The coronavirus outbreak has spread to nearly a 100,000 people across at least 71 countries, resulting in its first deaths in the United States. But while public health officials rush to contain the virus and inform the public, the pro-Trump media world has been spreading misinformation and downplaying the disease in a fevered attempt to defend the president and his administration.
Trump-aligned media and pundits have variously suggested that the virus is a Democratic hoax, a Chinese bioweapon, an attempt to destabilize the stock market or is no more harmful than the common cold. There is no factual basis for any of these conspiratorial claims, some of which are directly misinforming the public about the dangers of a potentially deadly disease.
Radio host and recent presidential medal of freedom honoree Rush Limbaugh, along with far-right media outlet Gateway Pundit, groundlessly suggested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was overblowing the threat of COVID-19 in an attempt to damage Trump. Their attacks focused on top CDC official Nancy Messonnier, the sister of former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein who oversaw the special counsel investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 election. This family connection ― earlier noticed by QAnon conspiracy supporters ― was enough to baselessly allege Messonnier’s accurate warnings about the virus were attacks on Trump.
But pro-Trump media and officials haven’t settled on one cohesive narrative, instead reaching for anything that deflects from criticism of the administration’s haphazard handling of the virus and falling stock markets to refocus the story on familiar targets. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and pro-Trump sites have pushed a debunked conspiracy that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon, while a GOP congressional candidate went even further to suggest it may involve billionaire George Soros ― a favorite target of anti-Semitic conspiracies and the far-right.
The right-wing coverage of the virus has created a dangerous echo chamber filled with claims that public health officials are not to be trusted and anyone contradicting Trump on the outbreak is a target for derision. It’s exactly the kind of misinformation that experts warn can make it harder to contain the disease and create confusion among the public. And as is often the case, Trump and his top surrogates have embraced the message.
Donald Trump Jr. on Fox and Friends last week accused Democrats of “[trying] to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people, so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning.” Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump Jr.’s comments on Monday, saying he was merely “pushing back” against Democrats.
Trump, who has tried to gut global health budgets and forced out top disease prevention officials, has claimed that the virus is under control in the United States. He has consistently tried to dismiss the severity of the outbreak and claimed at a rally on Friday that Democrats were politicizing the coronavirus as “their new hoax” ― likening it to the impeachment proceedings against him.
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