Confirmation that President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 sparked numerous conspiracy theories that the president is lying about his diagnosis.
According to Dataminr, a social media monitoring service, tweets questioning the diagnosis peaked Friday at roughly five tweets per minute.
Doubters included Anand Giridharadas, editor of Time, and Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at The New Yorker, according to the New York Times.
There is no evidence that Trump or the White House is lying.
Other social media users were suggesting that Trump’s diagnosis is a hoax aimed at generating sympathy among voters or even getting out of the next presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
That speculation shows up in Facebook comments on news stories about Trump.
“It is a lie,” one Facebook user wrote on a TV news network’s post about Trump, calling it a “Strategy to not debate Biden anymore.”
Similar posts making the groundless claim were shared hundreds or thousands of times online.
“Is Trump faking COVID to avoid narcissistic injury of losing the election?” one Twitter user asked in a post retweeted more than 4,000 times Friday morning.
This hoax theory just one of the many rumors and falsehoods that have littered social media feeds over the last 48 hours.
Tweets shared thousands of times claimed Democrats might have somehow intentionally infected the president with the coronavirus during the debates. And the news also ignited constant conjecture among QAnon followers, who peddle a baseless belief that Trump is a warrior against a secret network of government officials and celebrities that they falsely claim is running a child trafficking ring.
“This is both a political crisis weeks before the election and also a health crisis; it’s a perfect storm,” said Alexandra Cirone, an assistant professor at Cornell University who studies the effect of misinformation on government.
Facebook said Friday that it immediately began monitoring misinformation around the president’s diagnosis and had started applying fact checks to some false posts.
Twitter, meanwhile, was monitoring an uptick in “copypasta” campaigns about Trump’s illness. “Copypasta” campaigns are attempts by numerous Twitter accounts to parrot the same phrase over and over to inundate users with messaging, and they are sometimes signals of coordinated activity. The social media company said it was working to limit views on those tweets.
“Misinformation was not only promoted in the fringe spheres of the internet but by everyday social media users as well,” Shane Creevy, head of editorial at Kinzen, an Ireland-based company that works to monitor misinformation online, said.
“The conspiracy part of the internet is like outside the mainstream, but even among regular users we are seeing quite a lot of crazy thinking pushed out there from people who should know better,” Creevy said.
In perhaps a sign of what’s to come, state-backed Russian television channel RT tweeted a story suggesting that Biden’s prolonged coughing from the debate raised concerns for the former vice president after Trump’s test. In the last presidential election, Russia launched an online misinformation campaign with bogus social media accounts that aimed to sway U.S. voters’ opinions in the race, and there are signs that the Kremlin is at it again.
Clint Watts, a disinformation expert with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russian-backed accounts are mostly only trolling the president and the White House so far, but they are just getting started — especially given that the president has only begun his quarantine.
“They are going to position all sorts of conspiracies or amplify American conspiracies,” Watts said.