POLITICS
28/07/2020 22:39 BST | Updated 29/07/2020 21:23 BST

How Quack Doctors And Powerful GOP Operatives Spread Misinformation To Millions

A group calling itself “America’s Frontline Doctors” spread false information about COVID-19 with the help of Facebook, right-wing media and President Trump.

A seemingly obscure Capitol Hill press conference by a fringe group of self-proclaimed medical experts quickly became on Monday the most widely seen propaganda video about the coronavirus after Breitbart News livestreamed it on Facebook. The post racked up tens of millions of views across social media in a matter of hours, far surpassing the traffic of the infamous “Plandemic” disinformation video. It grabbed the attention of President Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr., who had his Twitter account partially suspended for sharing a link to the video.

The video featured a string of right-wing talking points that criticized lockdown measures, demonized public health officials, called for schools to reopen and urged Americans not to wear face masks. The speakers, who were all portrayed as doctors, often declared hydroxychloroquine a “cure” for COVID-19. (No legitimate medical organizations have recognized any “cure” for COVID-19, and multiple clinical trials have shown hydroxychloroquine is not beneficial in treating the virus.)

One of the main characters in the clip was a religious minister and pediatrician who has previously warned against having sex with demons — so at first glance, it would be easy to characterize the video as just another random conspiracy crank finding a massive audience thanks to Facebook. 

But in fact, a conservative dark-money group was behind the press event that created this viral propaganda moment. The group featured in the video, “America’s Frontline Doctors,” sprang from nowhere only days ago and appears connected to groups involved in the Save Our Country Coalition, which was a driving force behind the “reopen” protests in April that lobbied for America’s rapid reopening, even as death tolls spike in hot spots across the country.

As Donald Trump’s reelection prospects dwindle amid his administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic, right-wing politicians and media figures have aggressively downplayed the threat of the virus and echoed Trump’s disproven claims about the efficacy of hydroxychloriquine, an anti-malarial drug. This week’s episode, bolstered by Republican operatives, recklessly amplified by social media giants and promoted by the president himself, is a flashing warning about their ability to disseminate dangerous propaganda quickly and widely. 

The Save Our Country Coalition

Monday’s livestreamed event featuring the America’s Frontline Doctors group was organized by Tea Party Patriots, a wealthy Republican donor-backed nonprofit that, in partnership with FreedomWorks and other right-wing dark money groups, launched the Save Our Country Coalition in April to push for America’s rapid reopening. Jenny Beth Martin, TPP’s co-founder, spoke at the conference alongside the self-proclaimed frontline doctors, urging people to call their elected officials to demand access to hydroxychloroquine.

Simone Gold, the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, has been a go-to source for Fox News on the so-called dangers of strict coronavirus measures and has spoken at several reopen rallies.

It’s not clear to what extent the Save Our Country Coalition was behind Monday’s press event; the America’s Frontline Doctors website discloses no affiliation to any other group, nor does it proclaim itself a 501(c) nonprofit. 

But Tea Party Patriots is clearly involved in both efforts, and the Monday press conference was directly in line with SOC’s push to downplay the pandemic. FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

One of the people spearheading SOC’s efforts is GOP operative and Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore, who last year withdrew from consideration for a job with the Federal Reserve and joined a group of entrepreneurs seeking to create a cryptocurrency central bank.

Moore had encouraged lockdown protests earlier this year, stating on a conservative YouTube program in mid-April that he heard from a “big donor in Wisconsin” who would pay the legal fees for anyone who gets arrested for rallying against stay-at-home orders at the State Capitol.

SOC’s honorary chairman is conservative economist Arthur Laffer, whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to last year. Laffer has also mentored Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, reported Reuters.

The coalition’s groups have largely been funded by prominent billionaires, including oil and gas mogul Charles Koch ― who has donated to SOC group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ― and Richard Uihlein, a major donor to Tea Party Patriots. Uihlein also backed Roy Moore during his Senate run in Alabama even after he was accused of sexually assaulting underage girls.

Former ALEC staffer Jerry Taylor, a co-founder of the nonpartisan Niskanen Center, condemned SOC’s efforts to undermine leading public health officials last month.

“The political actors involved with these groups are united both in their hostility to mainstream science — which they consider a conspiratorial leftist plot to destroy free market capitalism — and their superficial understanding of economics,” Taylor told The Guardian. “Fully reopening the economy will not produce an economic recovery until the coronavirus is contained and can stay contained.”

A Strange Group Of Doctors

Many of the members of America’s Frontline Doctors have promoted fringe views that go against overwhelming medical evidence. The group includes a pro-Trump physician who has appeared on Fox News advocating against lockdowns and an evangelical Christian minister who has promoted bizarre claims about DNA from space aliens being used in medical treatment. Dr. Stella Immmanuel, a minister who operates a tiny walk-in medical clinic out of a strip mall in Texas, falsely claimed there was a “cure” for COVID-19 and suggested that people did not need to wear masks. 

Immanuel is the author of several books which contain homophobic and extreme views, as well as writing that the “Harry Potter” series makes society “accept demonic activity and witchcraft as normal” and that “demonic music has penetrated the souls of our children and programmed them with an anti-Christ message.”

It is unclear how the group came together, but several have become popular in conservative circles for promoting views that align with Trump’s rhetoric on the pandemic.

Gold includes some vague details about her background in a bio on her website, which states that she worked in Washington D.C. for the Surgeon General, as well as for the Chairman of the Labor & Human Resources Committee.” 

But a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the Office of the Surgeon General, could not confirm that Gold worked in the office.

According to her LinkedIn page, Gold briefly served as a congressional fellow in 1997, in which she participated in “research and analysis of health policy issues” and wrote speeches for Sen. Jim Jeffords, the Republican chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at the time. 

Gold did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine

Far-right website Breitbart News posted the video to Facebook on Monday, triggering its viral spread across other social media sites.

A cycle of right-wing actors spreading misinformation, then playing the role of free speech martyr, was in full effect on Tuesday morning, as multiple pro-Trump media outlets and activists promoted the video’s claims and condemned its removal. Far-right One America News Network pundits, right-wing website PragerU, prominent conservative radio host Mark Levin, Trump endorsers Diamond and Silk, Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell and other conservative influencers all tweeted about the video. At least 10 Republican congressional candidates and local GOP Facebook pages also shared it, according to an analysis by First Draft, an organization that monitors misinformation.

By early Tuesday, the president and his eldest son also shared now-deleted clips on Twitter, where the video trended.

The video’s rapid growth reflected the speed at which misinformation can travel when powerful far-right media outlets and politicians amplify it, as well as the glaring inadequacies of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to stop the spread before it reaches mass audiences. 

Facebook did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on what actions it was taking to prevent the further spread of the video or any ramifications for the accounts of those involved in its creation and dissemination, instead providing a boilerplate statement about the removal.

“We removed the video for sharing false information about cures and treatments for COVID-19,” Andrea Vallone, a spokesperson for Facebook, told HuffPost. But as of Tuesday afternoon, large pages were still freely linking to and embedding clips on the platform. 

Facebook has become a hub for medical misinformation, anti-vaccine conspiracies and extremism during the pandemic. Anti-lockdown groups connected to powerful conservative activists gained hundreds of thousands of followers and devolved into conspiracy theories, while prosecutors say followers of the anti-government Boogaloo movement discussed plans on the site before murdering law enforcement officers. In May, a coronavirus conspiracy video called “Plandemic” gained millions of views within days of its posting before mainstream media began debunking its false claims and Facebook removed the video. 

Facebook’s response time to this week’s viral disinformation video was days faster than with “Plandemic,” but still failed to prevent it from being watched at least 17 million times from the Breitbart post alone ― millions more views than “Plandemic” amassed prior to its removal. Links to the video are also still available on the platform, including on the page of one of the most prominent members of the “frontline doctors” group.

Crying Censorship 

The video capitalized on a “watch before it’s taken down” framing that lets viewers feel like they are getting in on a secret or are privy to exclusive information that will soon disappear, according to Diara J. Townes, an investigative researcher at First Draft. When platforms eventually take action to remove or flag content with false claims and potentially harmful medical advice, the media outlets and influencers who spread the misinformation then cry censorship and position themselves as victims. 

Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter account was partially suspended after he shared it, leading to a Trump spokesperson condemning “Big Tech” for election interference. (Twitter told HuffPost that it did not take similar enforcement action against the president’s account because, unlike his son, he “did not Tweet the video in question, he Retweeted it.”)

Breitbart published a post claiming the video had been censored, while bragging that “in terms of viral velocity” their livestream post had outperformed content from Hillary Clinton and Kim Kardashian. Gold, the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, also lamented on Twitter that her group’s views had been “censored and silenced.”

In addition to accusing tech giants of silencing them, the video’s promoters have suggested that Democrats are also suppressing the use of hydroxychloroquine for political reasons to hurt Trump’s reelection chances.

The video contained falsehoods about hydroxychloroquine, which numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown to be ineffective in treating the virus — resulting in the FDA and National Institute of Health halting trials. The drug, which was one of many treatments tested for use against the virus during the early stages of the pandemic, has become a right-wing fixation after Trump heavily promoted it as a “game changer” and claimed to take it himself. On Tuesday afternoon, One America News founder and CEO Robert Herring tweeted that he had talked with Trump about hydroxychloroquine and provided him a list of doctors that the conspiracy-mongering outlet had interviewed.

Trump first mentioned hydroxychloroquine after two cryptocurrency investors created a widely circulated file on Google Docs touting the drug while falsely claiming to be associated with Stanford University School of Medicine and other medical institutions. Google removed the document for violating its policies, but not before its creators gained widespread media attention and appeared on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show to share false claims they had found a “cure” for the virus. 

One of the cryptocurrency investors ― James Todaro, who also trained as an ophthalmologist ― is now a member of the “frontline doctors” group.