Much of the world was shocked this week as Donald Trump claimed injecting disinfectant into the body could be an ‘interesting’ way to cure COVID-19. He later tried to back-pedal, claiming he was being sarcastic. But that wasn’t how most of the world took it.
The dangerous comments were widely lambasted across the mainstream media and among much of the ordinary public. Such was the furore over Trump’s remarks that a major disinfectant firm even issued a statement urging the public not to inject or drink any of their products.
But members of Facebook groups dedicated to conspiracy theories displayed quite the opposite reaction.
These include 5G causing the virus, the virus being a US bioweapon, and Bill Gates as having orchestrated the ‘virus hoax’ in his ambition to enforce a worldwide vaccine programme. Many of the groups also centred around the Qanon conspiracy theory.
You might expect the suggestion of injecting bleach to be a step too far even for these largely pro-Trump groups. Not so.
In my initial observation of the groups, I noticed three distinct ways in which the members attempted to account for Trump’s bizarre statement.
First, that Trump was just ‘playing the media’. Anyone who believes he meant what he said must be stupid. Commenters also attributed all the negative media coverage to ‘yet another’ MSM (mainstream media), liberal, or Democrat attempt to smear Trump.
Secondly, some commenters claimed Trump had been quoted ‘out of context’. According to them, he was speaking ‘more generally’ about possible ways to treat COVID-19.
Some highlighted a fact check article from far-right news outlet Breitbart. But nowhere did anyone acknowledge that Trump had been videoed making these claims for everyone to see and hear.
The third claim relates more closely to the other COVID-19 ‘miracle cures’. This commenter claimed that Trump must have been referring to those UV light therapy and ozone therapy, which already exist.
Things got more interesting when the commenter linked the injecting bleach comments to the popular ‘Vitamin C as miracle cure’ narrative.
They claimed that taking Vitamin C causes hydrogen peroxide to build up in the body. As hydrogen peroxide has a disinfectant effect, then actually Trump’s comments have a basis in medical fact.
These three counter-narratives about Trump’s comments all attempt to rationalise what would normally be seen as an influential figure making a dangerous and irresponsible remark.
Rationalisations like these are rooted in tribal attitudes. For example, claims that Trump’s comments were purposefully misinterpreted in a ‘libs’ or ‘Dems’ smear attack. Once again, this reinforces the existing divide between populist pro-Trump narratives and the mainstream.
The question remains: How many of these Facebook group members are genuine American citizens? Facebook itself is the only entity that could properly attribute the accounts. And it doesn’t seem to be giving much away.
I suspect group members are a mix of genuine Trump supporters and astroturfers working to stir up tribal hatred of the ‘other side’.
Tribal attitudes can be dangerous, particularly in relation to public health. People in the pro-Trump tribe are more likely to challenge messages from the perceived ‘outgroup’ (‘experts’ and the ‘MSM’) such as critical public health advice from the WHO.
A similar dynamic has fuelled recent anti-lockdown protests across the US, which may already have spread the virus further and compromised the entire country. Astroturfing was certainly a factor there; there’s no reason why it couldn’t be influencing these groups too.