Into Trump, Coronavirus and Conspiracy Theories
President Trump: I stand before you today to fulfill one of my highest and most important duties under the United States Constitution, the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice. (APPLAUSE)
Trymaine Lee: That evening in the Rose Garden two Saturdays ago, some 200 people came to celebrate President Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court.
Amy Coney Barrett: Thank you very much, Mr. President. I am deeply honored by the confidence that you have placed in me.
Lee: We've all seen the pictures, people sitting very close together, not many of them wearing masks. Now that ceremony and the indoor reception afterwards is being called, quote, a "superspreader event." At least ten people who were there that day, including the president, have tested positive for the coronavirus. And while we can't be sure where any of them got infected, the news was a bombshell.
Brian Williams: We learned literally within the last five minutes, the president has indeed tested positive for COVID-19, along with the First Lady.
Lee: The internet exploded with conspiracy theories, armchair diagnoses, and political chess. I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, we're trying to make some sense of it all with my colleague, Brandy Zadrozny. She's an investigative reporter for NBC News who spends her days sorting through the chaos of the internet flagging fact versus fiction, and lately, she's been really busy. I started by asking her, what was her reaction when she first heard that the president had tested positive for COVID-19?
Brandy Zadrozny: Definitely, like, an "Oh my God" moment. You know, those of us who study misinformation and conspiracy theories, we've been sort of saying since March, since the coronavirus lockdowns, that this is just sort of a prime recipe for disaster. You have people who are sort of locked in their homes, and it's an election year. And people are sick, and people are scared. A lotta people are outta work. When Trump got COVID, you just knew that people were gonna lose their minds with conspiracies, and that's exactly what happened.
Lee: So there have been so many conspiracies, I've been trying to pay attention to all of them. And they're coming from the right certainly, but also the left. But I want to start with what we're seeing on the right. What conspiracies are emerging from, like, the right fringe?
Zadrozny: You know, first, like you said, we're getting them from the left and the right. This conspiracy environment doesn't play politics, because it's really, you know, whatever conspiracy theory you're promoting or pushing, it's just an extension of the beliefs that you already hold. From the right, if you like Trump, then you may think that the president contracted the virus from Joe Biden and other Democrats, maybe on purpose.
You know, there's a video going around that looks like someone's cleaning a podium, but that is being taken as some sort of proof that someone has infected him. If you are the kind of Republican who might call this the Wuhan virus or the China virus, then you might be a person to subscribe to the conspiracy theory that's going around that's saying it's an assassination attempt from China.
This one woman, DeAnna Lorraine, she's verified on Twitter. She's a failed congressional candidate out of California. She tweeted, "Could Trump catching COVID-19 technically be viewed an assassination attempt on our president by the Chinese?" It will not surprise you to hear, most of her followers think a resounding yes. So those are some of the-- the things that we're seeing on the right for conspiracies.
Lee: What about QAnon? QAnon has been a pretty big deal, and they've been, like, really churning a bunch of this stuff out. How do they fit into this? What are they thinking around this?
Zadrozny: Well, although Donald Trump is the Messiah in the QAnon world, QAnon is no longer really a Republican or Democrat conspiracy theory. It's really just sort of morphed into this big boss of a conspiracy theory. So you have lots of people on both sides of the aisle.
But what they think is that this is the day when the storm will finally be realized. And the storm in QAnon world is the long-awaited justice day where the president will put all the evildoers in Guantanamo Bay, march them down the street, and this includes Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, me and you probably as part of the media, all of us, march us down the street and summarily execute us. So they are very excited about this COVID thing with the president.
Lee: There's also been some stuff poppin' up from the left that is kind of unexpected, because we don't normally see the left playing in this space. What are we seeing out of that?
Zadrozny: Yeah. We have, like, a band of online people on the left that, you know, we consider the resisters and the resistance army. You'll see blue waves in their profile, those sorts of folks. Your Michael Moores, your Bette Midlers, we're seeing them with a couple of narratives. But basically it's that Trump is lying about many things, that he is faking, that he is lying about the extent of his illness.
Archival Recording: Just moments ago, the president with a thumbs up, a wave, walking slowly from the residence, the South Portico, really a matter of 40 or 50 yards to Marine One.
Zadrozny: There was one popular tweet that was just sort of really made up where it was this photo of a still of his pocket as he was going to Walter Reed Medical Center. It showed a crease, and then somebody drew a red circle around it and a red arrow and, you know, said that this proves that somehow he was hooked up to an oxygen tank.
This was just recently pushed again, because Kellyanne Conway's teenage daughter was on Tik Tok insinuating that she was overhearing how he was really doing when Trump was released from Walter Reed Medical Center. She said, "No, he's not fine," and she was Tik Tokking about how he was gravely ill.
People are trolling him with Weekend at Bernie memes that show him being propped up by other Republicans. People say that he's lying about when he knew he had COVID and that he was lying about it to get sympathy, to move the election date perhaps, to give the presidency to Mike Pence so that Mike Pence could in turn pardon him, so people on the left leapt on that as well.
Lee: I' think I may have unwittingly joined medical Twitter. I'm looking, like, is he stifling back a cough? Is his face, he looks-- what's happening?
Zadrozny: So there's this collection of doctors on Twitter who, I don't know how they have time to see patients, because they are just constantly tweeting. It's hard to tell which of them are legit doctors and which are sort of clout-chasing. So the doctors that logged on, and they were saying, "Oh, you wouldn't go to Walter Reed Medical Center to take precautions, you wouldn't do that." And then all about his treatments, right, for the antibiotic cocktail and the oxygen and the steroids.
Lee: And then the moment on the balcony, right?
Zadrozny: Yeah. So the moment on the balcony was the big deal. And this is what's so interesting about this is it's, like, you can't even trust your own eyes, because people see two distinct things. You have the people on the right who see sort of a Rambo moment where he rips off the mask, and he is in charge, and he is back. And he is on the balcony, and he is leading America with the flag waving, and we're back, Baby. And look at him, he's strong, he just won.
And then the same video, you have people looking at it, and they're, like, he's wheezing, he's dead, he's on death's door. See, this proves it. Gasping, wheezing was trending on Twitter this morning because of that. And it's, like, that's when you log. Just log off and take a walk.
Lee: We'll be right back with Brandy Zadrozny. (ADVERTISEMENT) We're back with Brandy Zadrozny. Now certainly, you're paying attention to this stuff in a different kind of way, but how widespread are these theories? Like, how far has it penetrated?
Zadrozny: I mean, it's so widespread. Ask anybody in your life what they think was really up, and they'll have something to say. "Something seems fishy," right? Even my mother, she tries not to get too political, she was weighing in with me on the phone the other day.
So everybody's got one, and that's because, you know, misinformation thrives when there are no answers for something. And right now, we have so little reliable information that it only makes sense to fill in the gaps with guesses. One second we have a team of doctors saying, "Everything looks great."
And then five seconds later, we have Mark Meadows saying off the record to reporters, "Actually, you know, his oxygen levels, and he's got a fever, and it was a little touch and go." Like, that uncertainty is just a minefield. And so when you're in that headspace where you don't know what to believe, you don't believe anything, and you're just more susceptible to some answer you find on the internet.
Lee: And that happens, even if we're not talking about conspiracy. Say we're talking about a police shooting or anything else. When you don't deliver solid information, steady information, truthful information, then people will just throw everything they can into that gap.
Zadrozny: Yeah, I mean, that's why conspiracies have gone so crazy right now. It's because of the way that we look for information now. Before it might be calling someone on the phone, watching your local news, turning on the radio. But now what we do is go online.
And what happens in breaking news situations or mysteries or something like this where they're just, no one really knows because we're not getting adequate information from the people in charge, what happens is there's nothing there. And so when you're searching, you're gonna get some result from Twitter or YouTube or Google.
And what that is is someone using this sort of gap in knowledge to get clout or get likes or get attention online or promote their video or their insane product or whatever it is. But you're getting those narratives instead of good, reliable information.
Lee: And we're not talkin' about dark web, dark corner stuff, right? We're talkin' about Twitter, Reddit, like, it's mainstream stuff, right?
Zadrozny: Yeah. When I first got to NBC three years ago, my colleague and I, Ben Collins, we are sort of on the disinformation beat most days. And we were sort of framed as the dark web people. And it's just, "No, man, I'm just in a bunch of Facebook groups." And that is really borne out now. The last three or four years has been crazy. We've just seen the complete overtaking of Facebook by the worst actors and disinformation agents at home and abroad. It's so prevalent, it's everywhere.
Lee: How are these platforms in general responding?
Zadrozny: They're all pretty terrible. I don't envy any of them, the scale of it. They're unable to moderate it well. So what they're doing is, especially around coronavirus misinformation, the platforms all sort of drew a line in the sand pretty quickly with that stuff.
And they said, "We're not gonna allow it on the platform, we're gonna take it off." This is sort of an interesting situation, because it's COVID and the president. Twitter allows the president's tweets to stand with a label, if they're misinformation. And Facebook also labels them just generally.
But if it's COVID misinformation, Facebook will take it off. In one of the president's tweets where he was saying, "I'm fine, everything's wonderful," he also made some claims that the coronavirus wasn't dangerous. He said, "Flu season is coming up. Many people every year, you know, die from the flu. Are we gonna close down our country? No. We have learned to live with it just like we are learning to live with COVID, in most populations far less lethal," with lots of exclamation points.
And that's just untrue. It's far more deadly than the flu. Over 200,000 people have died this year alone, and more expected as flu season comes around. So Facebook took that post down, Twitter put a label on it. So they're doing what they can, but really when you have this many people throwing out conspiracy theories, there's just not much you can do about that.
Lee: I saw a headline the other day that said, "Donald Trump was the biggest purveyor of misinformation around COVID-19 in the world."
Zadrozny: Trump is the conspiracy theorist in chief. You know, not only, of course, was he a birther. Literally almost every conspiracy theory I can think of, he's at once subscribed to. But yes, he's also pushing COVID misinformation. He's also pushing mail-in ballot misinformation.
It's just sort of constant, and we will see, you know, people on the far right and people for whom it's politically expedient to agree with the president, because that is a voting base. We will see them fall in line with whatever the president is saying.
Lee: How much of this stuff are we seeing seeded in folks who don't normally traffic in this stuff?
Zadrozny: I mean, I don't think that normal people think that China has infected or tried to assassinate the president. But the problem is, a sort of conspiracy theory light will spread down. So in, crunchy mom groups that I'm in, no, most of these people don't believe that Donald Trump is about to get all the evildoers rounded up and killed.
But the memes will come into the crunchy moms groups because just of a cross-pollenization basically of beliefs. And you will see a lot of weird timing memes with the little scrunchy emoji, stuff like that. So it sort of infects, not to mix metaphors, but conspiracy theories infect even people who wouldn't normally subscribe to the weirdest ones. And what that does is, it sows a distrust in our government, in our institutions, in science, in the media, that then therefore makes more conspiracy theorists.
Lee: You know, it's so easy for people who consider themselves right-thinking people, people who are just perfectly rational, reasonable, responsible Americans to kind of dismiss this stuff. It's foolish, it's nonsense. But what's really at stake here? Because it seems like it's moving from the complete fringe into, "Well, we can't trust this guy, we can't trust this administration. Who knows what's true, what's not?" What's really on the line here?
Zadrozny: I mean, it's, well, lives first, right, clearly. I think the Trump superspreading event has shown us all what happens when you don't believe that the virus is harmful, that you don't believe it will get you. That you think everybody's overreacting, that conspiracy that it's a hoax.
I think you ignore coronavirus and the precautions that were suggested from Trump's CDC at your own peril. And I think that shows that. But more broadly speaking, the experts that I talk to, I don't say it's an overreach when they worry about the death of the media, the death of institutions, the death of expertise, the war on science. Like, it is a five-alarm fire in terms of disinformation right now.
Lee: How do you not lose your mind tracking all this stuff? Because some of this stuff is out there. This has been the wildest three-and-a-half years I think, I mean, we could say politically ever in life.
Zadrozny: 100%. I mean, how I deal with that is, I mean, it's been really good for me for my career honestly. But my mental health, it's shaky sometimes dealing with these folks. It is a lot, but I do think that it has taught me the value in not knowing things. It's been a hell of a lesson, but there is so much we don't know. And it's okay to wait for information, and it's okay to sort of having theories and ideas.
But a lot of these conspiracy theorists and a lot of these conspiracy groups, it's not even about the ideas. It's about vilifying another side. It's about finding evil where there is none, finding explanations where none can be found. It's just a real interesting environment.
Lee: Brandy Zadrozny. She's an investigative reporter for NBC News focusing on conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns. And one note before we go. On Tuesday, in addition to taking down that post from the president calling coronavirus far less lethal than the flu, Facebook also said it would ban all QAnon accounts across its platforms, including Instagram.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you tomorrow.