interfered on Mr. Trump’s behalf in the 2016 election. Deutsche Bank is the only mainstream financial institution that’s been consistently willing to do business with Mr. Trump. And Deutsche Bank for decades has had close ties to Russia and has facilitated money laundering for wealthy Russians.
But the theories don’t hold up.
Deutsche Bank didn’t chop up and sell the latest batch of debt — the only portion that is still outstanding, according to bank officials with direct knowledge of the transactions. The loans remain on Deutsche Bank’s books.
It is true that Deutsche Bank was willing to lend to Mr. Trump when few others would. But there is an explanation. To overcome the bank’s wariness, Mr. Trump agreed to personally guarantee most of the debt on all of the loans. That meant that if he defaulted, Deutsche Bank could seize his personal assets, as The Times has previously reported.
The result was that the loans would generate fees and interest payments for Deutsche Bank but would entail little financial risk.
Deutsche Bank remains a vast repository for Mr. Trump’s financial secrets, and the president’s lawyers have spent more than a year fighting against congressional subpoenas for the bank’s records related to Mr. Trump. It is not impossible that evidence will emerge that muddies this picture.
For now, though, it isn’t very complicated.
In 2018, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, famously cited Holocaust deniers in a fumbled attempt to make a point about free speech.
At the time, he said the deniers — those who reject or distort the Holocaust, a genocide in which millions of Jews and others were killed by Nazis and their collaborators during World War II — were a key example of people whom he personally disagreed with. But, he said, he did not think Facebook should censor or remove what they posted “because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”
On Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg announced he was reversing his decision. Facebook, he said, would now ban content that “denies or distorts the Holocaust.”
In announcing the change, Facebook cited a recent survey that found that nearly a quarter of American adults ages 18 to 39 said they believed the Holocaust either was a myth or was exaggerated, or they weren’t sure whether it happened.
“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in his blog post. “Drawing the right lines between what is and isn’t acceptable speech isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.”
Mr. Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that he does not want Facebook to be an arbiter of free speech. The Silicon Valley company has faced plenty of criticism for that stance, including from civil rights groups who have said Facebook has allowed toxic speech and misinformation to flow unchecked on its site. Many have called for Mr. Zuckerberg to rethink his position.
More recently, the social network has become more proactive about removing some content, including banning the QAnon conspiracy movement and taking a stronger line against hate and vigilante groups. Facebook has said it has made some of the changes because QAnon has been linked to real-world harm and vigilante groups have been arrested for violent acts.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it was re-evaluating its stance on free speech.
During the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms to spread disinformation to divide the American electorate. Since then, the social media companies have spent billions of dollars and hired tens of thousands of people to help clean up their act.
But have the platforms really become more sophisticated at handling misinformation?
People are engaging more on Facebook today with news outlets that routinely publish misinformation than they did before the 2016 election, according to new research from the German Marshall Fund Digital, the digital arm of the public policy think tank. The organization, which has a data partnership with the start-up NewsGuard and the social media analytics firm NewsWhip, published its findings on Monday.
In total, Facebook likes, comments and shares of articles from news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods and misleading content roughly tripled from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2020, the group found.
About two thirds of those likes and comments were of articles published by 10 outlets, which the researchers categorized as “false content producers” or “manipulators.” Those news outlets included Palmer Report and The Federalist, according to the research.
The group used ratings from NewsGuard, which ranks news sites based on how they uphold nine journalistic principles, to sort them into “false content producers,” which repeatedly publish provably false content; and “manipulators,” which regularly present unsubstantiated claims or that distort information to make an argument.
“We have these sites that masquerade as news outlets online. They’re allowed to,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of GMF Digital. “It’s infecting our discourse and it’s affecting the long-term health of the democracy.”
Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said that analyzing likes, shares and comments to draw conclusions was “misleading” because the data does not capture what most people see on Facebook. The social network does not make other data, such as the reach of posts, publicly available; engagement data is the only information it provides.
Ms. Kornbluh said Facebook users engaged more with articles from all news outlets this year because the coronavirus pandemic forced people to quarantine indoors. But the growth rate of likes, shares and comments of content from manipulators and false content producers exceeded the interactions that people had with what the researchers called “legitimate journalistic outlets,” such as Reuters, Associated Press and Bloomberg.
Ms. Kornbluh said social media firms face a conundrum because their businesses rely on viral content to bring in users, who they can then show ads to. Tamping down on misinformation “just runs against their economic incentives,” she said.
Here at Daily Distortions, we try to debunk false and misleading information that has gone viral. We also want to give you a sense of how popular that misinformation is, in the overall context of what is being discussed on social media. Each Friday, we will feature a list of the 10 most-engaged stories of the week in the United States, as ranked by NewsWhip, a firm that compiles social media performance data. (NewsWhip tracks the number of reactions, shares and comments each story receives on Facebook, along with shares on Pinterest and by a group of influential users on Twitter.)
The mainstream news cycle this week was dominated by the fallout from President Trump’s Covid-19 hospitalization, the collapse of coronavirus-relief stimulus talks and the debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence.
But on social media, the death of the rocker Eddie Van Halen made more of a splash. So did articles about Mr. Pence’s opposition to abortion and a trolling campaign waged against the Proud Boys, the extremist right-wing group mentioned during last week’s presidential debate, by gay men who flooded the #ProudBoys hashtag with pro-gay posts.
Here is an annotated list of the 10 most-engaged news stories of the past seven days.
1. TMZ: Eddie Van Halen Dead at 65 (3,504,366 interactions)
TMZ broke the news of Mr. Van Halen’s death, after what it described as a battle with lung cancer that went “massively downhill.”
2. NBC News: Trump kills stimulus talks, tweets no deal until ‘after I win’ election (3,069,835 interactions)
Mr. Trump’s decision to end stimulus talks was the second-most-engaged story of the week. He has since backtracked from the position.
3. New York Post: Eddie Van Halen, rock guitar god, dead of throat cancer at 65 (2,150,021 interactions)
4. The Los Angeles Times: Eddie Van Halen, grinning guitar god for a rock generation, dies at 65 (1,791,539 interactions)
5. The Washington Times: Netflix indicted on child porn charges over ‘Cuties’ (1,190,841 interactions)
The controversy surrounding “Cuties,” a documentary that some critics — including believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory — accused of sexualizing underage girls, escalated this week after a grand jury in Tyler County, Texas, charged Netflix with promoting lewdness.
6. CNBC: Mike Pence on Supreme Court nomination and Roe v. Wade: ‘I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it’ (1,112,253 interactions)
Mr. Pence’s comments about Roe v. Wade during the vice-presidential debate went viral after Franklin Graham, a conservative evangelical with an enormous Facebook following, shared them.
7. Variety: Eddie Van Halen Dies at 65 (1,104,550 interactions)
8. Forbes: The Proud Boys Are Furious That Gay Men Have Taken Over #ProudBoys On Twitter (1,097,261 interactions)
A social media movement to troll the Proud Boys with positive depictions of gay men got tons of attention this week, after it was shared by left-wing Facebook accounts including The Other 98% and the Democratic Coalition Against Trump.
9. Rolling Stone: Eddie Van Halen, Hall of Fame Guitarist Who Revolutionized Instrument, Dead at 65 (1,067,982 interactions)
10. The New York Times: ‘We Need to Take Away Children,’ No Matter How Young, Justice Dept. Officials Said (1,042,578 interactions)
The Times’s investigation of top Justice Department officials who pushed for a child separation immigration policy got more than a million interactions after it was shared by popular left-wing accounts including Hillary Clinton, Robert Reich and Bill Maher.
Contracting Covid-19 may have put President Trump in the hospital, jeopardized his re-election campaign, and drawn attention to his administration’s failures to contain the deadly pathogen. But it’s been great for his Facebook page.
For the week that ended Saturday, the president received 27 million reactions, shares and comments on his Facebook posts, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics platform.
That number broke the president’s previous weekly record of 25 million interactions, which came in November 2016, the week he was elected. (Mr. Trump’s highest single-day total was on Election Day that year, when he received 12.3 million interactions.)
The president’s most-engaged post came on Saturday, the day after he was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It was Mr. Trump’s first appearance on social media after his hospitalization, and he claimed his treatment was “going well, I think!” The post received more than three million interactions.
A post by Mr. Trump two days later, in which he told his followers, “don’t be afraid of Covid,” got more than 1.5 million interactions. The post was widely criticized by medical experts for downplaying the risks of the virus, and critics called for it to be taken down from Facebook and Twitter. But neither company took it down, saying it did not pose an immediate threat of physical harm.
Facebook did take down another of the president’s posts, in which he falsely claimed that Covid-19 was less lethal than the flu. Twitter left the same post up, but covered it with a warning that it violated the company’s rules on Covid-19 misinformation.
Mr. Trump responded to that takedown by calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields internet platforms from some lawsuits. The president has repeatedly claimed that Facebook and other social networks are biased against conservatives, despite evidence that right-wing content is some of the highest-performing material on the platforms.
Engagement data doesn’t capture how widely posts are seen in users’ feeds, or whether the reactions to them are positive or negative. But most of the responses to Mr. Trump’s posts appeared to be from well-wishers and people hoping for a speedy recovery. Of the 2.5 million interactions on his Saturday post saying his treatment was “going well,” nearly all were accompanied by the “like,” “heart” or “hug” emoji. (Only 1,200 people reacted with the frowny-face emoji.)
Mr. Trump has been one of Facebook’s most popular accounts for years. But in the months leading up to the election, the engagement on his page has been growing, allowing him to circumvent the mainstream media and turning him into a major broadcaster in his own right. Last month, the president received 87 million Facebook interactions — more than CNN, ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed combined.
Joe Biden, Mr. Trump’s Democratic challenger, also had one of his best-ever weeks of Facebook engagement, with 4.7 million interactions — less than one-fifth of Mr. Trump’s total.
On Wednesday, President Trump portrayed as a miracle “cure” the experimental antibody cocktail he took for his case of Covid-19, which had landed him in Walter Reed National Medical Military Center just days before. Mr. Trump returned to the White House three days after taking the drug.
But the antibody treatment, made by the drug company Regeneron, has not yet been proven effective against the coronavirus by rigorous clinical trials in people.
Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care physician at the University of Virginia, noted that it was not yet possible to tell whether the treatment actually “cured,” or even significantly benefited, the president. Doctors administered it to Mr. Trump alongside other therapies, including an antiviral called remdesivir and a steroid called dexamethasone. The latter is known to provoke a temporary surge in well-being.
“From a scientific standpoint, it makes it extremely hard to figure out what benefit came from which of the three medications,” Dr. Bell said.
Medical experts were also quick to point out that Mr. Trump’s touting of the treatment was at least the third time this year that the president has exaggerated the benefits of an unapproved Covid-19 therapy. He had previously promoted hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma, and on Wednesday advocated making the antibody treatment “free” for anyone who needed it.
Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that researchers attempted to repurpose for use in people with the coronavirus, was repeatedly championed — and taken — by Mr. Trump, despite a lack of evidence that it worked. After granting emergency authorization for use of hydroxychloroquine, the Food and Drug Administration revoked it, citing studies showing that the drug did not help Covid-19 patients and could cause serious side effects in some.
Convalescent plasma is the antibody-rich portion of blood donated by people who have recovered from Covid-19. Mr. Trump pressured the F.D.A. to give the treatment emergency approval in August, even though there was no strong evidence that it benefited sick patients.
Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine physician at Brown University, said that the endless cycle of talking up new treatments — many of which might not pan out — could erode public trust in science and medicine.
“It’s like the boy who cried wolf,” she said. “It’s going to make it more difficult to get the real changers.”
Experts think monoclonal antibodies, like the cocktail taken by Mr. Trump, could fare better than hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma.
The treatment is “super promising, and all of us are excited from a theoretical perspective,” Dr. Ranney said. “But it’s just too early,” she added, to tell if theory will translate into practice.
Monoclonal antibodies are synthetic, mass-produced mimics of the molecules the human body produces in response to an infection. Some antibodies are powerful enough to block the coronavirus from infiltrating cells. Administered to people battling the coronavirus, the monoclonal antibodies could help naturally produced immune molecules fend off the virus.
Just days before Mr. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus and was admitted to the hospital, Regeneron announced a batch of preliminary results, collected from ongoing trials, via news release. They suggested Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail could tamp down the amount of virus found in the nasal cavity, and hasten recovery in people who had contracted the virus but hadn’t been hospitalized.
On Wednesday evening, Regeneron announced it was seeking an emergency approval from the F.D.A. for its antibody cocktail.
The data so far for monoclonal antibodies looks “very promising,” said Dr. Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco. But it’s crucial, she added, to let the trials run to completion to fully assess safety and efficacy. Unanticipated side effects could crop up, or the treatment might not perform as well in certain people as it does in others.
Mr. Trump’s allusions to making monoclonal antibodies “free” for widespread use are also probably off base. Monoclonal antibodies are expensive and difficult to produce in large quantities. Regeneron estimated that it would initially have enough doses for only 50,000 people, though the company plans to scale up production in coming months.
What’s cheaper, Dr. Ranney said, are the many preventive strategies available to keep the virus from infecting people in the first place, such as masks and physical distancing: “How about we focus on that?”
QAnon followers were speculating on Tuesday night that Facebook’s new ban on all QAnon groups and pages was part of a complex plan by the Trump administration to root out the “deep state” and arrest their enemies. Or the social media company was trying to squelch the impending news that President Trump was about to crack down on his foes.
QAnon believers were making both arguments. Neither was true.
Earlier on Tuesday, Facebook announced it would remove any group, page or Instagram account associated with the QAnon conspiracy. Within 24 hours, hundreds of groups had disappeared, many of them with hundreds of thousands of followers.
After the ban, QAnon believers began to speculate on Twitter and other social media platforms that Facebook’s move was a sign that the moment they had predicted — Mr. Trump reveals his long fight with satanic pedophiles — had finally arrived.
One tweet, which was liked nearly 1,000 times, linked to an announcement by the Justice Department of a news conference Wednesday morning on a matter of “national security.” The tweet claimed the Justice Department was preparing charges against a number of senior Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.
Similar tweets by QAnon believers said the news conference would have even bigger news, including an appearance by Mr. Trump to announce that he had arrested hundreds of members of a shadowy group that QAnon believers falsely claim are secretly running a satanic cabal. Many of those tweets were also shared and liked hundreds of times.
The Justice Department’s news conference on Wednesday detailed the investigation and arrest of several members of the Islamic State terrorist organization. There was no mention of the satanic cabal that QAnon followers claim Mr. Trump is battling.
But after the conference ended, QAnon adherents still maintained the Justice Department would deliver on the sprawling conspiracy theory that their members have spun over years.
Researchers who study QAnon said it was typical of the group to incorporate new conspiracies into their narrative to account for inaccurate predictions. Travis View, a host of “QAnon Anonymous,” a podcast that seeks to explain the movement, said the group was already rallying around the idea that a surprise was coming in October or November.
Conspiracy theories, Mr. View said, have a way of continuing to live on, even after being repeatedly proven false.
Mere hours after defiantly advising Americans not to fear the coronavirus or let it “dominate your life,” President Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday morning with misleading comparisons of Covid-19 to the flu.
“Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Are we going to let it close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”
Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 6, 2020
But his comparisons of Covid-19 and the flu stand in sharp contrast to months of data gathered by experts, who have repeatedly said that the coronavirus poses a far more serious threat than influenza viruses. Based on data gathered thus far, most flu viruses are less deadly and less contagious than the coronavirus. And while flu vaccines and federally approved treatments for the flu exist, no such products have been fully cleared by governing bodies for use against the coronavirus.
Twitter appended a note to Mr. Trump’s tweet, saying that it violated the company’s rules about spreading false and misleading information about the virus. But it kept the post up, saying that it was in the public interest to keep it accessible. Facebook removed a similar post from Mr. Trump, saying that the company removes incorrect information about the coronavirus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 24,000 and 62,000 flu-related deaths occur in the United States each year — substantially fewer than Mr. Trump claimed. In February, Mr. Trump stuck closer to the facts at a White House news conference. “The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me,” he said at the time. Earlier that month, according to the recent book by Bob Woodward, Mr. Trump described the coronavirus as “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” On average, seasonal flu strains kill about 0.1 percent of the people they infect.
The coronavirus, on the other hand, has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States, and more than one million worldwide, since the start of 2020. The virus’s true mortality rate remains unclear, as it is difficult to gather such data while the pandemic rages on. Inadequate testing has also made it hard to pinpoint how many people have been stricken by the virus, which can spread silently from people who never show symptoms.
Still, estimates from experts tend to put the coronavirus’s death rate higher than the flu’s. The virus’s death toll was especially high in late winter and spring, when hospitals were overwhelmed, clinically tested treatments were scarce and masking and distancing were even more scarce than they are now.
“This is basically nonsensical ranting and raving,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, said about Mr. Trump’s statements. “This just demonstrates that, for a businessman, President Trump doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp of mathematics.”
Frequent encounters with past flu strains, in combination with effective vaccines, can also bolster the body’s defenses against new flu viruses. The coronavirus, however, has swept through a defenseless population of unprepared hosts at a dizzying rate.
Deaths also don’t reveal the entire picture. Researchers still don’t fully understand the long-term consequences of coronavirus infections, which have saddled a growing number of people, called long-haulers, with serious and debilitating symptoms that can linger for weeks or months.
Medical experts have also warned that as the northern hemisphere cools for winter, the flu and Covid-19 could collide, fueling a new spate of deaths.
Mr. Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week, has downplayed the severity of the pathogen several times in recent days, even though he was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for Covid-19. While at the hospital, he received several therapies typically designated only for those who are very seriously ill.
Facebook and Twitter have pledged to keep their networks safe from misinformation about the coronavirus to protect the public’s health. But on Monday, the sites were tested when President Trump posted that people should not be afraid of the disease.
“Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Mr. Trump wrote on his Facebook and Twitter pages, saying he would be discharged from the Walter Reed military hospital after being treated there for Covid-19 the last few days. “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2020
Medical experts immediately took issue with the post. More than 200,000 Americans have died from the virus, and more than 35 million cases have been reported around the world. Dr. Bob Wachter, the chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said Mr. Trump’s tweet was “breathtakingly callous, inhumane & counterproductive.” Dr. Bernard P. Chang of Columbia University’s department of emergency medicine warned that people should remain afraid of the virus.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid.” Are you kidding me? After 210,000 deaths in the U.S. & 1 million deaths worldwide? This either shows a breathtakingly callous, inhumane & counterproductive attitude, or he has altered mental status – in which case the 25th Amendment should be invoked. pic.twitter.com/KjmQRdQkU1
— Bob Wachter (@Bob_Wachter) October 5, 2020
As a frontline clinician: it’s encouraging to see individual patients begin to get better. I wish him a speedy/safe recovery.
But as a clinician-scientist: Don’t practice medicine by one-off anecdotes. Practice by data. And with over 210,000 souls lost, I’d remain VERY afraid. https://t.co/t55d0cWQc9
— Bernard P. Chang MD PhD (@bernardchangMD) October 5, 2020
But Facebook and Twitter did nothing about Mr. Trump’s post, even though the companies have publicized their coronavirus misinformation policies.
Facebook has said it does not allow coronavirus posts that can lead to direct physical harm, and will redirect people to a Covid-19 information center. Twitter also removes only posts that contain demonstrably false information with the “highest likelihood of leading to physical harm.”
For Facebook and Twitter, these details matter. They are paying close attention to whether or not Mr. Trump is giving a specific direction or command to engage in an activity that could immediately put people in danger. When he suggested in April that experts look into whether people could inject disinfectant to fight off the coronavirus, Facebook and Twitter used the same yardstick and took no action to remove clips and posts about the unproven treatment.
Mr. Trump and his director of social media, Dan Scavino, have hewed closely to the line of what is allowed on various social media accounts over the past four years, seemingly pushing the envelope as far as possible without inciting the tech companies to take punitive action.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. A Twitter spokesman said the tweet did not violate the company’s rules since it did not include a clear call to action that could potentially cause real-world harm.
By Monday evening, Mr. Trump’s tweet and Facebook post on Covid-19 had been viewed by more than one million people across both networks. Mr. Trump later posted a video reiterating that people should not let the virus dominate their lives. “Get out there,” he said. “The vaccines are coming momentarily.”
President Trump’s decision to drive by well-wishers outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday was widely criticized by medical experts as irresponsible for unnecessarily exposing Secret Service agents inside the vehicle to the virus.
“By taking a joy ride outside Walter Reed the president is placing his Secret Service detail at grave risk,” tweeted Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University. “This is the height of irresponsibility.”
Yet many far-right commenters called it something else: a miracle. They said it was evidence that the president was overcoming his illness from the coronavirus.
The Gateway Pundit, a website notorious for regularly spreading misinformation and falsehoods, published an article calling Mr. Trump’s drive-by to greet fans a “miracle in Maryland.”
“I believe in miracles,” said another tweet on Sunday afternoon, after Mr. Trump’s doctor said he could return to the White House as early as Monday. “We are going to see another one in November!”
Others reposted and repeated Mr. Trump’s own words in a video he released on Saturday that his hospitalization and process of recovery constituted a “miracle from God coming down.”
Alex Plitsas, the vice chairman of the Fairfield Republican Town Committee in Connecticut and a onetime contributor to the conservative news and opinion site The Daily Caller, said the people criticizing Mr. Trump’s trip past supporters on Sunday were hypocritical. He said that they advocated wearing masks to stop the spread of the virus, but that when Mr. Trump wore one they said that was not enough to please them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization say face coverings are a safeguard but not an absolute guarantee of stopping transmission — especially in a small, sealed space like a vehicle occupied by a person known to be infected, as was the case on Sunday.
Mr. Plitsas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Greg Price, another contributor to The Daily Caller, said the Secret Service agents accompanying Mr. Trump during the drive-by had always been at risk because they have been around the president during his bout of illness.
Secret Service agents have been within spitting distance of President Trump the whole weekend, but apparently they were never in danger until he decided to wave at his supporters.
— Greg Price (@greg_price11) October 4, 2020
“The point of my tweet was that the safety of the agents didn’t become a big story until President Trump did the drive by,” Mr. Price said in a direct message on Monday.
Dr. James Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed, said the specific situation of being in a sealed vehicle increased the agents’ risk. “Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack,” he tweeted. He added that the risk of Covid-19 transmission was “as high as it gets outside of medical procedures.”
Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential “drive-by” just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.
— James P. Phillips, MD (@DrPhillipsMD) October 4, 2020
The C.D.C. says cloth face coverings help prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading Covid-19 to others, but it doesn’t say wearing a mask fully prevents the spread of the virus. The drive angered some members of the Secret Service, The Washington Post reported.
“Many of the statements that are being pushed by Trump’s supporters have been debunked by medical experts, but at this time, no one is being rational,” said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, an organization that fights online disinformation. “These tweets and the online conversation is not about science or expertise, it’s about emotions and partisanship.”
President Trump’s announcement on Friday that he tested positive for the coronavirus has reignited an online fervor over hydroxychloroquine, a drug repeatedly promoted and taken by Mr. Trump despite a lack of evidence that it effectively treats or prevents Covid-19.
Advocates of the drug have taken to Twitter and Facebook over the past few days to recommend hydroxychloroquine as a course of treatment for Mr. Trump. Among them was Representative Andy Biggs, a Republican of Arizona. On Friday, Mr. Biggs passed on his well wishes to the president on Twitter before encouraging him and the first lady, Melania Trump, who also contracted the coronavirus, “to take hydroxychloroquine to assist with their recoveries.”
I encourage them to take hydroxychloroquine to assist with their recoveries, & I am confident that they will be resuming their normal routines in the very near future. pic.twitter.com/LFxIWwvjo5
— Rep Andy Biggs (@RepAndyBiggsAZ) October 2, 2020
Over the weekend, other Twitter users also posted that Mr. Trump should use hydroxychloroquine, with some calling it a “miracle drug.” The hashtag #hydroxychloroquine popped up frequently on Twitter, with others posting under the hashtag #HCQWORKS.
All of the online activity means it’s a good time to sort through what we know about hydroxychloroquine.
The drug has long been used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. At the start of the pandemic, a handful of small, poorly designed studies suggested that it could block the coronavirus from replicating in cells.
Since then, the data on hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness against the virus has been mixed. The early, seemingly promising results, bolstered by political pressure, prompted the Food and Drug Administration to grant the drug an emergency authorization for use in very sick Covid-19 patients. Follow-up studies, however, found the drug neither sped recovery nor prevented healthy people from contracting the coronavirus or progressing to serious disease.
The F.D.A. ultimately revoked its emergency approval. The agency now warns that hydroxychloroquine can cause dangerous abnormalities in heart rhythm in coronavirus patients. Researchers have also conducted large reviews concluding that hydroxychloroquine does not benefit Covid-19 patients, and have reaffirmed the risks of side effects in these individuals.
Still, the drug has been championed by some — including President Trump, who praised it through the summer.
So what treatment is Mr. Trump, who has been hospitalized at Walter Reed military hospital, actually receiving?
His doctor, Sean P. Conley, has said Mr. Trump had received an infusion of an experimental antibody treatment developed by drug maker Regeneron, and was also taking zinc, vitamin D, melatonin, aspirin and a generic version of the heartburn treatment Pepcid. Dr. Conley has also said the president has begun a five-day course of remdesivir, an antiviral drug given emergency use authorization from the F.D.A. to treat hospitalized Covid-19 patients. And on Sunday, Dr. Conley said Mr. Trump had been given the steroid dexamethasone, which has been shown to help patients who are severely ill with Covid-19 but can be harmful for patients with mild or moderate cases of the disease.
Hydroxychloroquine was not mentioned by Mr. Trump’s medical team. That prompted some on Twitter to speak out on what they saw as an omission in his treatment.
Here at Daily Distortions, we try to debunk false and misleading information that has gone viral. We also want to give you a sense of how popular that misinformation is, in the overall context of what is being discussed on social media. Each Friday, we will feature a list of the 10 most-engaged stories of the week in the United States, as ranked by NewsWhip, a firm that compiles social media performance data. (NewsWhip tracks the number of reactions, shares and comments each story receives on Facebook, along with shares on Pinterest and by a group of influential users on Twitter.)
In the past week, two major political stories — about President Trump’s taxes, and the first presidential debate on Tuesday — dominated social media feeds. But there was plenty of other news making the rounds online, including stories about Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court nominee, and the economic toll of the coronavirus.
Here is an annotated list of the 10 most-engaged news stories of the past seven days. (Note: this week’s list captures data from Friday, Sept. 25 at 9 a.m. Eastern time until Friday, Oct. 2 at 9 a.m. Eastern time. It captures only the first several hours of data on articles about President Trump testing positive for Covid-19, which was revealed early Friday morning.)
1. The New York Times: Trump’s Taxes Show Chronic Losses and Years of Income Tax Avoidance (5,730,782 interactions)
The Times’s big scoop about Mr. Trump’s taxes led the pack this week, with more than five million interactions, making it the paper’s most-engaged article of the year.
2. Fox News: Trump announces Amy Coney Barrett as nominee for Supreme Court seat (1,315,885 interactions)
3. The Daily Wire: Chris Wallace Faces Intense Backlash, Including From Colleagues, Over Bias During Debate (1,176,793 interactions)
Right-wing websites like The Daily Wire took aim at Mr. Wallace after Tuesday’s debate. This article, which aggregated tweets from right-wing commentators, struck a nerve among Trump supporters who felt that the president had been unfairly treated by the Fox News anchor.
4. Fox News: Trump $500B Black America plan designates KKK, Antifa as ‘terrorist organizations’ (1,169,050 interactions)
Another Fox News story, this one about President Trump’s recent announcement that he would propose designating the Ku Klux Klan and antifa “terrorist organizations.” (Legal experts have said that the proposal is largely symbolic, and that there was no legal authority for labeling a domestic group this way.)
5. NBC News: Proud Boys say they are ‘standing down and standing by’ after Trump’s debate callout (1,156,849 interactions)
After Mr. Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, to “stand back and stand by” during Tuesday’s debate, the group’s supporters adopted the president’s remarks as a rallying cry. (Note: NBC’s original headline misstated Mr. Trump’s comment.)
6. The Washington Post: The pandemic pushes hundreds of millions of people toward starvation and poverty (1,054,643 interactions)
UNICEF was the top sharer of this Washington Post analysis, which concluded that when it comes to the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, “the gloom is only deepening.” (Note: UNICEF’s Facebook posts receive an additional boost from the platform’s Covid-19 info panels.)
7. The Blaze: President Trump tweets that he and the first lady have tested positive for coronavirus (891,140 interactions)
8. CNN: New York Times: Trump paid no income taxes in 10 of past 15 years (825,737 interactions)
9. The Daily Wire: John Legend: I Might Leave America If Trump Remains President. Uh-Huh. Legend Just Bought $17.5M Beverly Hills Mansion. (804,617 interactions)
Days before Mr. Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, announced that they had lost their child after pregnancy complications, The Daily Wire got more than 800,000 interactions on an article calling attention to Mr. Legend’s saying that he would consider leaving America if Mr. Trump were re-elected.
10. Variety: BTS: See Every Variety Cover (795,837 interactions)
The 10th most-engaged story of the week was a roundup of magazine covers featuring BTS, the K-pop supergroup. Never underestimate a K-pop supergroup.
President Trump’s announcement on Friday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus set off a wave of tweets and Facebook posts with a common refrain, especially on the left: Why should we believe him?
There was no evidence that Mr. Trump was lying. But overnight, hundreds of tweets were posted casting doubt on whether the president contracted the coronavirus.
The White House has given multiple statements confirming Mr. Trump’s condition. His physician confirmed the positive test result, and Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, said that Mr. Trump had mild symptoms of Covid-19.
The tweets questioning Mr. Trump’s announcement peaked at five per minute on Friday morning according to Dataminr, a social media monitoring service. The doubters included Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and Anand Giridharadas, editor at large of Time and an occasional contributor to The New York Times.
Some suggested that the announcement from the president could be an excuse to delay the election, since he is trailing in the polls, and cancel future presidential debates.
trump pretending to have covid so he doesn’t have to do the next debate
— chet porter (@chetporter) October 2, 2020
Some of the people doubting Mr. Trump said they couldn’t believe him because of how much false and misleading information he has spread about the virus in the past.
I’m not saying I think Trump is lying. I’m not saying I think he’s not lying. I’m just saying he lies all the time about everything, especially coronavirus, and it probably makes sense to say “Trump SAYS HE tested positive” instead of taking this liar at his word like this pic.twitter.com/W1DBq2MIhs
— Matt Negrin, HOST OF HARDBALL AT 7PM ON MSNBC (@MattNegrin) October 2, 2020
Researchers at Cornell University published a study this week showing that Mr. Trump was the single largest driver of false and misleading information about the coronavirus. Mentions of Mr. Trump made up nearly 38 percent of the overall “misinformation conversation,” the researchers said.
Mr. Trump has also stated on at least 34 separate occasions since February that the coronavirus would go away.
“We’re in an environment where conspiracies are thriving, in part because the president encourages them,” said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation. “And we have a White House comms operation that gives the press and public disinformation constantly.”
The situation has created “the perfect storm for people to assume that the White House isn’t being truthful,” Ms. Ryan said.
Many of the deniers also latched on to a tweet from Sept. 18 that had originally been shared in conspiracy circles, but was reshared widely on Facebook and Twitter after Mr. Trump’s announcement on Friday. “Trump’s October surprise will be the announcement of ‘his infection,’” it said. “Fake, but quite dramatic.” The post collected nearly 15,000 interactions across Facebook and Twitter, mostly from people who falsely asserted that Mr. Trump catching the virus was a known plan.
And some saw people’s reactions to the announcement as a reflection of the sheer magnitude of misinformation that has emanated from the president.
Trump has made conspiracy theorists of us all. 🕵🏼♀️
— Ashley Mayer (@ashleymayer) October 2, 2020
After Tuesday’s chaotic presidential debate, in which President Trump repeatedly ignored the ground rules, his supporters turned their anger on Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who served as the debate’s moderator, accusing him of being biased against the president.
Posts attacking Mr. Wallace dominated conservative social media on Wednesday and Thursday. One meme, which got more than a million interactions on Facebook after the president shared it, depicted Mr. Trump taking on both Mr. Wallace and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, in a Street Fighter-style two-on-one brawl.
Another meme, shared by the conservative influencers the Hodgetwins, depicted Mr. Wallace as Mr. Biden’s knight in shining armor.
Other conservatives tried to paint Mr. Wallace as a Trump hater in disguise, pointing out that he is a registered Democrat. This is true. Mr. Wallace has described himself as “independent,” and has said he registered as a Democrat because “where I live, in Washington, D.C., the only elections that count are the Democratic primaries.”
But other claims about Mr. Wallace were not true, such as a rumor that circulated on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, that claimed he was “fired” from moderating any future debates. Some users also shared an image that was falsely labeled as showing Mr. Wallace with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and accused sex trafficker. (The photo actually showed Mr. Wallace with the actor George Clooney, a vocal liberal with whom he is friendly.)
The right-wing attacks have not stopped at Mr. Wallace. Conservatives have also begun casting doubts about the fairness of the second presidential debate, which is scheduled for Oct. 15 and is slated to be moderated by Steve Scully, a longtime C-SPAN political editor and host.
One right-wing meme accused Mr. Scully of being connected to the “deep state.” Other conservatives referred to him as a former Biden intern, or said he and Mr. Biden had gone to college together. (They did not go to college together, although Mr. Scully did intern with Mr. Biden’s Senate office while an undergraduate at American University. He also was an intern for Senator Edward M. Kennedy.)
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, called the choice of moderator “NUTS,” and proposed having future debates moderated by teams of one Republican and one Democrat.
1/x Everyone agrees Tuesday’s debate was a train wreck. A major contributing fact was the moderator Chris Wallace, a registered Democrat, repeatedly interrupting to try to help Joe Biden. The next debate is set to be moderated by a former intern to…Joe Biden. (And Ted Kennedy.)
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 1, 2020
Pro-Trump partisans also began digging for evidence that the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan organization that sponsors the debates, was biased against Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump has complained about the commission in the past, calling it “very biased” and saying it is “stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers.” (The group’s leadership consists of both Democrats and Republicans.)
Those claims have been renewed after Tuesday’s debate. On Thursday, supporters of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, began posting unfounded rumors about members of the debate commission, and pointing out that President Barack Obama is an honorary co-chair. (He is, as are former presidents from both parties, including George W. Bush.) Q, the pseudonymous message board poster whose posts fuel the theory, also weighed in, calling the commission’s choice of Mr. Scully as a debate moderator evidence of a “rigged system.”
It’s no surprise that people pushing anti-mask arguments popped up online around the time the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March and April.
But here is what might surprise you: The audience for misleading anti-mask posts on Facebook has grown sharply in the last eight weeks, despite the growing evidence that masks can help prevent the spread of the virus.
The number of people who have joined anti-mask Facebook groups has grown 1,800 percent, to more than 43,000 users, since the beginning of August, according to an analysis of data provided by Crowdtangle, a media tool that Facebook owns. Almost half of the 29 antimask groups discovered by The New York Times were created in the last three months, with names like “Mask off Michigan” and “Mask Free America Coalition.”