When I asked public health experts how the United States had reached 200,000 coronavirus deaths, several of them cited the misinformation coming from the White House and President Donald Trump himself.
The president has questioned the efficacy of masks, hyped unproven treatments, and continues to promise a vaccine before experts and the drug companies themselves believe it will actually be ready. That lack of clear and accurate communication has now extended to Trump’s own Covid-19 diagnosis, with his doctors seemingly obfuscating the details of the president’s condition. They have outright acknowledged downplaying the seriousness of his symptoms, and the treatment Trump is receiving does not entirely comport with the sunny prognosis advanced by the White House.
The effect of all of these communications failures is diffuse and uncertain. But we do know this much, according to new Cornell University research: The president of the United States was the loudest megaphone for Covid-19 misinformation during the first few months of the pandemic.
The researchers examined more than 1.1 million English-language articles published between January 1 and May 26 in traditional media outlets (retrieved through LexisNexis) that included some Covid-19 misinformation. They represented about 3 percent of the 38 million total articles published about the pandemic in that time.
Of those million-plus articles with misinformation, about 38 percent of them featured Donald Trump and some specific kind of misleading claim of which the president is fond, or a general reference to his penchant for spreading false information.
Trump’s influence is not just reflected in the amount of misleading information, but also the content of it — even if he wasn’t directly the source. Of the various types of misinformation identified by the Cornell study, “miracle cures” are by far the most common. The president has touted, without evidence, the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and said he’d taken a course himself.
The deep state, which Trump has accused his own FDA of being in league with, ranks second. Other less-discussed but still-notable subjects included theories about the NIH infectious disease chief Anthony Fauci and claims the coronavirus is the result of human engineering.
“We conclude therefore that the President of the United States was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic,’” the Cornell researchers wrote.
The president isn’t solely to blame; the study also noted that a relatively small portion of the media stories including Covid-19 misinformation, about 16 percent, included fact-checking. That would suggest “the majority of COVID misinformation is conveyed by the media without question or correction.”
The Trump administration has made plenty of policy mistakes. The federal government failed to roll out an effective Covid-19 test in the early days of the pandemic, a mistake that helped set the US back for months on testing. The CDC and FDA have both at times put restrictive criteria in place for which patients should be tested, limiting surveillance of the outbreak. There has not been a national strategy for distributing protective gear to medical workers. Contact tracing is a federal afterthought. The travel bans for China and Europe that the president touted in his debate with Joe Biden were never going to keep Covid-19 out of the US permanently, and the nation failed to take advantage of those critical weeks to scale up its pandemic response capabilities.
But communication from the White House has been especially problematic.
“This represents the failure of the national leadership, the failings of the executive branch, the emasculation and politicization of the CDC and FDA, and the skepticism of science by large segments of the public, egged on by the president,” David Celentano, who leads the John Hopkins University epidemiology department, told me when the US neared 200,000 deaths.
Trump has been irresponsible in urging states to reopen before their outbreaks are under control and cheering on anti-lockdown protesters. He told journalist Bob Woodward in private that Covid-19 was a ferocious and deadly virus, while assuring the public that it would soon disappear on its own. He has also helped politicize the wearing of masks, even as the scientific consensus congealed that masks slowed the virus’s spread. While most Americans are wearing a mask at least some of the time, according to the polls, Republican voters are meaningfully less likely than Democratic voters to wear one regularly.
Rather than CDC or other government scientists serving as the primary public messengers, Americans have been hearing mostly from Trump and his political subordinates. And the information has often been demonstrably wrong: Vice President Mike Pence wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this summer there was no “second wave” of Covid-19 cases, a claim that was debunked in a matter of weeks as deaths rose along with cases across much of the Sun Belt. Now, heading into the fall, cases are increasing in the Midwest. There have been reports throughout the year of political appointees interfering with the release of timely and accurate federal Covid-19 data.
Kumi Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me she was surprised “that the White House would ever try to assume the role of public health messenger to the public. And that the CDC has taken as much of a back seat as it has.”
“There’s a protocol for issuing out consistent and up-to-date public health messaging to the public,” she said. “But you wouldn’t know it from how things have gone.”
Most Americans don’t trust what Trump says about Covid-19, the polls indicate. But he still holds sway over a meaningful minority of the citizenry and, maybe as importantly, he can influence Republican state officials who are responsible for making important public health decisions.
While the study covered news coverage only through the end of May, Trump’s falsehoods and exaggerations haven’t stopped. And the president’s mere introduction of uncertainty could hinder the efforts to bring an end to the pandemic. A lot of Americans report being unwilling to take a Covid-19 vaccine or they are at least unsure whether they will. Many of them worry about political interference. The overall lack of trust in Trump and his blatant lobbying for a vaccine — he disagreed with his own experts at the first debate about the time window for distributing a Covid-19 vaccine — must bear a significant amount of the responsibility for the doubts. And if too few Americans take the vaccine when it’s available, it will take longer for the outbreak to come under control.
In an unprecedented health care emergency, Americans needed clear and accurate information from their federal government. Instead, President Trump has sowed discord and doubt and disinformation, making it harder for the country to contain Covid-19. When Trump started holding Covid-19 briefings again in the summer, after the period studied by the Cornell researchers, some experts worried he would do more harm than good, based on his track record to date.
“Although it is critical for a leader to communicate regularly during crisis, the purpose has to be to inform, calm, and unite; to paint a realistic but achievable future and show the way,” Rajnandini Pillai, a management professor who specializes in leadership at California State University San Marcos, said. “This president is intent on marketing breathtaking falsehoods to serve his reelection aims.”