U.S. President Donald Trump is a superspreader of both disinformation and COVID-19. It is now widely understood that the event nominating Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court was a superspreader event that has infected dozens of people including members of the white house and the Senate. Polls show that with a month to go before the election Trump trails Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden by 16 points. Biden leads trump in every category except mendacity. Research out of Cornell University indicates that Trump is the leading superspreader of misinformation.
Researchers analyzed 38 million coronavirus related English-language articles and found that Trump is responsible for 38 percent of online covid misinformation. As reported in the New York Times, Sarah Evanega, the director of the Cornell Alliance for Science and the Cornell study’s lead author, said Trump’s comportment is, “concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications.”
Trump handling of the pandemic has been a disaster. He initially described the pandemic as a hoax the same way he dismisses the climate crisis. He then played it down, something he continues to do to this day even though the Woodward tapes prove he has known it is deadly for months. Trump’s failure to manage the pandemic includes deriding efforts to adopt science based protective measures.
Rather than support actions like social distancing and mask wearing, Trump has advanced a range of fake “miracle cures” including hydroxychloriquine, disinfectants and ultraviolet light. Sadly many people believe him even if he does not believe himself. While was in the hospital he did not take his own advice instead he listened to medical experts and took therapeutics that the average Americans do not have access to. Thanks to Trump’s assaults on Obamacare many Americans do not have access to basic health care let alone advanced therapeutics.
Alongside his racism and his opposition to science, Trump’s conspiracy theories have defined his presidency. In advance of what is looking like a resounding electoral defeat, Trump’s most recent conspiracy theory involves the baseless claim that mail in voting is fraught with fraud.
We have no reason to believe that Trump’s covid diagnosis will cause him to pivot towards the facts. After he was informed that he had contracted the virus he continued to meet with people. When he was in the hospital he flouted CDC guidelines by getting into a vehicle with others to salute his supporters in a Lafayette square style public relations ploy. Trump’s conduct has earned disapprobation from doctors, public health experts and the secret service.
After leaving the hospital Trump returned to the White House bringing the virus with him. He then proceeded to stage another bizarre photo-op removing his mask and striking a Mussolini style pose telling people not to be afraid of the virus. He has shown a callous disregard for the 211,000 Americans who have died from the virus and the 200,000 more that are expected to die by the end of the year. Not to mention the more than 7 million Americans who have been infected, many of whom are or will experience lingering aftereffects.
The United States has the highest death toll of any nation on Earth and this is in large measure due to the president’s failure to manage the crisis and his persistent disinformation. Trump’s cuts to environmental protections endangers the health of Americans and a May report out of Columbia University said the president was directly responsible for 36,000 coronavirus related deaths. An August study from the University of Washington School of Medicine indicates that 70,000 people could be saved if the president were to actively support mask wearing. All of these things together have led Carl Bernstein to describe Trump as a “homicidally negligent“.
Assaults on facts and reality not only jeopardize people’s lives they also threaten critical institutions. The system is being gamed by those who seek to subvert democracy. As demonstrated in 2016 State actors like Russia employ sophisticated cyberattacks that undermine democratic institutions and exacerbate divisions. While divide and conquer strategies are as old as civilization, the use of artificial intelligence in social media (sometimes called computational propaganda) has amplified disinformation efforts and opened the way for miscreants like Trump. These efforts continue to this day, but what makes it far more dangerous is the fact that the primary locus of disinformation resides in the White House.
Fox news has also helped to reinforce the convictions of those who have fallen victim to this president’s spin. This is the first time in history that a president has the fact-bending support of a major media network. The combination of these forces has succeeded in increasing tribalism and xenophobia by undermining individual responsibility and rationality.
When taken as a whole it is hard not to conclude that Trump has made everything worse. Now more than ever we need to be clear-eyed about the need to reject this failed president not only for posterity but as a bulwark against his attempt to subvert democracy in 2020. Covid can be a paradigm changing tipping point and increasing interest in the facts give us reason to believe that America has reached an inflection point that will see voters hold this president accountable.
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Gaming the System: Social Media Undermines Climate Action and Threatens Democracy