How the False Narrative of a COVID “Cure” Took Hold on the Right
Investigation by Hawkfish Research. Writing by Hawkfish Creative. Thanks to Smith & Diction for the graphics.
To stop disinformation before it wreaks widespread havoc, we need a granular understanding of how it spreads. Tracing the dissemination of the falsehood that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) is a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19 bolstered our conclusions about the predictable paths that conservative hoaxes can travel in social discourse.
Before President Trump revved it into overdrive, false information about HCQ — a drug used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis — spread from non-authoritative Twitter users to conservative mass media.
Hawkfish undertook an in-depth investigation to trace each step of HCQ’s transformation from potential COVID-19 treatment to conservative cause celebre. Several media outlets, including The Washington Post and Politico, have debunked claims about HCQ while shining a light on individuals our research has also shown to be responsible. We are using the results of our studies to create tools that can identify and stop disinformation campaigns in the future.
The inciting incident: scientific trials
Hydroxychloroquine is a less toxic derivative of a drug called chloroquine. Chinese studies and articles about COVID-19 patients being treated with chloroquine in early 2020 were disseminated and translated to other languages, including English. One was a letter to the editor in the journal Nature written by Chinese scientists associated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Beijing Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
A clinical trial of HCQ as a potential COVID-19 treatment started on February 6, 2020. Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center sponsored this trial. Numerous early and mid-February tweets and articles cited the trial, even though results from it were not posted.
On February 13, China Daily published an article about HCQ as a potential treatment for COVID-19. It noted that Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica and Shanghai Pharmaceuticals Holdings had signed on to the clinical trial.
Non-scientific opinions on HCQ leap from fringe Twitter to Elon Musk
On March 11, Twitter user Adrian Bye, who is not a doctor or a scientist, asserted that chloroquine would “keep most people out of hospital” in an exchange with James Todaro, a managing partner at Blocktown Capital, a cryptocurrency investment fund. (Todaro holds a medical degree but is not a practicing doctor.)
Two days later, Todaro tweeted a link to a Google Doc featuring “scientific” findings about chloroquine as an effective treatment for COVID-19, attributed to himself, Gregory Rigano (a lawyer with an interest in cryptocurrency), and a biochemist who later removed his name. The tweet generated high impressions: 5K likes and 2.5K retweets. The authors stated the document was written “in consultation with Stanford University School of Medicine, UAB School of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences researchers.” All three institutions told Huffington Post they were unaware of any such research effort, and that no one from their institutions was involved in writing it.
Then Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has more than 38 million followers on Twitter, posted about chloroquine on March 16 and included the Todaro/Rigano Google doc (56K likes, 13.4K retweets). The following day he mentioned HCQ in the same thread as being “probably better” than other treatments.
The so-called “experts” found a platform on Fox News:
- On March 16, Laura Ingraham had Rigano on her show, where he stated “…we have strong reason to believe that a preventative dose of hydroxychloroquine is going to prevent the virus from attaching to the body and just get rid of it completely.”
- On March 19, Rigano was a guest on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, identified as an “adviser” to Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Stanford has stated he has no affiliation with the school.
Trump and Fox News team up to launch HCQ into the stratosphere
President Trump, who famously watches Fox News and cites its hosts frequently, first mentioned HCQ on March 19 in a press briefing, saying, “It’s shown very, very encouraging early results and we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately….I think it’s going to be great.”
That’s when the right-wing propaganda machine kicked into high gear.
- On March 20, Ingraham interviewed a doctor who claimed affiliation with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, stating that HCQ was in use in “many hospitals.” The tweet was taken down by Twitter for violating the company’s misinformation policies, and Fox News corrected its report to note that the doctor quoted was not associated with Lenox Hill.
- On March 27, Rudy Giuliani cited a tweet from Charlie Kirk that said HCQ had a “100% effective rate” in treating COVID-19. Twitter took down this tweet for violating its policy on misinformation.
- According to Media Matters, from March 23–29 Fox News pushed HCQ as a COVID treatment 146 times — and only cast doubt on the efficacy of the drug 18 times.
By June, a consensus of reputable studies had concluded that HCQ is not effective as a treatment for COVID-19, and in some cases it can even cause dangerous side effects. But in August, Todaro and other HCQ evangelists were still promoting the drug as a miracle cure, and Trump associates have latched onto flawed studies to keep that narrative alive. Perhaps even worse, the US government sent two million doses to Brazil — just days after the WHO suspended its use for COVID-19 patients.
Promoting HCQ as a treatment for COVID-19 leaves us with a grim scorecard:
- In the first half of 2020, some Americans have died taking HCQ in the false hope that it would prevent the virus.
- The federal government has essentially sent ‘snake oil’ to unsuspecting residents of Brazil.
- In touting HCQ, Trump used his massive platform to appear heroic when science was not on his side, bolstering support among some who desperately want a way forward.
To prevent fringe sources from dominating the conversation on issues that affect millions of people, we need greater awareness about who or what is behind information (this guide from Factcheck.org is one good resource), as well as an early warning system to slow down the assembly line of disinformation. See Part III of our series to learn more about how this might work.
In this series, we also discuss Trump’s disinformation machine and how to confront disinformation.