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For almost a year, conservative voices and publications on the internet have been casting doubt on the severity of Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump echoed those themes of distrust.
The president caused an uproar on Thursday when he contradicted an independent study commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico that revised the Hurricane Maria death toll estimate from 64 to 2,975.
In claiming that “3,000 people did not die,” Trump alleged that the study was “done by the Democrats” to make him look bad. In accusing Puerto Rico’s government of politicizing the study, Trump mirrored the narratives that have pervaded pro-Trump and far-right websites for the past year.
“Democrats Caught Sabotaging Puerto Rico Relief Effort to Blame Trump” read an unsubstantiated headline on the conspiracy-theory website Infowars last October.
Justin Hendrix, executive director at NYC Media Lab, a university consortium focused on media technology, said that Trump’s assertion makes sense within his media ecosystem, even if it’s not true.
“I call it the ‘Trump Validation Network,’” Hendrix said. “It's a house of mirrors, a network of sites and commentators that build a fog of ideas and alternative explanations that validate [their] worldview.”
Other websites have sought to discredit the official data and claim that Democrats and minority groups have unfairly politicized the situation in Puerto Rico. Shortly after the death toll was revised in August, Joel Pollak, senior editor-at-large at the conservative media website Breitbart, wrote that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello “was keen to accept its findings, partly to deflect criticism of his administration’s handling of the hurricane and its aftermath.”
Pollak added that Puerto Rico was “already in financial shambles before the hurricane” and “has struggled to rebuild since the disaster.”
Another Breitbart article from Aug. 20, titled “Left-wing Latinos to Use Hurricane Maria Tragedy as Anti-Trump Midterm Message,” claimed that “leftist Latino advocacy groups” were planning to use the federal government’s disaster response “for [an] anti-Trump campaign.”
Hendrix said far-right websites have provided Trump with narratives he can use to refute legitimate claims.
“Nothing is beneath them, not even erasing any responsibility the administration may have for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people,” Hendrix said.
Trump has previously repeated far-right media coverage about Puerto Rico.
In the wake of the storm last October, Infowars falsely claimed that Puerto Rican truck drivers went on strike shortly after the hurricane and failed to deliver supplies. The Teamsters put out a press release denouncing the hoax, saying “viral stories” were being created to “capitalize on the suffering of millions of citizens in Puerto Rico that are dire need of our help by pushing these false stories.”
The fabricated story was then pushed by the far-right websites Gateway Pundit, Conservative Treehouse and TruthFeed as well as Infowars, and gained traction on Reddit, reaching the front page of its largest pro-Trump community, r/The_Donald.
Trump appeared to refer to the driver-strike hoax days after the stories went viral.
"We need their truck drivers. Their drivers have to start driving trucks. We have to do that. So at a local level, they have to give us more help,” he said at a news conference last Oct. 3.
On Wednesday, just hours before Trump’s tweet, Infowars resurfaced the debunked theory on its website as part of its coverage of Hurricane Florence.
Trump is no stranger to Infowars. In December, Trump praised Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, saying his reputation was “amazing” and adding that “my audience, 90 percent of them, they support you.”