COVID-19 conspiracies get embraced by Trump and right-wing media because reality is painful

Conspiracies spread (and become profitable) when the president says there are no trusted news sources, and so every source becomes potentially trustworthy.
Image: President Trump Returns To White House After Weekend At Bedminster, NJ Resort
President Donald Trump walks off Marine One, on the South Lawn of the White House on July 26, 2020.Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Matt Laslo, journalism professor and reporter

Shut your windows, lock your doors and unplug your Wi-Fi: Conspiracy theories are coming for you. Unlike in the past, though, they’re emanating from the president of the United States himself in the midst of a raging global and disproportionately American pandemic.

The problem caused by having a conspiracy-peddler-in-chief — who during a major public health crisis, promoted a then-unproven and since-debunked potential treatment for the coronavirus as either a "cure" for or prophylactic against COVID-19 and mused on camera about the need to study ingesting commercial disinfectants to cure the infection — is only amplified by some of the new media organizations that birthed his campaign and have since propped his intellectually beleaguered presidency through nearly every falsehood, lie and myth onto which he’s latched.

Of late, some platforms have momentarily woken up and are now trying to stem the tide of conspiracies the president has spread, but others are yet refusing to back down. Sadly, the modern media landscape allows countless conspiracies, falsehoods and lies to be presented to readers in the same way, and with the same gravitas and imprimatur, as facts.

So just as president is pulling at any straw he can find — from "saving" Confederate flags on military bases (that even many Republicans now acknowledge as racist) to sending federal forces into major cities that don’t want them — in search of electoral magic, so too is the right-wing media machine that’s been with him through every offensive, heartbreaking or questionable act of his tenure in the Oval Office.

These power brokers of misinformation know their audience: Donald J. Trump. Access to him (or, at least, the amplifying power of his social media feed) rewards these sites with views from millions of our fellow Americans who still trust him.

Sometimes, though, even that incentive isn't enough to convince some news organizations to betray the fundamental principle of providing factual information to their audience. For instance, over the weekend Sinclair Broadcasting — one of the biggest local television station owners, whose increasingly centralized and conservative leaning "local" news broadcasts are beamed nightly into the living rooms of millions — felt compelled to pull a previously planned airing of a bogus, disgusting and potentially deadly show on coronavirus, during which a so-called expert claimed that the culprit behind COVID-19 is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci (who has become and remained more popular than Trump since the pandemic hit our shores). Suffice it to say, Fauci is not the culprit. And no news organization should be telling their viewers or readers otherwise; thankfully, Sinclair's management realized this before sending it out to be aired on its 191 stations.

Breitbart, however, seemingly felt otherwise and stepped into the breach.

On Monday, a group of doctors calling themselves "America’s Frontline Doctors" — which is connected with the tea party movement — held a news conference they named the "White Coat Summit" on the steps of the Supreme Court to, among other things, call for more doctors to use hydroxychlroroquine on patients (despite the increased risk of death to said patient) and claiming "you don't need a mask.” (You do. You need a mask, according to researchers, scientists, doctors and recommendations from Trump’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Breitbart helped publicize the news conference, promoting the video on their social media channels; Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the video from the same news conference, prompting Twitter to temporarily suspend his account for peddling a falsehood that could lead to the deaths of thousands. And Trump himself retweeted the Breitbart video to his more than 84 millions followers, which prompted Twitter to delete his tweet.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have now all removed the conspiratorial Breitbart video; Breitbart, meanwhile, trumpeted how much traffic it had received and used its removal to hype the idea that social media is biased against conservatives (rather than conspiracy theories).

All of this comes after more than 149,000 Americans have died of COVID-19.

Seemingly, the ability to publicize dangerous conspiracy theories has become a true purity test in various corners of the GOP. But they can no longer claim to be the “pro-life” party with a straight face — if they ever could — while their standard-bearer foments conspiracies that are clearly contributing to the death rates we now see spiking daily.

The disbelief in this verifiably raging pandemic that the former reality TV star has sown into the minds of millions isn’t going away. That’s because Trump keeps tripling down on his denialism, even though millions of Americans (including a growing number of Republicans) wish he would just do the right thing.

But even after Trump leaves the White House — whether in 2021 or 2025 — America will have to wrestle with the fuel he’s lobbed on a fire that seems to both keep him energized and possibly in power: the misleading media machine.

There is more than one problem with being a site that traffics in conspiracy theories these days, and one of them is keeping up with all the conspiracies and the people who traffic in them — witness the masterful look at one of the white coaters by The Daily Beast, which uncovered her background in telling women with gynecological issues that the problems are the result of demon sperm they picked up during sexual dreams.

The problem, of course, is that no matter the debunking, many conspiracy theories have proven profitable to someone — and increasingly so with Trump in the White House. And sadly, since Trump has labeled the media the enemy and fake news, any wacky conspiracy sticks with a portion of the population because if there is no trusted news sources, every source is trustworthy.

But, even as painful as it is for too many of us, today’s reality is real. November, not hydroxychloroquine, is the only real chance for every American to change our nation’s trajectory.