How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 1

Oct. 20, 2020, 5:38 p.m. ET

Oct. 20, 2020, 5:38 p.m. ET


For years, it was the subject of countless Fox News segments, talk radio rants, and viral right-wing tweets and Facebook posts. It spawned Congressional hearings, Justice Department investigations, and investigations of those investigations. President Trump called it “the biggest political crime in the history of our country,” and suggested that its perpetrators deserved 50-year prison sentences.

Now, weeks before the election, “Spygate” — a labyrinthine conspiracy theory involving unproven allegations about a clandestine Democratic plot to spy on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign — appears to be losing steam.

The theory still commands plenty of attention inside the right-wing media sphere. But Mr. Trump’s quest to turn Spygate into a major mainstream issue in this year’s campaign may be coming up short. Data from NewsWhip, a firm that tracks social media performance, shows that stories about Spygate and two related keywords — “Obamagate” and “unmask/unmasked/unmasking”— received 1.5 million interactions on Facebook and from influential Twitter accounts last month, down from about 20 million interactions in May.



Part of Spygate’s fizzle may be related to the fact that three years on, none of Mr. Trump’s political enemies have been charged with crimes. Last year, a highly anticipated Justice Department inspector general’s report found no evidence of a politicized plot to spy on the Trump campaign — angering believers who thought the report would vindicate their belief in a criminal “deep state” plot against the president.

And this fall, the Spygate faithful got insult added to injury when a Justice Department investigation into one of their core concerns — whether Obama-era officials had acted improperly by “unmasking” the identities of certain people named in intelligence documents — came up empty-handed.

Few right-wing narratives have been as durable as Spygate, which has morphed over time into a kind of catchall theory encompassing various allegations of Democratic malfeasance. Fox News hosts including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson went all in on it, as did Republicans in Congress, including Representative Devin Nunes of California and former Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. But nobody embraced the theory like Mr. Trump, who has returned to it frequently to deflect attention from his own troubles, whether it was the Mueller investigation or his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the election approaches, it’s worth looking back on Spygate’s evolution, both because it illustrates the way that partisan misinformation bubbles up through the right-wing media ecosystem, and, ultimately, because it shows how Mr. Trump’s obsession with a confusing, hard-to-follow narrative may have backfired as a campaign strategy.

Here is a (very) abridged version of the main waypoints in Spygate.

March 2017: Right-wing blogs and media outlets began discussing theories they called “DeepStateGate” or “Obamagate,” a reference to false claims that President Obama had tapped Mr. Trump’s phone.

May 2018: Mr. Trump seized on the news that an F.B.I. informant was sent to meet with members of his campaign staff, dubbing it “Spygate,” and said that it “could be one of the biggest political scandals in history.” Pro-Trump media outlets ran with the unsubstantiated claims. Top-ranking Republicans initially tried to distance themselves from the theory, although many would later embrace it.

April 2019: Spygate gained momentum when William P. Barr, the attorney general, testified to Congress that he believed “spying did occur” on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, appearing to contradict previous Justice Department statements.

December 2019: Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, released a long-awaited report detailing his findings about the origins and conduct of the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation. Mr. Trump’s media allies spent weeks hyping the report. (Sean Hannity predicted it would “shock the conscience.”) Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory also latched onto the Horowitz report, predicting that it would set in motion indictments and mass arrests of the president’s enemies.

But the Horowitz report did not deliver a knockout punch. It revealed errors and lapses in some F.B.I. actions, but found no evidence of political bias in the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation, and rejected Mr. Trump’s suggestion that there was an organized Democratic conspiracy against him.

May 2020: As the country reeled from the Covid-19 pandemic, two developments brought Spygate (which had since been rebranded as “Obamagate”) back onto the national stage. First, the Justice Department dropped its criminal case against the former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, a central figure in Spygate, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with a Russian diplomat.

Then, days later, a list of Obama administration officials who might have tried to “unmask” Mr. Flynn was declassified and released by Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence. (“Unmasking,” in intelligence parlance, refers to a process by which officials can seek to reveal the identity of individuals who are referred to anonymously in intelligence documents. Unmasking is common, and such requests are made thousands of times a year.) Those named on the list included former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., giving new fuel to Mr. Trump’s attempt to paint himself as the victim of a partisan conspiracy.

This was, in many ways, the closest that Spygate came to escaping the right-wing media ecosystem. Fox News devoted hours to the theory, which received more airtime than the coronavirus on some days. Mainstream news organizations tried to make sense of the theory, and Mr. Trump himself seemed obsessed with it, even though he often struggled to describe what the conspiracy actually was. In a flurry of more than 100 tweets sent on May 10, Mother’s Day, Mr. Trump raged about Obamagate, and repeated many of the debunked allegations about Obama-era misconduct, Mr. Flynn, and the Russia investigation.

By this point, many Trump supporters had pinned their hopes on two government reports, which they hoped would soon blow the entire scandal wide open.

The first was a sweeping investigation led by John Durham, the U.S. attorney from Connecticut who was tapped by Mr. Barr to look into the origins of the F.B.I.’s Russia probe.

The second was a smaller piece of the Durham investigation led by John Bash, a U.S. attorney Mr. Barr appointed to look into whether Obama-era officials had improperly “unmasked” Mr. Flynn and others.

October 2020: With less than a month to go before the election, Spygate/Obamagate continued to unravel. Mr. Barr has told Republican lawmakers that Mr. Durham’s report would likely not arrive before the election. And the unmasking investigation led by Mr. Bash, which many Spygate aficionados believed would lead to indictments and arrests of top Democrats, instead ended with no findings of irregularities or substantive wrongdoing.

Still, for Mr. Trump, hope springs eternal. He has continued his crusade, comparing Spygate to a “treasonous act” that should disqualify Mr. Biden from the presidency.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 2

Oct. 20, 2020, 1:55 p.m. ET

Oct. 20, 2020, 1:55 p.m. ET


WASHINGTON — When some viewers in Arkansas tuned in to their local television news station last week, they found a surprising report: President Trump had defeated Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the state — three weeks before Election Day.

KNWA, the NBC affiliate serving northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas River Valley, said it was all a mistake. The station had been working on its election-night graphics and mistakenly broadcast fabricated results on a banner at the bottom of the screen during its 5 p.m. local newscast.

In an email, Lisa Kelsey, the vice president and general manager of KNWA and other stations in the area, said the slip-up was inadvertent and only a local issue.

A producer activated the wrong control, which displayed “a crawl of information about the election” for about a minute, she wrote, adding that no election results are currently available.

“We take this mistake very seriously and will ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Ms. Kelsey said in an email.

But the episode highlighted concerns about how news organizations report and characterize incomplete returns on election night and whether, by mistake or design, erroneous or misleading data could shape perceptions about who won before the outcome can be officially declared.

The issue has been a particular concern for Democrats, who fear that Mr. Trump’s statements about election fraud and his reluctance to commit to accepting the outcome could lead him to seize on early returns showing him with a lead to assert that the election is over.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 2

Oct. 20, 2020, 1:08 p.m. ET

Oct. 20, 2020, 1:08 p.m. ET

By Davey Alba and

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 4
Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

A fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites is filling a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. But many of their stories are ordered up by conservative political groups and corporate P.R. firms, a Times investigation found.

We are publishing the names of those sites so readers can see whether the sites target their area.

See the sites ›

We compiled the list with the help of Global Disinformation Index, an internet research group, which analyzed Google advertising and analytics data imprinted in the sites’ digital codes to find links between the sites. We then confirmed that sites belonged to the network by analyzing their layouts, bylines, privacy policies and “About” pages, as well as by interviewing employees and examining internal records of the companies behind the sites.

Columbia University’s Priyanjana Bengani tallied a similar number of websites in August.

The network is run under a web of companies, though it is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a former TV reporter who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. Mr. Timpone did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As a guide, the different segments of the network include nearly 1,000 local news sites under the Metric Media brand; more than 50 business news sites; 34 news sites in Illinois under the Local Government Information Services brand; and 11 legal-news sites owned by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Some of the sites are dormant, and we culled ones from our list that are now defunct. In the past, dormant sites have sprung to life when news hit the region they target, like what happened with the Kenosha Reporter site after protests broke out in Kenosha, Wis., over the police killing of an unarmed Black man there.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 5

Oct. 19, 2020, 5:40 p.m. ET

Oct. 19, 2020, 5:40 p.m. ET


For months, public health experts — backed by guidelines from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have stood firm on one resounding refrain: Against the coronavirus, masks work.

But on Saturday, Dr. Scott Atlas, one of President Trump’s most prominent science advisers, took to Twitter to say otherwise.

“Masks work? NO: LA, Miami, Hawaii, Alabama, France, Phlippnes, UK, Spain, Israel,” Dr. Atlas tweeted, rattling off a list of locations where masks had, in his view, failed to protect large swaths of the population.

The tweet was rapidly debunked by experts, who pointed to a wealth of evidence showing that face coverings reduce the risk that the coronavirus will hop from person to person. Masks, they’ve said, cut down on the amount of virus that is sprayed out of an infected person’s airway. They might also thwart inbound virus by loosely shielding the wearer’s nose and mouth.

Credit…The New York Times

Not long after, Dr. Atlas reshared his first tweet with a message that seemed to walk back his original statement: “Use masks for their intended purpose — when close to others especially hi risk,” he said. “Otherwise, social distance. No widespread mandates.”

On Sunday, Twitter removed Dr. Atlas’s first tweet, saying it violated the company’s policy against false or misleading information about the coronavirus that could lead to harm.

But the damage had already been done: The post had been retweeted at least 1,800 times, and generated over 7,300 likes and replies. The removal then set off a flurry of anti-mask posts, and accusations of tech censorship, across social media. On Facebook, several right-wing pages shared copies of the tweet, while a series of anti-mask and pro-Trump groups and pages claimed that Twitter was suppressing free speech.

Dr. Atlas, a radiologist with no background in infectious disease or public health, has come under heavy fire in recent months for his stances on the coronavirus, which has killed more than 219,000 Americans. Experts have widely dismissed and criticized his views on lockdowns and masking mandates after he has derided them as unnecessary and even harmful in the fight to halt the pandemic.

Dr. Atlas has also promoted the controversial idea that herd immunity — the point at which a virus can no longer spread easily because enough people have contracted it — can be reached when only a small sliver of the community at large has been infected.

In his now-defunct Saturday tweet about masks, Dr. Atlas cast doubt on their usefulness, saying there was little evidence that they reduce disease transmission. As a send-off, he shared a link to an indictment of face coverings published on Friday by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank that recently sponsored a declaration arguing that the coronavirus should be allowed to spread among young healthy people to expedite herd immunity.

Masks, like all other protective measures, cannot halt the coronavirus on their own. But experts consider the accessories a crucial part of the public health tool kit needed to combat the pandemic, alongside tactics such as physical distancing and widely available testing.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 1

Oct. 16, 2020, 6:37 p.m. ET

Oct. 16, 2020, 6:37 p.m. ET




Here at Daily Distortions, we try to debunk false and misleading information that has gone viral. We also want to give you a sense of how popular that misinformation is, in the overall context of what is being discussed on social media. Each Friday, we will feature a list of the 10 most-engaged stories of the week in the United States, as ranked by NewsWhip, a firm that compiles social media performance data. (NewsWhip tracks the number of reactions, shares and comments each story receives on Facebook, along with shares on Pinterest and by a group of influential users on Twitter. This week’s data runs from 9:01 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, until 9 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 16.

The most viral article on social media this week was one that social media companies tried to stop from going viral.

Facebook said it would reduce the visibility of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of Joseph R. Biden Jr., until a third party could fact-check it. Twitter initially banned all links to the article, saying it made the move because the article contained images showing private personal information and because it viewed the article as a violation of its rules against distributing hacked material. But the article still traveled widely on social media, receiving more than two million interactions.

Here is the full list of the week’s most-engaged stories:

1. New York Post: Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad (2,307,293 interactions)

2. Two and a Half Men Star Conchata Ferrell Dies at 77 (1,863,725 interactions)

An obituary for Ms. Ferrell, who played Berta, the housekeeper, on “Two and a Half Men,” was shared widely by the show’s many fans.

3. Fox News: Rep. Doug Collins introduces resolution to push for Pelosi removal as House speaker (1,109,988 interactions)

Mr. Collins’s resolution, which claimed that Representative Nancy Pelosi “does not have the mental fitness” to continue as House speaker, was a largely meaningless symbolic gesture of opposition. But it was red meat for conservatives on Facebook, for whom Ms. Pelosi is an engagement-bait villain.

4. CNBC: Facebook, Twitter make editorial decisions to limit distribution of story claiming to show ‘smoking gun’ emails related to Biden and his son (1,032,917 interactions)

5. ET Online: ‘Dexter’ Revival Starring Michael C. Hall Set at Showtime (960,226 interactions)

Another break from politics, this one about a planned revival of the hit TV show “Dexter,” got nearly a million interactions.

6. The Daily Wire: ‘Legendary’: Barrett Asked To Hold Up Notes She’s Using To Answer Questions. She Holds Up A Blank Notepad. (881,469 interactions)

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing was the subject of two Top 10 articles this week. This one, from the right-wing news site The Daily Wire, focused on her empty notepad.

7. Fox News: Judge Amy Coney Barrett to face Senate confirmation hearing (872,589 interactions)

8. Proclamation on Columbus Day, 2020 (861,279 interactions)

A White House proclamation about Columbus Day, which took aim at “radical activists” who “have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy,” was widely shared by right-wing pages on Facebook and by groups like the National Italian American Foundation.

9. Fox News: Pelosi to announce bill on 25th Amendment after questioning Trump’s health (795,962 interactions)

10. The New York Times: California Republican Party Admits It Placed Misleading Ballot Boxes Around State (722,101 interactions)

A Times article about unofficial ballot boxes that Republican operatives placed in California was shared by several large left-wing Facebook pages, including Occupy Democrats and Ridin’ With Biden.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 1

Oct. 16, 2020, 2:52 p.m. ET

Oct. 16, 2020, 2:52 p.m. ET


Kyle Mann, center, the editor in chief of The Babylon Bee, at its offices in Upland, Calif.
Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times

On Friday, President Trump tweeted a story from an unusual source: The Babylon Bee, a right-wing satire site that is often described as a conservative version of The Onion.

“Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network to Slow Spread of Negative Biden News,” read the story’s headline. The story was a joke, but it was unclear whether Mr. Trump knew that when he shared the link, with the comment “Wow, this has never been done in history.”

Emma Goldberg, a reporter for The New York Times, recently profiled The Babylon Bee, and wrote about how the site’s satire is frequently mistaken for reality.

I chatted with Ms. Goldberg about her article, The Babylon Bee’s habit of skirting the line between misinformation and satire, and how it capitalizes on its audience’s confusion.

So, Emma, you wrote about The Babylon Bee, a satirical news site I’ve been fascinated by for a long time. It’s basically the right-wing version of The Onion, right?

Exactly. And what fascinated me in reporting this is that I’ve followed The Onion for a long time — but The Babylon Bee currently gets more traffic than them, at least according to their internal numbers.

That’s so interesting! (As an aside, I’m looking at some engagement data from Facebook now, and it’s telling me that The Babylon Bee has gotten about 45 million interactions with its Facebook page in the last year, compared with 35 million for The Onion.) Why do you think The Bee is doing so well?

Well, they certainly don’t pull any punches. Their mantra seems to be that everything is fair game: the left, the right, Trump. And in general, on the right, swiping at Trump is considered a red line, but The Bee doesn’t seem to care.

They’ve also tapped into a large audience of people who aren’t hard-line Trumpers, but are much more pissed off by the outrage that Trump generates on the left.

Right, sort of the anti-anti-Trump crowd. And the people who run the site, are they pro-Trump? What do they see themselves as doing, within the larger conservative movement?

They are ambivalent about their views on Trump, but they also proudly identify as Christian conservatives. But I noticed that their early coverage of Trump, back in 2016, was much more vitriolic than today’s. They called him a psychopath, or a megalomaniac. Now they’re more bemused by him and the ghoulish ways he’s described on the left.

But I think their willingness to swipe at him, even gently, gets at an important element for successful humor. What media scholar Brian Rosenwald told me is that the humor always has to come before the politics.

So this is a blog about distortions and misinformation, and one thing I’ve noticed recently is that a lot of The Babylon Bee’s most successful articles in terms of online engagement are the ones that are … less obviously satirical.

Totally. And that’s landed them in some hot water.

Like, one from the other day was called “NBA Players Wear Special Lace Collars to Honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

People were sharing that thinking it was real.


They certainly play to that for virality — their best content is right on the reality-satire line.

I’m wondering the extent to which being a satire site — which makes them exempt from Facebook’s fact-checking program — has allowed them to traffic in misinformation under the guise of comedy. Do you think that’s a deliberate strategy?

Well, that’s a great question, because it’s been a big source of controversy for them. They’ve had a few articles that were fact-checked by Snopes and rated “false.” Which The Bee’s writers and editors claim prompted Facebook to threaten them with being demonetized (Facebook denies this). The Bee’s founder, Adam Ford, has claimed that Snopes fact-checked them in ways that were “egregious,” with standards that wouldn’t be applied to, for example, The Onion.

The Bee feels that they’re being targeted unfairly. But Snopes has poked at the fact that their pieces can sometimes be easily mistaken for real news — which might fall on them, not their readers.

Politics aside, it sort of speaks to the impossible nature of being a satirical site in the age of the mega-platform. Because on one hand, you’ve got to write things that are so obviously made up that they can’t reasonably be mistaken for real news, but also close enough to the truth to be funny.

One hundred percent. Truth is funnier than fiction these days.

One thing I’ve wondered is what the whole “owning the libs” media industrial complex (which I’d categorize The Bee as belonging to, even if they wouldn’t) will do if Trump loses in November. Do you get the sense that The Bee cares who wins the election, from the standpoint of comedic potential?

What’s funny is that because they aren’t Trump loyalists, they can see an advantage for their comedy either way. In some senses, comedy comes a lot easier when you’re not the party in power. But on the other hand, Trump is such an absurd figure that he can lend himself to some really wild caricatures. The editor in chief of The Bee told me Trump is great for comedy, so he’d be happy to see him win — a little later, he added that maybe they’re sick of Trump humor and ready for a change. They also see a lot of humor opportunity in the Biden camp, especially playing off the “Sleepy Joe” motif.

So what I’m taking from this conversation is: The Babylon Bee is not a covert disinformation operation disguised as a right-wing satire site, and is in fact trying to do comedy, but may inadvertently be spreading bad information when people take their stories too seriously?

For the most part. But they also seem to find it pretty funny when their content is mistaken for real news — and they’re not exactly going overboard to stop that.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 8

Oct. 15, 2020, 4:10 p.m. ET

Oct. 15, 2020, 4:10 p.m. ET


For most of Wednesday, users who searched for “Hunter Biden” on YouTube saw a video by the New York Post at the top of the site’s “Top News” shelf.
Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

In all the uproar over how tech companies have handled an unsubstantiated article about Hunter Biden from the New York Post, one major company has stood apart: YouTube.

It has said nothing. And what it has done, if anything, remains a mystery.

On Wednesday, the New York Post uploaded a one-minute, 17-second video highlighting the key points of the article to its YouTube channel, which has more than 430,000 subscribers. For most of that day, users who searched for “Hunter Biden” on YouTube saw the video at the top of the site’s “Top News” shelf. As of midday Thursday, the video had 100,000 views — a respectable figure but certainly not the stuff of viral videos.

In recent years, YouTube has made changes to its “recommendation algorithm” for what it calls borderline content — the types of videos that toe the line between what is acceptable on the platform and what it considers to violate its policies. As a result of those changes, YouTube limits such content from being recommended and keeps the videos from appearing prominently in search results or on its home page.

About 36 hours after the video was posted, YouTube said it would remain up without restriction. “Given the information currently available, content about this news story is allowed on YouTube. We will continue to evaluate content against our policies as new details emerge,” said Farshad Shadloo, a YouTube spokesman.

The response from YouTube stood in sharp contrast to the immediate and public reaction from Facebook and Twitter. Facebook said it would limit the distribution of the article on its platform so that third-party fact checkers could verify the claims. Twitter said it was blocking the article because it included people’s personal information, violating its privacy rules, and because the article violated its policy on hacked materials.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to subpoena Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, to testify on Oct. 23 regarding the company’s decision to block the article. Mr. Dorsey, along with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google, are also scheduled to testify on Oct. 28 about Section 230, the law that shields technology companies from being held liable for some of the content published by its users.

While the number of views on the New York Post video remain subdued, videos related to the article have done extremely well. A Fox Business interview with Stephen K. Bannon, a former White House adviser who played a role in the article, got more than 275,000 views. An interview on Fox News with Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, about getting locked out of her Twitter account after sharing the Post story garnered 795,000 views.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 5

Oct. 14, 2020, 1:23 p.m. ET

Oct. 14, 2020, 1:23 p.m. ET


This week, President Trump exaggerated a position taken by the World Health Organization, saying that the agency had vindicated his derision of lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right,” the president tweeted. “Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”

Mr. Trump’s message was rapidly shared by thousands online, including the commentator Lou Dobbs and Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, who echoed the president’s rallying cry to “open up” and described the closings as “pseudoscientific” and “tyrannical.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, the president has dismissed lockdowns as unnecessary and harmful, even while the virus continued to blaze across the nation.

Mr. Trump did not say which W.H.O. statement he was referring to. But one of the few published recent comments from a W.H.O. official about lockdowns came from David Nabarro, one of several envoys to the organization on Covid-19.

“We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus,” Dr. Nabarro said earlier this month to the British magazine The Spectator. “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted. But by and large, we’d rather not do it.”

“We really do appeal to all world leaders, stop using lockdown as your primary method of control,” Dr. Nabarro said.

Dr. Nabarro described several potential tolls of widespread lockdowns, which have set off economic declines and higher unemployment rates, and have widened disparities in many parts of the world, including the United States.

Dr. Nabarro has also noted that lockdowns may be necessary under some circumstances. In addition, he has advocated for a multifaceted approach to curbing the spread of the coronavirus — a strategy he recently outlined in a written reflection that highlighted the importance of physical distancing, mask-wearing, accessible testing and contact tracing, among other measures, to pinpoint and suppress outbreaks.

In a statement, Hedinn Halldorsson, a spokesman for the W.H.O., reaffirmed that the pandemic needed to be addressed with such a “package” of protective tactics.

“W.H.O. has never advocated for national lockdowns as a primary means for controlling the virus,” he said. “Dr. Nabarro was repeating our advice to governments to ‘do it all.’”

Some countries, like New Zealand, used lockdowns to great success to tame their outbreaks. Others, like South Korea, were able to circumvent them by pushing hard on testing. All success stories, however, have one thing in common: swift action to acknowledge and beat back the virus.

Lockdowns are extreme, and inevitably come with costs, said Syra Madad, a public health expert and epidemiologist based in New York. But they can afford communities much-needed time to ready other methods of containment.

“Had the U.S. been better prepared and responded faster,” Dr. Madad said, perhaps “lockdowns could have been avoided.”

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 10

Oct. 14, 2020, 6:00 a.m. ET

Oct. 14, 2020, 6:00 a.m. ET


Falsehoods about election interference are swirling online, stoking calls for violence on Election Day. The rumors touch on everything from ballot boxes to how the “deep state” — a so-called secret cabal of elites — is involved.

The misinformation is worrying researchers who track such content, and who said the volume of lies online had soared. Some of the individual lies are shared only dozens or hundreds of times each, but added together they have attracted millions of likes and shares across social media and are inflaming an already tense electorate, the researchers said.

Election-related misinformation has “been building up virality, using Facebook pages and groups as fertile ground,” said Fadi Quran, a campaign director at Avaaz, a progressive human rights nonprofit that studied some of the rumors.

Here is a sampling of some of the falsehoods making the rounds online ahead of Election Day.

A Democrat-led Coup

The baseless idea of a Democrat-led coup against President Trump has gained the most traction among election-related rumors about violence, according to Avaaz. A New York Times analysis found at least 938 Facebook groups, 279 Facebook pages, 33 YouTube videos and hundreds of tweets spreading the falsehood, mostly in right-wing circles.

On Sept. 14, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, posted a Facebook video pushing the rumor. It was viewed 2.9 million times.

In a text message, Mr. Bongino said the idea of a Democratic coup was “not a rumor” and that he was busy “exposing LIBERAL violence.”

Blocked Ballots

Some election-related lies are also circulating among left-wing groups. For instance, a left-wing Facebook page called The Other 98% posted in August that mailboxes were being blocked by unknown actors to effectively discourage people from voting. The post with the false claim collected 39,000 likes and comments on the social network and reached 18 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing social media.

In total, voting-by-mail rumors have topped election misinformation this year, according to a September analysis by the media insights company Zignal Labs. Nearly a fourth of all the mentions last month about voting by mail on television, in print and in online news — or 3.1 million mentions — amounted to misinformation, Zignal Labs found.

The Covid ‘Scamdemic’

Another election falsehood spreading on Facebook is the notion that an elite cabal, or “deep state,” was interfering with the vote by inventing the coronavirus pandemic.

One post from August that got 795 likes and comments on Facebook was a meme with the caption, “The Covid scamdemic was devised by the Deep State to promote the use of ballots by mail. This is the way the Democrats can create massive election fraud.”

This lie is representative of how the “deep state” is portrayed online as responsible for all sorts of ills against President Trump. In another rumor, the deep state is bent on destroying ballots voting for Mr. Trump. And the deep state is also represented online as being intent on falsifying votes in favor of Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

A ‘Civil War’ on Election Day

Another widespread rumor is that a “civil war” is being planned and will erupt on Election Day. The baseless idea is showing up on sites like that of Glenn Beck, the former Fox News host and conspiracy theorist, according to a Times analysis. Mr. Beck’s Facebook page, which has three million followers, has also pushed the rumor.

Mr. Beck did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“If Trump wins the election BLM and antifa are going to burn this country down,” said another post on a pro-gun Facebook page, referring to the Black Lives Matter racial justice protesters and antifa, a loose collective of far-left activists. “If Biden wins they come for your freedom and your guns. Either way a War is coming. Are you ready?”

The posts about a looming civil war aim to create an atmosphere of fear so that voters are deterred from voting on Election Day, misinformation experts said.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 11

Oct. 13, 2020, 1:01 p.m. ET

Oct. 13, 2020, 1:01 p.m. ET


A protester holds an anti-vaccination sign as supporters of President Trump rallied to reopen California in May.
Credit…David McNew/Getty Images

Facebook on Tuesday said it would no longer allow anti-vaccination ads on its platform, in another reversal of its longtime stance of avoiding being the referee on thorny issues.

Facebook had previously shied away from stepping into debates over public health, even as anti-vaccination content on its site proliferated. But this year, it took a stand against false information related to the coronavirus to prevent public harm. It also has removed vaccine-related hoaxes that were identified by global health organizations.

In its updated policy on Tuesday, Facebook went further. The company said it would no longer permit people or entities to purchase ads that actively discourage people from getting vaccinated, or that portray vaccines as unsafe, useless or use other harmful descriptions.

“Our goal is to help messages about the safety and efficacy of vaccines reach a broad group of people, while prohibiting ads with misinformation that could harm public health efforts,” said Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s head of health initiatives, in a company blog post. “We don’t want these ads on our platform.”

Facebook, which has been under pressure for allowing toxic and harmful misinformation to flow across its site, has lately banned an increasing amount of content. On Monday, the company said that it would no longer accept posts that denied the existence of the Holocaust. Last week, the company expanded a crackdown on the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon and also said that it would suspend political advertising after the Nov. 3 election for an unspecified period of time.

The number of content and ad bans stands out because Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has long said that he is a proponent of free speech and of allowing all types of content to be posted on the social network. Facebook did not address its position on free speech on Tuesday.

Facebook has faced scrutiny for the amount of conspiracy theories and propaganda against vaccinations. Those who are against vaccines have been highly active on Facebook, operating in private Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. Tuesday’s move will not remove user-generated content.

The company also will still allow ads that argue against creating government policies for vaccination, but the entities running those ads will need to be “authorized,” Facebook said. Those ads will include a “paid for” label along with the name of the organization.

Mr. Jin also said Facebook will elevate posts from partners at the World Health Organization and UNICEF to increase immunization rates through public health messaging campaigns.

The social network positioned its policy change as part of the regular re-evaluations of content across the site.

“We regularly refine our approach around ads that are about social issues to capture debates and discussions around sensitive topics happening on Facebook,” Mr. Jin said in the blog post. “Vaccines are no different. While we may narrow enforcement in some areas, we may expand it in others.”

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 5

Oct. 13, 2020, 12:44 p.m. ET

Oct. 13, 2020, 12:44 p.m. ET


阅读简体中文版 | 閱讀繁體中文版

An overwhelming body of evidence continues to affirm that the coronavirus almost certainly made its hop into humans from an animal source — as many, many other deadly viruses are known to do.

But since the early days of the pandemic, experts have had to fight to combat misinformed rumors that the coronavirus emerged from a lab as part of a sinister scientific project.

Last week, yet another piece of unfounded and misleading prose entered the fray: a study, posted online but not published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, contending that the virus is artificial and an “unrestricted bio-weapon” released by Chinese researchers.

The manuscript also baselessly denounced several parties, including policymakers, scientific journals and even individual researchers, for censoring and criticizing the lab-made hypothesis, accusing them of deliberate obfuscation of fact and “colluding” with the Chinese Communist Party.

Though scientists immediately condemned the study as disreputable and dangerous, it rapidly commanded a storm of social media attention, garnering more than 14,000 likes on Twitter and more than 12,000 retweets and quote-tweets within days of its posting. Shared on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, it reached millions of users, and was covered in at least a dozen articles written in several languages.

The paper’s findings, however, have no basis in science.

“It’s ridiculous and unfounded,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University who criticized the study on Twitter the day it was released. “It’s masquerading as scientific evidence, but really it’s just a dumpster fire.”

The publication is the second in a series from a team led by Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese scientist who released an initial paper on Sept. 14, also not peer-reviewed, asserting that the coronavirus was synthetic. Dr. Yan’s background is a little murky. She left her position as a postdoctoral research fellow at Hong Kong University for undisclosed reasons some time ago, according to a July statement from the institution, and fled to the United States. Both papers list Dr. Yan and her co-authors as affiliated with the Rule of Law Society, a nonprofit whose founders include Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, who has since been charged in an unrelated case of fraud.

“That alone should give people pause,” Dr. Rasmussen said of the team’s connection to Mr. Bannon’s nonprofit.

Dr. Yan and her colleagues did not respond to a request for comment.

Their original paper — known as “the Yan report” — was also seized upon by thousands online and reported on in The New York Post, even though experts rapidly debunked its findings. Researchers called it unscientific and said it ignored the wealth of data pointing to the virus’s natural origins.

Close relatives of the new coronavirus exist in bats. The virus may have moved directly into people from bats, or first jumped into another animal, such as a pangolin, before transitioning into humans. Both scenarios have played out before with other pathogens.

“We have a very good picture of how a virus of this kind could circulate and spill over into human beings,” said Brandon Ogbunu, a disease ecologist at Yale University.

It may take quite some time to pinpoint exactly which animals harbored the virus along this chain of transmission, if scientists ever do at all — inevitably leaving some parts of the virus’s origin story ambiguous. Like many other conspiracy theories, the lab-made hypothesis “exploits the open questions in an ongoing investigation,” Dr. Ogbunu said.

But there is no evidence so far to support a synthetic source for the virus.

Dr. Yan’s Twitter account was suspended in September 2020 for pushing coronavirus disinformation. She shared the “second Yan report” from a second Twitter account, which has gained more than 34,000 followers.

Together, the papers written by Dr. Yan and her colleagues lay out what they identified as abnormalities in the genome sequence of the coronavirus. They suggested that those unusual features indicated that the virus’s genome had been purposefully spliced together and modified, using the genetic material from other viruses — a sort of Frankenstein’s monster pathogen, Dr. Yan told Fox News in September. The cousins of the coronavirus that had been identified in bats, they said, were also fake, human-made constructions, thus supposedly quashing the natural origin hypothesis.

The authors also contended that the coronavirus’s genome had been manipulated by scientists to enhance the virus’s ability to infect human cells and cause disease.

But outside experts have found no validity in either Yan report. The first was “full of contradictory statements and unsound interpretations” of genetic data from viruses, said Kishana Taylor, a virologist at Carnegie Mellon University.

And the second Yan report “was even more unhinged than the first,” said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an author of a response debunking the original Yan report.

The supposedly strange features found in the genomes of the coronavirus and its natural relatives aren’t actually red flags at all, Dr. Ogbunu said. Viruses frequently move between animal hosts, changing their genetic material along the way — sometimes even swapping hunks of their genomes with other viruses. And many of the purported abnormalities in the coronavirus are found in other virus genomes.

The notion that the coronavirus was “designed” to be dangerous is also “just nonsense,” Dr. Ogbunu said. Scientists don’t know enough about viruses to predict which mutations would increase their lethality, let alone engineer these changes into new pathogens in the lab.

Building the coronavirus from such a mishmash of genetic templates, as described by Dr. Yan and her colleagues, would also raise herculean logistical hurdles for even the most dogged scientists. Part of this process would require researchers to laboriously tinker with thousands of individual letters in the alphabet soup that is a virus’s genome — an absurdly inefficient scientific strategy, Dr. Rasmussen said.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Dr. Rasmussen said. “And this is not that.”

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 13

Oct. 13, 2020, 11:10 a.m. ET

Oct. 13, 2020, 11:10 a.m. ET


Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt.
Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

President Trump owes a lot of money: hundreds of millions of dollars of it.

Whom he owes it to has been the subject of countless conspiracy theories. Lately, liberals and other social media accounts have been spreading rumors, presented as fact, that he owes it to the Kremlin or Russian oligarchs.

After The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s federal tax returns showed that he had personally guaranteed $421 million of debt, questions about who lent him all this money have reached the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. “It’d be really good to know who the president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, owes money to, because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president’s decisions,” Senator Kamala Harris said at last week’s vice-presidential debate.

The answers are not hard to come by.

According to Mr. Trump’s latest financial disclosure report, filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, he owes at least $135 million to a smattering of small financial institutions such as Ladder Capital. His biggest creditor — to whom Mr. Trump owes well over $300 million — is Deutsche Bank. From 2012 through 2015, the scandal-plagued German bank lent Mr. Trump money for his Doral golf resort in Florida ($125 million), his hotel in Washington ($170 million) and his skyscraper in Chicago (at least $45 million).

Why on earth would Deutsche Bank have lent hundreds of millions to Mr. Trump given his track record of stiffing his lenders, including Deutsche Bank itself?

One conspiracy theory is that Deutsche Bank agreed to make the loans because they were backstopped by Russians — the Kremlin or a state-owned bank or an oligarch. If Mr. Trump were to default, it would be the Russians, not Deutsche Bank, on the hook for the losses.

Another, related claim is that after Deutsche Bank made the loans, it sold chunks of them to Russians. It is common for large loans to be syndicated or securitized — in other words, chopped up and sold to investors. In the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, Deutsche Bank did this with some of its large loans to Mr. Trump.

Under this theory, the president would owe the money to Russians, not the German bank.

There is a certain logic to this. Russians interfered on Mr. Trump’s behalf in the 2016 election. Deutsche Bank is the only mainstream financial institution that’s been consistently willing to do business with Mr. Trump. And Deutsche Bank for decades has had close ties to Russia and has facilitated money laundering for wealthy Russians.

But the theories don’t hold up.

Deutsche Bank didn’t chop up and sell the latest batch of debt — the only portion that is still outstanding, according to bank officials with direct knowledge of the transactions. The loans remain on Deutsche Bank’s books.

It is true that Deutsche Bank was willing to lend to Mr. Trump when few others would. But there is an explanation. To overcome the bank’s wariness, Mr. Trump agreed to personally guarantee most of the debt on all of the loans. That meant that if he defaulted, Deutsche Bank could seize his personal assets, as The Times has previously reported.

The result was that the loans would generate fees and interest payments for Deutsche Bank but would entail little financial risk.

Deutsche Bank remains a vast repository for Mr. Trump’s financial secrets, and the president’s lawyers have spent more than a year fighting against congressional subpoenas for the bank’s records related to Mr. Trump. It is not impossible that evidence will emerge that muddies this picture.

For now, though, it isn’t very complicated.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 14

Oct. 12, 2020, 12:37 p.m. ET

Oct. 12, 2020, 12:37 p.m. ET


On Monday, Mark Zuckerberg announced he was reversing his decision: Facebook, he said, would now ban content that “denies or distorts the Holocaust.”
Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

In 2018, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, famously cited Holocaust deniers in a fumbled attempt to make a point about free speech.

At the time, he said the deniers — those who reject or distort the Holocaust, a genocide in which millions of Jews and others were killed by Nazis and their collaborators during World War II — were a key example of people whom he personally disagreed with. But, he said, he did not think Facebook should censor or remove what they posted “because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”

On Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg announced he was reversing his decision. Facebook, he said, would now ban content that “denies or distorts the Holocaust.”

In announcing the change, Facebook cited a recent survey that found that nearly a quarter of American adults ages 18 to 39 said they believed the Holocaust either was a myth or was exaggerated, or they weren’t sure whether it happened.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in his blog post. “Drawing the right lines between what is and isn’t acceptable speech isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.”

Mr. Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that he does not want Facebook to be an arbiter of free speech. The Silicon Valley company has faced plenty of criticism for that stance, including from civil rights groups who have said Facebook has allowed toxic speech and misinformation to flow unchecked on its site. Many have called for Mr. Zuckerberg to rethink his position.

More recently, the social network has become more proactive about removing some content, including banning the QAnon conspiracy movement and taking a stronger line against hate and vigilante groups. Facebook has said it has made some of the changes because QAnon has been linked to real-world harm and vigilante groups have been arrested for violent acts.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it was re-evaluating its stance on free speech.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 10

Oct. 12, 2020, 6:00 a.m. ET

Oct. 12, 2020, 6:00 a.m. ET


People are engaging more on Facebook today with news outlets that routinely publish misinformation than they did before the 2016 election.
Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

During the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms to spread disinformation to divide the American electorate. Since then, the social media companies have spent billions of dollars and hired tens of thousands of people to help clean up their act.

But have the platforms really become more sophisticated at handling misinformation?

Not necessarily.

People are engaging more on Facebook today with news outlets that routinely publish misinformation than they did before the 2016 election, according to new research from the German Marshall Fund Digital, the digital arm of the public policy think tank. The organization, which has a data partnership with the start-up NewsGuard and the social media analytics firm NewsWhip, published its findings on Monday.

In total, Facebook likes, comments and shares of articles from news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods and misleading content roughly tripled from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2020, the group found.

About two thirds of those likes and comments were of articles published by 10 outlets, which the researchers categorized as “false content producers” or “manipulators.” Those news outlets included Palmer Report and The Federalist, according to the research.

The group used ratings from NewsGuard, which ranks news sites based on how they uphold nine journalistic principles, to sort them into “false content producers,” which repeatedly publish provably false content; and “manipulators,” which regularly present unsubstantiated claims or that distort information to make an argument.

“We have these sites that masquerade as news outlets online. They’re allowed to,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of GMF Digital. “It’s infecting our discourse and it’s affecting the long-term health of the democracy.”

Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said that analyzing likes, shares and comments to draw conclusions was “misleading” because the data does not capture what most people see on Facebook. The social network does not make other data, such as the reach of posts, publicly available; engagement data is the only information it provides.

Ms. Kornbluh said Facebook users engaged more with articles from all news outlets this year because the coronavirus pandemic forced people to quarantine indoors. But the growth rate of likes, shares and comments of content from manipulators and false content producers exceeded the interactions that people had with what the researchers called “legitimate journalistic outlets,” such as Reuters, Associated Press and Bloomberg.

Ms. Kornbluh said social media firms face a conundrum because their businesses rely on viral content to bring in users, who they can then show ads to. Tamping down on misinformation “just runs against their economic incentives,” she said.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 1

Oct. 9, 2020, 4:31 p.m. ET

Oct. 9, 2020, 4:31 p.m. ET



Video player loading

Here at Daily Distortions, we try to debunk false and misleading information that has gone viral. We also want to give you a sense of how popular that misinformation is, in the overall context of what is being discussed on social media. Each Friday, we will feature a list of the 10 most-engaged stories of the week in the United States, as ranked by NewsWhip, a firm that compiles social media performance data. (NewsWhip tracks the number of reactions, shares and comments each story receives on Facebook, along with shares on Pinterest and by a group of influential users on Twitter.)

The mainstream news cycle this week was dominated by the fallout from President Trump’s Covid-19 hospitalization, the collapse of coronavirus-relief stimulus talks and the debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence.

But on social media, the death of the rocker Eddie Van Halen made more of a splash. So did articles about Mr. Pence’s opposition to abortion and a trolling campaign waged against the Proud Boys, the extremist right-wing group mentioned during last week’s presidential debate, by gay men who flooded the #ProudBoys hashtag with pro-gay posts.

Here is an annotated list of the 10 most-engaged news stories of the past seven days.

1. TMZ: Eddie Van Halen Dead at 65 (3,504,366 interactions)

TMZ broke the news of Mr. Van Halen’s death, after what it described as a battle with lung cancer that went “massively downhill.”

2. NBC News: Trump kills stimulus talks, tweets no deal until ‘after I win’ election (3,069,835 interactions)

Mr. Trump’s decision to end stimulus talks was the second-most-engaged story of the week. He has since backtracked from the position.

3. New York Post: Eddie Van Halen, rock guitar god, dead of throat cancer at 65 (2,150,021 interactions)

4. The Los Angeles Times: Eddie Van Halen, grinning guitar god for a rock generation, dies at 65 (1,791,539 interactions)

5. The Washington Times: Netflix indicted on child porn charges over ‘Cuties’ (1,190,841 interactions)

The controversy surrounding “Cuties,” a documentary that some critics — including believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory — accused of sexualizing underage girls, escalated this week after a grand jury in Tyler County, Texas, charged Netflix with promoting lewdness.

6. CNBC: Mike Pence on Supreme Court nomination and Roe v. Wade: ‘I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it’ (1,112,253 interactions)

Mr. Pence’s comments about Roe v. Wade during the vice-presidential debate went viral after Franklin Graham, a conservative evangelical with an enormous Facebook following, shared them.

7. Variety: Eddie Van Halen Dies at 65 (1,104,550 interactions)

8. Forbes: The Proud Boys Are Furious That Gay Men Have Taken Over #ProudBoys On Twitter (1,097,261 interactions)

A social media movement to troll the Proud Boys with positive depictions of gay men got tons of attention this week, after it was shared by left-wing Facebook accounts including The Other 98% and the Democratic Coalition Against Trump.

9. Rolling Stone: Eddie Van Halen, Hall of Fame Guitarist Who Revolutionized Instrument, Dead at 65 (1,067,982 interactions)

10. The New York Times: ‘We Need to Take Away Children,’ No Matter How Young, Justice Dept. Officials Said (1,042,578 interactions)

The Times’s investigation of top Justice Department officials who pushed for a child separation immigration policy got more than a million interactions after it was shared by popular left-wing accounts including Hillary Clinton, Robert Reich and Bill Maher.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 1

Oct. 8, 2020, 5:59 p.m. ET

Oct. 8, 2020, 5:59 p.m. ET


Contracting Covid-19 may have put President Trump in the hospital, jeopardized his re-election campaign, and drawn attention to his administration’s failures to contain the deadly pathogen. But it’s been great for his Facebook page.

For the week that ended Saturday, the president received 27 million reactions, shares and comments on his Facebook posts, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics platform.

That number broke the president’s previous weekly record of 25 million interactions, which came in November 2016, the week he was elected. (Mr. Trump’s highest single-day total was on Election Day that year, when he received 12.3 million interactions.)

The president’s most-engaged post came on Saturday, the day after he was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It was Mr. Trump’s first appearance on social media after his hospitalization, and he claimed his treatment was “going well, I think!” The post received more than three million interactions.

A post by Mr. Trump two days later, in which he told his followers, “don’t be afraid of Covid,” got more than 1.5 million interactions. The post was widely criticized by medical experts for downplaying the risks of the virus, and critics called for it to be taken down from Facebook and Twitter. But neither company took it down, saying it did not pose an immediate threat of physical harm.

Facebook did take down another of the president’s posts, in which he falsely claimed that Covid-19 was less lethal than the flu. Twitter left the same post up, but covered it with a warning that it violated the company’s rules on Covid-19 misinformation.

Mr. Trump responded to that takedown by calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields internet platforms from some lawsuits. The president has repeatedly claimed that Facebook and other social networks are biased against conservatives, despite evidence that right-wing content is some of the highest-performing material on the platforms.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Engagement data doesn’t capture how widely posts are seen in users’ feeds, or whether the reactions to them are positive or negative. But most of the responses to Mr. Trump’s posts appeared to be from well-wishers and people hoping for a speedy recovery. Of the 2.5 million interactions on his Saturday post saying his treatment was “going well,” nearly all were accompanied by the “like,” “heart” or “hug” emoji. (Only 1,200 people reacted with the frowny-face emoji.)

Mr. Trump has been one of Facebook’s most popular accounts for years. But in the months leading up to the election, the engagement on his page has been growing, allowing him to circumvent the mainstream media and turning him into a major broadcaster in his own right. Last month, the president received 87 million Facebook interactions — more than CNN, ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed combined.

Joe Biden, Mr. Trump’s Democratic challenger, also had one of his best-ever weeks of Facebook engagement, with 4.7 million interactions — less than one-fifth of Mr. Trump’s total.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 5

Oct. 8, 2020, 3:16 p.m. ET

Oct. 8, 2020, 3:16 p.m. ET


The cocktail is made by the pharmaceutical company Regeneron.
Credit…Melissa Bunni Elian for The New York Times

On Wednesday, President Trump portrayed as a miracle “cure” the experimental antibody cocktail he took for his case of Covid-19, which had landed him in Walter Reed National Medical Military Center just days before. Mr. Trump returned to the White House three days after taking the drug.

But the antibody treatment, made by the drug company Regeneron, has not yet been proven effective against the coronavirus by rigorous clinical trials in people.

Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care physician at the University of Virginia, noted that it was not yet possible to tell whether the treatment actually “cured,” or even significantly benefited, the president. Doctors administered it to Mr. Trump alongside other therapies, including an antiviral called remdesivir and a steroid called dexamethasone. The latter is known to provoke a temporary surge in well-being.

“From a scientific standpoint, it makes it extremely hard to figure out what benefit came from which of the three medications,” Dr. Bell said.

Medical experts were also quick to point out that Mr. Trump’s touting of the treatment was at least the third time this year that the president has exaggerated the benefits of an unapproved Covid-19 therapy. He had previously promoted hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma, and on Wednesday advocated making the antibody treatment “free” for anyone who needed it.

Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that researchers attempted to repurpose for use in people with the coronavirus, was repeatedly championed — and taken — by Mr. Trump, despite a lack of evidence that it worked. After granting emergency authorization for use of hydroxychloroquine, the Food and Drug Administration revoked it, citing studies showing that the drug did not help Covid-19 patients and could cause serious side effects in some.

Convalescent plasma is the antibody-rich portion of blood donated by people who have recovered from Covid-19. Mr. Trump pressured the F.D.A. to give the treatment emergency approval in August, even though there was no strong evidence that it benefited sick patients.

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine physician at Brown University, said that the endless cycle of talking up new treatments — many of which might not pan out — could erode public trust in science and medicine.

“It’s like the boy who cried wolf,” she said. “It’s going to make it more difficult to get the real changers.”

Experts think monoclonal antibodies, like the cocktail taken by Mr. Trump, could fare better than hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma.

The treatment is “super promising, and all of us are excited from a theoretical perspective,” Dr. Ranney said. “But it’s just too early,” she added, to tell if theory will translate into practice.

Monoclonal antibodies are synthetic, mass-produced mimics of the molecules the human body produces in response to an infection. Some antibodies are powerful enough to block the coronavirus from infiltrating cells. Administered to people battling the coronavirus, the monoclonal antibodies could help naturally produced immune molecules fend off the virus.

Just days before Mr. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus and was admitted to the hospital, Regeneron announced a batch of preliminary results, collected from ongoing trials, via news release. They suggested Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail could tamp down the amount of virus found in the nasal cavity, and hasten recovery in people who had contracted the virus but hadn’t been hospitalized.

On Wednesday evening, Regeneron announced it was seeking an emergency approval from the F.D.A. for its antibody cocktail.

The data so far for monoclonal antibodies looks “very promising,” said Dr. Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco. But it’s crucial, she added, to let the trials run to completion to fully assess safety and efficacy. Unanticipated side effects could crop up, or the treatment might not perform as well in certain people as it does in others.

Mr. Trump’s allusions to making monoclonal antibodies “free” for widespread use are also probably off base. Monoclonal antibodies are expensive and difficult to produce in large quantities. Regeneron estimated that it would initially have enough doses for only 50,000 people, though the company plans to scale up production in coming months.

What’s cheaper, Dr. Ranney said, are the many preventive strategies available to keep the virus from infecting people in the first place, such as masks and physical distancing: “How about we focus on that?”

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 14

Oct. 7, 2020, 2:20 p.m. ET

Oct. 7, 2020, 2:20 p.m. ET


QAnon followers were speculating on Tuesday night that Facebook’s new ban on all QAnon groups and pages was part of a complex plan by the Trump administration to root out the “deep state” and arrest their enemies. Or the social media company was trying to squelch the impending news that President Trump was about to crack down on his foes.

QAnon believers were making both arguments. Neither was true.

Earlier on Tuesday, Facebook announced it would remove any group, page or Instagram account associated with the QAnon conspiracy. Within 24 hours, hundreds of groups had disappeared, many of them with hundreds of thousands of followers.

After the ban, QAnon believers began to speculate on Twitter and other social media platforms that Facebook’s move was a sign that the moment they had predicted — Mr. Trump reveals his long fight with satanic pedophiles — had finally arrived.

Credit…Illustration by The New York Times

One tweet, which was liked nearly 1,000 times, linked to an announcement by the Justice Department of a news conference Wednesday morning on a matter of “national security.” The tweet claimed the Justice Department was preparing charges against a number of senior Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.

Similar tweets by QAnon believers said the news conference would have even bigger news, including an appearance by Mr. Trump to announce that he had arrested hundreds of members of a shadowy group that QAnon believers falsely claim are secretly running a satanic cabal. Many of those tweets were also shared and liked hundreds of times.

The Justice Department’s news conference on Wednesday detailed the investigation and arrest of several members of the Islamic State terrorist organization. There was no mention of the satanic cabal that QAnon followers claim Mr. Trump is battling.

But after the conference ended, QAnon adherents still maintained the Justice Department would deliver on the sprawling conspiracy theory that their members have spun over years.

Researchers who study QAnon said it was typical of the group to incorporate new conspiracies into their narrative to account for inaccurate predictions. Travis View, a host of “QAnon Anonymous,” a podcast that seeks to explain the movement, said the group was already rallying around the idea that a surprise was coming in October or November.

Conspiracy theories, Mr. View said, have a way of continuing to live on, even after being repeatedly proven false.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 5

Oct. 6, 2020, 12:35 p.m. ET

Oct. 6, 2020, 12:35 p.m. ET


A nurse practitioner administering a flu vaccine at a pharmacy in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Mere hours after defiantly advising Americans not to fear the coronavirus or let it “dominate your life,” President Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday morning with misleading comparisons of Covid-19 to the flu.

“Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Are we going to let it close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

But his comparisons of Covid-19 and the flu stand in sharp contrast to months of data gathered by experts, who have repeatedly said that the coronavirus poses a far more serious threat than influenza viruses. Based on data gathered thus far, most flu viruses are less deadly and less contagious than the coronavirus. And while flu vaccines and federally approved treatments for the flu exist, no such products have been fully cleared by governing bodies for use against the coronavirus.

Twitter appended a note to Mr. Trump’s tweet, saying that it violated the company’s rules about spreading false and misleading information about the virus. But it kept the post up, saying that it was in the public interest to keep it accessible. Facebook removed a similar post from Mr. Trump, saying that the company removes incorrect information about the coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 24,000 and 62,000 flu-related deaths occur in the United States each year — substantially fewer than Mr. Trump claimed. In February, Mr. Trump stuck closer to the facts at a White House news conference. “The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me,” he said at the time. Earlier that month, according to the recent book by Bob Woodward, Mr. Trump described the coronavirus as “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” On average, seasonal flu strains kill about 0.1 percent of the people they infect.

The coronavirus, on the other hand, has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States, and more than one million worldwide, since the start of 2020. The virus’s true mortality rate remains unclear, as it is difficult to gather such data while the pandemic rages on. Inadequate testing has also made it hard to pinpoint how many people have been stricken by the virus, which can spread silently from people who never show symptoms.

Still, estimates from experts tend to put the coronavirus’s death rate higher than the flu’s. The virus’s death toll was especially high in late winter and spring, when hospitals were overwhelmed, clinically tested treatments were scarce and masking and distancing were even more scarce than they are now.

“This is basically nonsensical ranting and raving,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, said about Mr. Trump’s statements. “This just demonstrates that, for a businessman, President Trump doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp of mathematics.”

Frequent encounters with past flu strains, in combination with effective vaccines, can also bolster the body’s defenses against new flu viruses. The coronavirus, however, has swept through a defenseless population of unprepared hosts at a dizzying rate.

Deaths also don’t reveal the entire picture. Researchers still don’t fully understand the long-term consequences of coronavirus infections, which have saddled a growing number of people, called long-haulers, with serious and debilitating symptoms that can linger for weeks or months.

Medical experts have also warned that as the northern hemisphere cools for winter, the flu and Covid-19 could collide, fueling a new spate of deaths.

Mr. Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week, has downplayed the severity of the pathogen several times in recent days, even though he was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for Covid-19. While at the hospital, he received several therapies typically designated only for those who are very seriously ill.

How the ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled 11

Oct. 5, 2020, 6:52 p.m. ET

Oct. 5, 2020, 6:52 p.m. ET


Facebook and Twitter have pledged to keep their networks safe from misinformation about the coronavirus to protect the public’s health. But on Monday, the sites were tested when President Trump posted that people should not be afraid of the disease.

“Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Mr. Trump wrote on his Facebook and Twitter pages, saying he would be discharged from the Walter Reed military hospital after being treated there for Covid-19 the last few days. “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Medical experts immediately took issue with the post. More than 200,000 Americans have died from the virus, and more than 35 million cases have been reported around the world. Dr. Bob Wachter, the chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said Mr. Trump’s tweet was “breathtakingly callous, inhumane & counterproductive.” Dr. Bernard P. Chang of Columbia University’s department of emergency medicine warned that people should remain afraid of the virus.

But Facebook and Twitter did nothing about Mr. Trump’s post, even though the companies have publicized their coronavirus misinformation policies.

Facebook has said it does not allow coronavirus posts that can lead to direct physical harm, and will redirect people to a Covid-19 information center. Twitter also removes only posts that contain demonstrably false information with the “highest likelihood of leading to physical harm.”

For Facebook and Twitter, these details matter. They are paying close attention to whether or not Mr. Trump is giving a specific direction or command to engage in an activity that could immediately put people in danger. When he suggested in April that experts look into whether people could inject disinfectant to fight off the coronavirus, Facebook and Twitter used the same yardstick and took no action to remove clips and posts about the unproven treatment.

Mr. Trump and his director of social media, Dan Scavino, have hewed closely to the line of what is allowed on various social media accounts over the past four years, seemingly pushing the envelope as far as possible without inciting the tech companies to take punitive action.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. A Twitter spokesman said the tweet did not violate the company’s rules since it did not include a clear call to action that could potentially cause real-world harm.

By Monday evening, Mr. Trump’s tweet and Facebook post on Covid-19 had been viewed by more than one million people across both networks. Mr. Trump later posted a video reiterating that people should not let the virus dominate their lives. “Get out there,” he said. “The vaccines are coming momentarily.”