New Study Reveals "Infodemic" Culprit

Researchers trace the flood of pandemic misinformation to our conspiracy theorist-in-chief

As Politico wrote earlier this year, “To be an American in 2020 is to live in a petri dish ideal for growing conspiracies.” To what extent journalists are contributing (unwittingly) to this growth is an open question. But as University of Miami political scientist Joe Uscinski noted in a recent panel discussion, there’s a good reason why conspiracy theories are frequently in the news.

We have a president, unlike other recent presidents, who engages in lots and lots of conspiratorial rhetoric. He uses conspiracy theories regularly to motivate his core supporters.

It’s quite unprecedented. Uscinski went on to note that President Trump started doing this in the run-up to the 2016 election and continued while in office. “That has pushed the media to have to focus on conspiracy theories, as well, because this is now a big part of our rhetoric coming from our political elites,” Uscinski said. “Now journalists have to cover it.”

That’s because nobody drives the news more than the President of the United States. And no President has craved the spotlight more than Donald Trump. Consequently, the American public has been exposed to an endless stream of conspiracy theories for the past five years. That takes a toll.

So I’m not surprised by the results of a new study released today.

Here’s a good overview from the New York Times.

Of the flood of misinformation, conspiracy theories and falsehood seeding the internet on the coronavirus, one common thread stands out: President Trump

That is the conclusion of researchers at Cornell University who analyzed 38 million articles about the pandemic in English-language media around the world. Mentions of Mr. Trump made up nearly 38 percent of the overall “misinformation conversation,” making the president the largest driver of the “infodemic”—falsehoods involving the pandemic.

It bears noting that the study has yet to be peer reviewed. Still, as anyone in the reality-based world knows, much of the confusion and outright false information related to the coronavirus has been sowed by Trump. He’s downplayed the risks of COVID-19, mocked mask-wearing, promoted unproven treatments, undermined his own medical authorities, and amplified outrageous conspiracy theories from conservative allies, including one claim that government scientists are lying about the severity of the pandemic to damage his re-election prospects.

As journalist Laurie Garrett succinctly puts it, “Trump = infodemic.”

To have a president that routinely spouts baseless conspiracy theories, it turns out, is dangerous for public health—and, as is becoming more evident by the day, for democracy, as well.