During his presidency, Donald Trump was the single biggest spreader of COVID-19 misinformation online, according to researchers at Cornell University. And he’s back at it again.
On Tuesday the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control took the surprise decision to halt the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine after six women developed “a rare and severe type of blood clot.”
Within hours of the announcement, Trump had issued a statement criticizing the FDA, CDC and the Biden administration for taking the decision.
"The results of this vaccine have been extraordinary, but now it's [sic] reputation will be permanently challenged," Trump said in his statement.
But then rather than urging everyone to get whatever vaccine was available, he concocted a conspiracy suggesting the pausing of the Johnson & Johnson rollout was a political decision.
"[The FDA] should not be able to do such damage for possibly political reasons, or maybe because their friends at Pfizer have suggested it," he said.
That baseless allegation sparked a fresh wave of misinformation about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines spreading rapidly among Trump’s most fervent supporters, who are already part of a cohort where vaccine hesitancy is highest.
Trump’s baseless claim appeared to be plucked out of thin air, but similar theories were already circulating on fringe websites before Trump’s statement was published. One of those places was the /pol/ board on 4chan, home to white supremacism, anti-Semitism and various other types of hate speech, according to analysis by fact-checking group First Draft.
But after Trump boosted the claim that the decision was taken due to political favoritism, the conspiracy theory quickly spread online especially among those already hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, such as Trump’s own supporters.
Vaccine-related searches were dominated by interest in Johnson & Johnson and the possible side effects, according to Google Trends data for Tuesday morning.
On Twitter, many accounts made arguments similar to Trump’s, with one account with 250,000 followers claiming that “It’s almost like they want us to only have the option of taking an mRNA vax...(Moderna and Pfizer)”—a thinly veiled reference to the conspiracy theory that those vaccines contain microchips designed to control vast swaths of the population.
Trump’s claim was also picked up by the Kremlin-run outlet Russia Today, which baselessly claimed that halting the J&J vaccine was linked to a price spike for the Pfizer vaccines being bought by the EU. The story was being shared in anti-lockdown and anti-vax communities online Wednesday morning.
Over on Telegram, one of the biggest QAnon influencers posted a message about Trump’s claim, saying: “I’ve never known POTUS to be proven wrong , although we cant always see the why in his motives.”
Another major QAnon figure criticised media coverage of Trump’s statement, saying the real headline should be “CDC/FDA in cahoots with Pfizer/Moderna.”
Trump has been a vaccine skeptic for more than a decade, going back to a press conference he held at his Mar-a-Lago resort in 2007.
“When I was growing up, autism wasn’t really a factor, and now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic. Everybody has their theory,” he said. “My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’re giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.”
And yet, despite repeated public comments undermining vaccines, Trump got a COVID-19 vaccine in secret in January and his statement on Tuesday appears to endorse the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This duplicity is rankling some of his supporters.
As a result, one rabidly pro-Trump forum online took the unprecedented step of pinning a message to the top of its website saying Trump’s statement was shameful.
But QAnon supporters were able to get around this confusion (they always find a way) by suggesting that Trump’s statement was a sign that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was safe because it was actually just a placebo and Trump of course knows this.