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Analysing Trump’s Medical Disinformation on Facebook

US president Donald Trump shocked the world this week with his latest piece of medical disinformation.

Trump claimed that 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.

Dangers of medical disinformation

The mainstream media and the public widely lambasted this dangerous medical disinformation.

Amid the furore over Trump’s remarks, a major disinfectant firm issued a statement urging the public not to inject or drink any of their products.

However, members of pro-Trump Facebook groups dedicated to conspiracy theories displayed quite the opposite reaction. 

I examined some of these groups to provide comment for an article in CodaStory. I’d previously gathered this list because of the strong focus on various ‘corona disinformation conspiracies’.

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.

Pro-Trump Facebook reactions

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 medical disinformation.

First, that Trump was just ‘playing the media’. People must be stupid if they believe he meant what he said.

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 that the media had quoted Trump ‘out of context’. According to them, he was speaking ‘more generally’ about possible ways to treat COVID-19.

Others highlighted a fact check article from far-right news outlet Breitbart. But no-one acknowledged the videos of Trump making these claims for everyone to see and hear. 

The third claim relates more closely to other COVID-19 medical disinformation, ‘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 drew links between the medical disinformation about bleach and the popular narrative of ‘Vitamin C as miracle cure’.

They claimed that taking Vitamin C causes hydrogen peroxide to build up in the body. It followed that hydrogen peroxide has a disinfectant effect, so Trump’s comments have a basis in medical fact.

Rationalising medical disinformation

These three counter-narratives about Trump’s medical disinformation all attempt to rationalise an influential figure making a dangerous and irresponsible remark.

Tribal attitudes drive many of these rationalisations. For example, the claims that the media purposefully misinterpreted Trump’s comments 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.

astroturfing

Astroturfing: A Quick Example from Facebook

What is Astroturfing?

Astroturfing is not new. Its history stretches back to the days of newspapers and pamphlets. But astroturfing has become a major important concern in today’s ‘post-truth’ information environment.

The Guardian defines astroturfing as “the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists.”

The ‘grassroots’ part is where the name comes from; that bright green fake grass. You might remember it from the school sports field.

astroturfing

Social media is a prime environment for astroturfing campaigns. User attention spans are low, knee-jerk reactions are prevalent, and ‘likes’ are an addictive form of currency.

Illusion becomes reality when fake engagement intersects with genuine social media users. They are more likely to engage with seemingly popular posts because of social proof – a psychological effect in which people like or support things that already seem popular with others.

An Example of Astroturfing

Let’s take a look at an example of suspected astroturfing on Facebook. Our starting point is the official Facebook page of the UK’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Underneath every post on his page, especially those about Brexit, we can see hundreds of responses. That’s not unusual to find on the page of a public figure. But the style of those responses seemed artificial.

astroturfing
Screenshot of Boris Johnson’s Facebook page, with a selection of comments about Brexit.

They are all very similar; short utterances of praise for Boris Johnson, repeating words and phrases such as ‘brilliant’, ‘fantastic’, and ‘support Boris 100%’. On each comment, we can also see a lot of response emojis of positive sentiments ‘like’, ‘love’ and ‘laugh’.

This behaviour is odd. Genuine people do support Johnson, of course. But it’s suspicious for so many to comment on his posts in this distinctive and repetitive way. This looks very much like an astroturfing campaign.

More genuine engagement

Now let’s contrast this with the page of his predecessor, Theresa May, specifically her Brexit-related posts. Here we can see a very different scenario, which immediately feels far more genuine.

astroturfing
Screenshot of Theresa May’s Facebook page showing a sample of typical comments about Brexit. Note the contrast with Johnson’s page.

Responses to May’s posts are more varied in content, tone and length. Some commenters disagree with her. Others support her. But most commenters use more depth and sophistication of language than the short repetitive replies to posts on Johnson’s page.

The responses on May’s page are more likely to be ‘organic’ (i.e. from real people who behave naturally). In contrast, it appears that Johnson’s page is the subject of astroturfing techniques, which may include fake comments and even fake followers.

Facebook locks its data down tight, so it’s hard to run further analysis to determine for certain whether the Johnson supporters are part of an organised campaign. But we can draw insights from previous recent examples. 

Donald Trump used fake Facebook followers during the US presidential campaign. Researchers discovered that over half of the followers on his page came from countries known as hubs for Facebook ‘like farms’.

It is common for like farms to exist in developing countries such as the Philippines and India, where much of the population speaks English and the US dollar stretches a long way.

The farms offer customers the opportunity to buy fake Facebook likes and Twitter follows, to use for astroturfing the impression of popular support.

As well as likes, customers can purchase fake engagement, usually in the form of comments. This may explain the unusual commenting activity on Johnson’s page.

Why astroturfing matters

Astroturfing matters because it’s a deliberate attempt to manipulate perceptions of popular opinion, with potentially dangerous results.

Although astroturfing has been a feature of political campaigning for decades, the social media environment gives it enormous power. Social media users have become far more susceptible to its effects than newspaper readers ever were.

When combined with disinformation and conspiracy theories, astroturfing has the potential to cause all sorts of social and political chaos. Many would argue that it already has.