Pandemic Meets Infodemic

Trump’s response to getting Covid-19 could cause information ripple effects

Trump's positive Covid-19 test may set the pandemic and the "infodemic" on a collision course.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It's not uncommon or even surprising for President Donald Trump to tweet at 1 a.m. but the content of Friday morning's tweet may have come as a bit of a shock: He and First lady Melania have tested positive for the coronavirus. Now, the president is reportedly experiencing mild, cold-like symptoms.

The news has set off an explosion of speculation about how long Trump may have been positive for the illness, how severely he may be affected, and a running list of those who have been in contact with him this week.

On Thursday, the president met with over 100 people at a fundraiser at a New Jersey golf club, The New York Times reports. On Tuesday he debated Democratic nominee Joe Biden in an indoor space – during which time Trump's family was not wearing masks. By noon on Friday, Biden tweeted that he and his wife, Jill, had both tested negative.

Containing the spread of the actual virus within the president's entourage will be a focus of some soon-to-be exhausted contact tracers. But there's one thing that the president has already spread with abandon: misinformation about the coronavirus.

A report released Thursday suggests he is a "main driver" of the coronavirus "infodemic" – misinformation from unproven "cures" to full-blown conspiracy theories. That tendency may cause harm that stretches far beyond those who have stood within six feet of him this week.

The situation raises the question of a hypothetical: How will Trump portray his experience with the coronavirus? And will the country follow his example when they themselves are faced with the virus.

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for coronavirus. Pool/Getty Images

Trump and misinformation – The report is the first comprehensive survey of English-language media related to misinformation and the coronavirus. The team, based at Cornell University's Alliance for Science, reviewed 38 million articles that were disseminated via social media between January and May 2020.

Trump was mentioned in 38 percent of all articles in the "misinformation conversation." That made the president the "single largest component of the infodemic," the authors write.

The study has not yet been published in a journal. It was undergoing peer review, but the authors withdrew it, citing the fact that they had "compelling public health information to share" per The New York Times, who reported on the paper.

The authors conclude that Trump was "likely the largest driver of the Covid-19 'infodemic' [a phrase used to describe the spread of inaccurate information]," because he was not only the topic of such conspiracies but also helped to promote them.

Pushing miracle cures – In the report, the authors note that the president has been especially influential in promoting misinformation about how to treat or "cure" coronavirus.

Miracle cures were the topic of 295,351 articles. (The second-place topic, the presence of a "New World Order" or "Deep State" was featured in 49,162 articles, by comparison). Trump's comments on proposed "cures" have been linked to spikes in the misinformation landscape.

"That’s concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications," Sarah Evanega, the story's first author and director of Cornell's Alliance for Science, told The New York Times.

Spikes in misinformation-laden articles following major coronavirus news events, including the President's comments. Cornell Alliance for Science

In April, the president touted the use of disinfectant and light to treat the coronavirus in a press conference. He later claimed the remarks were "sarcastic" but in response, misinformation still spiked – reaching a volume of nearly 40,000 new articles, the study reports.

Trump has also pushed misinformation around the cures for the coronavirus, most notably, hydroxychloroquine, based on flawed research. On May 19 Trump said he was taking hydroxychloroquine. By May 25, he was no longer taking it.

The damage was done. In March, after Trump started hyping hydroxychloroquine, demand surged. Before March 17, Premier Inc., a purchasing organization for 4,000 hospitals, saw a 70 percent week-over-week increase in orders for hydroxychloroquine, and a 300 percent increase in orders for chloroquine – a closely related drug.

Meanwhile, the volume of misinformation articles approached 20,000, this study reports. (The idea of hydroxychloroquine as a "cure" for coronavirus still lives on in QAnon lore.)

Now that Trump is facing a case of Covid-19 himself, speculation around how he will be treated is already mounting. Shortly after the news broke this morning, Sean Hannity called into Fox News to speculate about how the president will be treated:

"The president mentioned tonight this new therapeutic I forget the name of it off the top of my head,” Hannity said. “Everything from Remdesivir to hydroxychloroquine with the azithromycin and zinc and others, we now have more information than we’ve ever had."

If this study makes anything obvious, how the president talks or tweets about the course of his illness (or what drugs he may or may not take) will send ripple effects far beyond Washington.