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Misinformation, Speculation Follow Trump COVID-19 Diagnosis


The news that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump contracted the novel coronavirus led to a wave of social media posts spreading misinformation — and politically charged speculation.

Some of posts tapped into baseless conspiracy theories, and others shared outright falsehoods, as we’ll explain.

First, here’s some of what we know about the matter:

  • Trump announced early Oct. 2 on Twitter that he had tested positive for the virus, which causes COVID-19. “Tonight, @FLOTUS  and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!” he wrote shortly before 1 a.m.
  • That announcement followed breaking news by Bloomberg News that a Trump aide, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for the virus. Hicks had been traveling with Trump in recent days.
  • The White House later released a memo from Dr. Sean P. Conley, Trump’s White House physician, dated Oct. 1, which in part said: “This evening I received confirmation that President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
  • White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters that the president was experiencing “mild symptoms.”
  • A subsequent memo from Conley specified that Trump had “PCR-confirmation” — a reference to a standard testing method — and said Trump received a “single 8 gram dose of Regeneron’s polyclonal antibody cocktail” and other medicine. The “President remains fatigued but in good spirits,” Conley said, adding that Melania Trump “remains well with only a mild cough and headache.”
  • Later in the day, the White House announced Trump would go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Speculation, Conspiracy Theories Floated

In the hours immediately following Trump’s announcement, with few other details available, some turned to speculation. Others shared conspiracy theories.

Among the posts to gain traction online were posts suggesting that the president was not actually sick, but using a fabricated diagnosis to benefit his reelection campaign. On the other side, some implied without substantiation that “the left” may have deliberately spread the virus to him.

Neither notion is supported by available evidence.

One popular Facebook post cast doubt on the diagnosis by saying that Trump “needed a ‘reset'” for his campaign and therefore the diagnosis may be a “con.”

Another widely shared post raised the suspicion that the diagnosis may be a bid at “free publicity” and a move to get out of the next debate with his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Asked on Fox News what would happen in terms of the Oct. 15 presidential debate — which falls within the 14-day quarantine window — White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “We haven’t gotten that far just yet.”

On Twitter, DeAnna Lorraine — a far-right candidate who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and launched a failed bid for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s seat — speculated on Twitter that Trump may have been intentionally infected during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29.

Lorraine offered no evidence to support her speculation in her original tweet, which said: “Trump was fine until the debate, where they set up microphones & podiums for him. Incubation period is usually 2-3 days. He tests positive a couple of days after the debate. I put nothing past the left. NOTHING.” She didn’t respond to our request for information.

But the tweet was shared more than 6,000 times within hours of being posted. Lorraine herself later responded to another Twitter user, saying, “Impossible to prove, but something that needs to be in the discussion.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 spreads mostly through respiratory droplets — created when people sneeze, cough or talk. That’s why public health officials recommend wearing masks.

“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes,” according to the CDC. “This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.”

During the debate, though, not everyone in the room was wearing a mask. Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who moderated the event, reported on Oct. 2 that the Trump family didn’t wear masks in the debate hall, while Biden’s supporters did. “There was a difference in the way the two families and their camps treated the health-safety regulations inside the hall,” Wallace said.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones added to the unfounded claims online, suggesting that the test result may be part of a “coup.” In a video address Oct. 2, Jones said that the result may have been a “false positive,” which would allow an adversary in the White House to poison the president’s soda and later say that he suffered from COVID-19.

Jones gave no evidence to support this theory. There is no evidence suggesting that the president’s illness is part of a coup.

But other purveyors of dubious claims echoed the fear of a coup, including a right-wing commentator who goes by Ali Alexander on Twitter. He warned his 126,000 followers that this may be a “second coup.”

Doomsday Plane Claims

A rumor spread across social media claiming that so-called “doomsday planes” were deployed because of Trump’s test result.

They weren’t.

Two E-6B Mercury planes were in flight around the time that Trump announced he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But the flights were pre-planned and the timing was coincidental, Karen Singer, spokeswoman for U.S. Strategic Command, told FactCheck.org in a phone interview. Training flights like those are usually planned a year in advance, Singer said.

The planes, which have various nicknames, can be used as command centers and can launch land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. But that’s not what they were doing at the time.

Bogus Trump Campaign ‘Email’

An image that spread on Twitter early Oct. 2 purported to show an email from the president’s reelection campaign and suggested that the president was immediately using the COVID-19 diagnosis to raise money.

But as we reported, the Trump campaign confirmed to us that the image did not show an actual email from the campaign.

Instead, the image appeared to be a joke.

The bogus email claimed at one point that the goal was to raise “421 million.”

That is the same figure referenced in a New York Times investigation, which found that Trump “appears to be responsible for loans totaling $421 million, most of which is coming due within four years.”

Twisted ‘Hoax’ Remark

Critics of Trump reacted to the diagnosis by revisiting his handling of the pandemic. But some posts shared on social media distorted a statement that Trump made in February to do so.

“The coronavirus. This is their new hoax,” one Facebook meme misleadingly quoted Trump as saying.

Another meme criticizing Trump, posted by the Occupy Democrats page and shared 21,000 times, also repeated the same, faulty quote.

Trump didn’t say “the coronavirus” immediately before “this is their new hoax.” That’s how a Democratic super PAC later twisted the quote, as we wrote in April.

The actual remark dates back to a Trump rally on Feb. 28, when the president referred to Democrats’ “new hoax” after talking about the coronavirus. But, as we’ve explained before, he said the next day that he was describing Democrats’ finding fault with his administration’s response to the virus, not the virus itself.

Here’s a transcript of what he said during the rally:

Trump, Feb. 28: Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that right? Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, “How’s President Trump doing?” They go, “Oh, not good, not good.” They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. They can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes.

One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. 

Trump went on to praise his administration for some travel restrictions the U.S. had implemented. “A virus starts in China, bleeds its way into various countries all around the world, doesn’t spread widely at all in the United States because of the early actions that myself and my administration took against a lot of other wishes,” Trump said, “and the Democrats’ single talking point, and you see it, is that it’s Donald Trump’s fault, right?”

The next day, when asked about his use of the word hoax, Trump said he was “certainly not” referring to the virus itself.

“‘Hoax’ referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job,” he said. “The hoax is on them, not — I’m not talking about what’s happening here; I’m talking what they’re doing. That’s the hoax. That’s just a continuation of the hoax, whether it’s the impeachment hoax or the ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ hoax. This is what I’m talking about. Certainly not referring to this. How could anybody refer to this? This is very serious stuff.”

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here for more.

Sources

Donald Trump Charleston, South Carolina Rally Transcript.” Rev.com. 28 Feb 2020.

Jacobs, Jennifer (@JenniferJJacobs). “NEWS: Hope Hicks, who traveled with Trump aboard Air Force One to and from the presidential debate on Tuesday, and to his Minnesota rally yesterday, has coronavirus, sources tell me.” Twitter. 1 Oct 2020.

Leonhardt, David. “18 Revelations From a Trove of Trump Tax Records.” New York Times. Updated 30 Sep 2020.

Mark Meadows Speaks with Reporters.” C-SPAN. 2 Oct 2020.

McEnany, Kayleigh (@PressSec). “An update from President @realDonaldTrump ‘s physician:.” Twitter. 2 Oct 2020.

Memorandum from the President’s Physician.” White House. 2 Oct 2020.

Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “Tonight, @FLOTUS  and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!” Twitter. 2 Oct 2020.

Olson, Tyler. “Trump party at presidential debate did not wear masks, refused offer from Cleveland Clinic for face coverings.” Fox News. 2 Oct 2020.

Singer, Karen. Spokeswoman, U.S. Strategic Command. Telephone interview. 2 Oct 2020.

Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Conference.” White House. 29 Feb 2020.

Rieder, Rem. “Democratic Ad Twists Trump’s ‘Hoax’ Comment.” FactCheck.org. 14 Apr 2020.

Rieder, Rem. “Trump and the ‘New Hoax.’” FactCheck.org. 3 Mar 2020.