Considering how adamantly Trump has denied that Covid-19 is a threat, and considering how his most fervent supporters have fallen for this line of reasoning, one would think that the recent revelation that the president has tested positive for the virus would be a sobering reminder of the dangers of the disease. One would, however, be wrong.
In the wake of the news, as pundits have struggled to unpack the implications of what Trump’s diagnosis means for the election, conspiracy theorists who have downplayed the impact of COVID-19 have reveled in the news. “We’re hitting this sort of perfect nexus of political and medical disinformation right now,” says Brian Friedberg, senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein’s Technology and Social Change Project.
Believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, a baseless belief that Trump has a plan to arrest leftist deep-state operatives, are particularly thrilled, with many believing that Trump’s diagnosis has been staged — and that the arrests of his deep state enemies will occur while he is in isolation. Others believe that because he is taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug he has heavily promoted despite the FDA’s cautions about its serious side effects, he will be perfectly fine. (Initial reports have indicated he is showing mild symptoms so far.)
“They believe the real reason he is in quarantine is to isolate him away from the evil deep state plotters so the storm can commence, and no one can reach him once the shit hits the fan, and when the mass arrests start he will be protected,” says Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, which explores the bizarre roots of the conspiracy theory. “So of course this plays into the ‘nothing as it seems’ component of conspiracist thinking.”
A major piece of “evidence” believers have cited is Trump’s own tweet announcing he had tested positive for the virus: “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!” Many QAnon believers interpreted “together” as “to get her,” “her” meaning Hillary Clinton, a classic example of the QAnon “decoding” of “breadcrumbs,” or so-called hints the President has dropped to alert them that the plan is in action. Others cited a September Q drop featuring a Mickey Mouse clock with the little hand on 10 and the big hand on 2, presented without context; this has led some to speculate that it was in reference to “10/2,” the date Trump tested positive for the virus. (Q himself, the anonymous 8kun poster or group of posters who is the figurehead for the movement, has been silent since the news broke.) And these theories seem to be gaining traction in the mainstream fairly rapidly: As of Friday morning, “QAnon” was one of the trending terms on Google, with more than 50,000 searches.
View sees this response as a way for conspiracy theorists to make sense of a twist in world events that is contradictory to their worldview. “The three big rules for conspiracy theorists are: ‘Nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected,’” he says. “The idea that an indifferent, cruel virus could have disastrous impacts on world events” by infecting the president a month before the election is “impossible for them to comprehend.”
The apparent cognitive dissonance we’re seeing far-right extremists display following Trump’s diagnosis actually makes a lot of sense, says Kathleen Stansberry, assistant professor of strategic communications at Elon University. “There’s something called the backfire effect. It essentially says that when confronted with facts that contradict someone’s worldview, instead of causing them to question it, it causes them to double down whatever belief was challenged and makes them dig in harder,” she says. “And I think we’re seeing that a lot right now.”
Regardless of the ludicrousness of such “evidence,” the fact is that conspiracy theories about Trump and Covid-19 are already gaining significant traction on social platforms, and the companies appear to be doing very little about it. On Twitter, for instance, QAnon influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers are promoting the idea that Trump is lying about contracting the virus for strategic reasons (this is in spite of the fact that Twitter has recently promised to crack down on QAnon accounts). Theories placing the blame squarely on the left have also been finding an audience. DeAnna Lorraine, a former congressional candidate with more than 390,000 followers who has publicly embraced QAnon, tweeted that she believed shadowy forces intentionally inculcated Trump during the debate earlier this week: “I put NOTHING past the left. NOTHING,” she said. Although Twitter policy is to include a label on misinformation about Covid-19, the tweet has no such label and has more than 5,000 retweets and 16,000 likes as of Friday morning.
The social platforms’ inability to rein in disinformation is complicated by the fact that QAnon believers specifically have been instructed by Q to go further under the radar to avoid deplatforming, largely by avoiding the slogans and hashtags they typically use. “Now that the networks have gone stealth, it’s become even harder to not only identify a QAnon account but take action against it,” says Friedberg. “As Q has become more stealth, a lot of their speculation and conspiratorial framing can seep into other conversations a lot easier.”
As speculation and conspiracy theorizing about Trump’s condition runs rampant, extremist researchers and experts believe that no matter what the outcome of his diagnosis, it will only serve as fuel for the fire of conspiracy theorists’ beliefs. “A mild case [of Covid-19] strengthens the idea this is not such a big deal and that [Trump’s diagnosis] is being blown up to discredit the presidency,” says Stansberry. “If it is very serious, then people will start talking about how this was a coordinated bioattack.”
The latter outcome is arguably the most concerning one. If Trump becomes very ill or even dies, says View, it would do nothing to detract from QAnon believers’ ideology. “This would be the most significant generator of conspiracy theories since the assassination of JFK, perhaps even greater. Some people would very sincerely believe it’s some kind of assassination or coup,” says View. “That may motivate them to take violent or dangerous actions.”
Even without an ailing president, this has already happened, as was the case with the fatal shooting of a Mob boss by a QAnon supporter in Staten Island last year, or the recent trend of QAnon-supporting mothers kidnapping their children to “save” them from a child trafficking ring. “The whole crux of QAnon is that there’s an insidious group trying to take down the presidency,” says Stansberry. “This fits into that view pretty neatly.”