Trump has been notably quiet while his allies push misinformation and conspiracies about the vaccine
President Trump and his allies have spent years stoking disinformation and doubt in official accounts about the election, the coronavirus, and other topics. Now those efforts are making it harder to rally support around his administration’s vaccine push. Even as Vice President Pence took the vaccine on TV on Friday and the White House called the efforts to speedily produce a vaccine “historic,” Trump supporters have become forceful proponents of conspiracies about the vaccine on Twitter and Fox. Some of Trump’s most high-profile allies, including his former attorney Sidney Powell, for example, have pushed misleading claims that the government will force people to receive a vaccination or use the vaccine to conduct surveillance of the population.
Candace Owens, a prominent Black activist, and Trump ally tweeted on Dec. 9 that “the same people that are out here yelling ‘my body my choice’ will be telling you that the government has a right to force vaccinate you for a virus that has a 99% survival rate.” Twitter spokeswoman Lauren Alexander said the tweets did not violate the company’s misinformation rules, which specifically prohibit false statements saying the vaccine could be used to harm or control populations. Complicating matters is Trump himself. The president — who has a history of questioning vaccines — has also been notably less vocal about vaccine promotion. He has hailed his administration’s investments in vaccine development, including tweeting that the vaccine’s impending arrival was “GREAT NEWS” — but has not committed to taking it publicly. Since the election, he has used his Twitter account to primarily focus on baseless claims of election fraud rather than the covid-19 crisis.
Trump’s messaging that people should distrust authority has made it harder for the administration to take a victory lap over vaccine development, misinformation experts said.
“His base has been primed to believe conspiracies and disbelieve in official accounts,” said Joan Donovan, a disinformation expert who is director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “The skepticism that allows him to draw in these communities is the same skepticism that they are bringing to this world-historic moment.”
Over the last year, social media companies have taken aggressive steps to remove misinformation, including banning false and misleading information about the coronavirus and covid-19 vaccination. But their efforts over the last year have fallen short. They have been hamstrung not only by the volume of misinformation but also by the powerful ways in which misinformation is turbocharged by algorithms, highly motivated groups, and users that exploit the gray area over what speech is permissible.
“In close consultation with local, national, and global public health authorities around the world, we are focused on removing misleading information that presents the biggest potential harm to people’s health and well-being,” Twitter’s Alexander said. “Starting in early 2021, we may label or place a warning on tweets that advance unsubstantiated rumors, disputed claims, as well as incomplete or out-of-context information about vaccines.”
“President Trump has repeatedly referred to the vaccines as ‘miracles’ and encouraged the American people to take them — including when he hosted an hours-long, live-streamed and nationally televised summit to educate the American people about the vaccine development and distribution process, build confidence in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and commemorate their creation as a national achievement that will save millions of lives,” White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern said.
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.