The misinformation age quickly enveloped the news that President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, had tested positive for COVID-19, as conspiracy theories about the news flourished on social media.
Followers of the extremist conspiracy group QAnon, who have concocted a variety of falsehoods about the roots of the pandemic since it began, scrambled to explain how Trump’s announcement fits into their false premise.
Meanwhile, critics of the president circulated conspiracy theories about the announcement, questioning its legitimacy after years of Trump spreading lies and misinformation about numerous issues, including the coronavirus.
In some cases, Americans are simply wondering how this could happen and seeking out information to make sense of the situation.
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“Conspiracy theorists – but also just Americans who are not conspiracy theorists, because there’s not a lot of information available – will let their imaginations run wild about what is happening here,” said Katy Byron, editor and program manager of journalist nonprofit The Poynter Institute’s MediaWise, a fact-checking group.
“This is when people need to be vigilant and wait to see more information that is confirmed by multiple news outlets,” she added.
Many people aren’t waiting.
The speculative flood of commentary on social media about the president’s positive test illustrates how a desire to explain the news through one’s chosen ideological framework is not exclusive to one particular side of the political aisle, Byron said. It is, in fact, a very human tendency to seek out and promote information that confirms our respective biases about the world, regardless of the facts.
In this particular case, however, the flood of conspiracy theories about Trump’s positive test comes against a mountainous backdrop of misinformation built, in part, by the president himself.
Trump has repeatedly misled the public about the pandemic, having consistently denied or downplayed the science regarding the spread of the coronavirus, questioned the need for masks and promoted bogus cures.
In doing so, he has used Twitter to amplify his message to his more than 86 million followers. He has given a platform to the followers of QAnon by retweeting and praising its adherents.
QAnon is a loosely connected community of believers in a patchwork of baseless conspiracy theories. In promoting their theories, which range widely and include many falsehoods about COVID-19, they have gained steam on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
After Trump’s announcement confirming his positive test, believers in QAnon, which the FBI has deemed a domestic terror threat, sought to decode the wording of his tweet as a sign that the president was poised to arrest former Democratic presidential nominee and Trump rival Hillary Clinton who was falsely accused of involvement in a cabal of satanic Democrats running a secret child-sex trafficking ring.
They suggested, without evidence, that Trump actually doesn’t have the virus at all but was sending a message that he’s about to go on a mission to root out the evil cabal.
“QAnon followers, again, unsurprisingly, don’t believe the diagnosis is real,” said Aoife Gallagher, a disinformation and extremism analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in an email interview. “They are excited about the news as they believe Trump is feigning quarantine in order to bring about ‘The Storm,’ the mass arrest of the ‘deep state cabal,’ the moment Q followers have been waiting on for years now.”
In recent weeks, Facebook and Twitter have announced plans to crack down on QAnon content, but theories promoted by followers of what Gallagher has called a “digital cult” were still readily findable on Friday morning.
But they weren’t the only people circulating conspiracy theories about the situation.
On the left, opponents of Trump suggested in various ways that the president was lying about his diagnosis for the sake of a political gain with about a month to go before Election Day.
Byron, the MediaWise program manager, said she’s particularly concerned that bad actors, such as instigators from Russia and Iran, will use this situation to promote conspiracy theories and provoke tensions for the sole purpose of sowing chaos among Americans.
“This is one of the more rare cases where there’s going to be so much misinformation on both sides of the aisle that the whole country needs to be on high alert if they’re on social media every day,” Byron said.
“When you’re scrolling through social media, if you see something that elicits an emotional response, take a minute and do some fact-checking before you share it.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.