Donald Trump Is the 'Single Largest Driver' of COVID Misinformation, Study Says

"There are real-world dire health implications," the lead author of the study warned.
October 1, 2020, 4:38pm
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

President Donald Trump was “the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID,” according to the lead author of a new study about coronavirus misinformation in the media.

Mentions of Trump made up nearly 38% of the conversation about misinformation, an analysis of more than 38 million articles published in English-language media between January and May, according to the new study from Cornell’s Alliance for Science.

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As part of those 38 million articles published, more than 1.1 million (or nearly 3%) were about misinformation surrounding the pandemic. In those articles, Trump was mentioned more than 423,000 times, a frequency of 37.9%. Articles about misinformation that “mentioned Trump in the context of misinformation but did not mention a specific other topic at the same time” constituted more than 115,000 articles, or 10.3% of the total.

Cornell Alliance for Science director Sarah Evanega, the lead author of the study, told the New York Times that the role Trump played was the “biggest surprise” of the study. “That’s concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications,” she said.

By far, the most frequently mentioned conspiracies were around so-called “miracle cures,” which constituted over a quarter of the articles, or more than 295,000 articles, about misinformation that were published in traditional media. At various points during the pandemic, Trump has touted the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and at one point suggested people should inject bleach into their bodies.

Other frequently mentioned conspiracies included the idea that Democrats manufactured the pandemic to coincide with Trump’s impeachment (3.6%, or more than 40,000 articles), “Wuhan lab/bioweapon” hoax (2.6%, or nearly 30,000 articles), and the 5G conspiracy (2.1%, more than 23,000 articles), though the study notes much of the coverage of the latter was fact-checking. But while “grassroots” conspiracy theories appeared in the analysis, the study said, “they contributed far less to the overall volume of misinformation than more powerful actors, in particular the U.S. president.”

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The study’s authors also heavily criticized the media’s “outsized role” in spreading that information uncritically, and noted that fact-checks and other corrective pieces made up just 16% of the misinformation discourse.

“By choosing to uncritically report statements and remarks made by influential persons, without necessarily verifying or discounting the accuracy of those claims, they risk unwittingly facilitating the dissemination of misinformation,” the study’s authors wrote. To correct this, they suggested that experts should have “greater prominence” in media coverage, and that misinformation should be corrected within the story itself and not in a separate fact-checking article.

While accidental poisonings spiked earlier this year after Trump’s bleach comments, it’s unknown how many people have died partially as a result of believing misinformation about the pandemic. The risks are dire—it’s been suggested that misinformation contributed to an additional 300,000 deaths in South Africa during the HIV/AIDs outbreak, the researchers said.

“If similar or worse outcomes are to be avoided in the present COVID-19 pandemic, greater efforts will need to be made to combat the infodemic that is already substantially polluting the wider media discourse,” they wrote.

Cover: In this April 17, 2020, file photo Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the coronavirus, as President Donald Trump listens, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)