Viral Misinformation: Trump as Super-spreader

A recent research survey of the sources of misinformation about the Covid-19 Coronavirus determined that the number one culprit in spreading misinformation was US president Donald Trump. That being true, it is hardly surprising that it now appears that he might be a super-spreader of the virus itself. He has certainly sponsored super-spreading events. He has been prominent in the shared contacts of the several dozen people who have now tested Covid positive. Well, who knows, since the White House has refused or delayed contact tracing.

I want to stress that the “viral” metaphor for sharing viral misinformation is not an idle or misplaced one. It is horrifyingly accurate. To fully understand this, most Americans probably need to understand exactly how a virus works. This is straightforward science.

Most biologists agree that a virus is not truly a living organism. It does not eat, breathe, or excrete, it only does one thing that is in line with a true life-form—it reproduces. In the simplest terms, a virus is simply a strip of genetic code. Most advanced life-forms have DNA code. The corona virus is written in RNA code. It is functional, but much more unstable, prone to error and to mutation.

The strip of code is wrapped in a sheathe of protein, which allows it to lock onto healthy cells. Once it has locked on to a cell, it basically injects its code and hijacks the whole cell, making it a photocopier for itself. Once it has finished reproducing in this way, the cell is dead, and the new copies of the virus are released to treat other cells in the same way. Compare that to a computer virus (the term is not coincidental). A computer virus is a bit of bad code that once injected into your files, reduced them to mere repetition of itself. We have all probably seen a sequence in a movie or on TV where a computer is hit by a virus: before the horrified eyes of the victim the computer runs through file after file of precious data, reducing them all to a few lines of nonsense— all the text files get reduced to “red-rum red-rum” over and over ad nauseum—or what ever nonsense the viral code is programmed to say.

The reason Trump’s misinformation is so dangerous is not merely because it is simply bad data—it is the very nature of the constant assault on the truth itself that is so pernicious. That assault is a corrosive that constantly chips away at people’s faith in themselves and obvious evidence. The rigorous questioning of facts, data, and even basic premises has long been a hallmark of the western intellectual tradition. It is, in fact, basic to the practice of science itself. The Socratic method has undeniable strengths…but that is not what Trump’s method is about.  

A lot of people might remember a particularly noxious and arrogant type of person that was often found in late middle or high school. These buffoons thought they were really bright because during any argument they pitched in with contributions like “well, you don’t KNOW that!” “Nobody KNOWS that.” “Scientists can be WRONG,” and so forth. Most of us soon learn that this kind of nonsense doesn’t count for much unless you have some facts to back it up. Some alternative theory. Some better science. It is all about negating someone else’s data, but never having any better data to replace it.

In fact, such ridiculous interjections only serve to muddy the waters, interrupt intelligent discourse, to change the subject, and so on. In short, unlike true Socratic method, they are not an effort to advance a conversation, but to derail it and turn it into nonsense. If we refer back to the computer virus metaphor, they merely reduce a readable text into the repetitive phrases “can’t know” or “don’t know for sure.” This creates a vacuum into which the “great leader” can easily step—if nothing can be known for sure, we a reduced on relying on his infallible “gut instincts.”

We should become more alert to the way that, in case after case, Trump has relied on this kind of viral disruption. With climate science, the coronavirus, absentee/mail in ballots, economic data, the FBI, the intelligence agencies, and the election itself, Trump has relentlessly promoted the notion that we can’t know basic facts—facts that were well established and respected before he came to power. Then, almost without exception, he has promoted his own beliefs, without ever showing any real evidence for them.

All this has led to the extraordinary situation where Trump’s viral misinformation has moved from metaphor and ideas to the very real Covid-19 virus. Trump’s corrosive undermining of simple, proven public health standards has led him and this staff to create a real “super-spreader” event that is continuing to take a toll, crippling not only his staff, his campaign, his party, the military, his personal staff, and the Senate, and the city of Washington DC itself.

In a previous post on this blog (Trump’s Tulsa Travesty) I noted how callous and irresponsible his behavior in the Tulsa super-spreader event had been. In part I wrote that:

His performance was especially ironic in that he has repeatedly invoked “law and order” and made other nods to the police who have come under such scrutiny lately. One popular notion is that the police exist “to serve and protect.” Even while he trumpeted this notion in his rhetoric, Trump was betraying it in fact. Trump’s Tulsa travesty had nothing to do with serving and protecting anybody. It was a pure exercise in ego gratification… his performance did nothing to advance the national interest or any real policy. It did nothing to advance his party’s interests or even his own. It was simply (as some of his aids admitted) staged to make him feel better…By calling them all to a rally which really served no purpose at all except to help soothe his much-damaged ego, Trump exploited his own supporters with total disregard for their health. To him they are not people to “serve and protect”—they are only a mine for votes and donations and to shore up his political standing. If his regard for “his own people” is that low, imagine how the rest of us must rate…

We have all vividly seen how lethal the Coronavirus is: we now have a death toll of over 212,00 people. Even with all this mostly needless carnage, there is still worse to come. By all scientific predictions, we will probably see another 200,000 deaths—and all the corresponding economic chaos. Still, with all that, the effects of Trump’s super-spreading of viral misinformation may have even more damaging effects on our nation in the long-term.

In his 1983 book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson analyzes a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. He wrote that a nation is a community because, “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail…, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” That idea of comradeship is a belief- when it is undermined by the corrosion of faith in our comrades, a nation is in real trouble.

At the time of the American Revolution, it was that (largely imagined) sense of comradeship that made colonists in places as diverse as Georgia, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts, think of themselves as one people, victims of a common enemy, fighting in a just cause against an unjust rule. Those early patriots often shared a belief in science—I think they would happily have worn masks in Georgia if they felt it would help their comrades in Massachusetts. Remember, at that time, our nation had no real physical existence—it was only an idea. It was an idea that had the power to bring forth a new nation…

We have seen countless commentators note how Trump came to power and has tried to rule by dividing the various parts of our country. Anderson’s simple idea of an “imagined community” can help us see just how destructive that divisiveness is—a nation is not about borders—it is about a shared idea and vision. Trump’s attacks on truth and spreading of viral misinformation put the essential fabric of our nation in far more danger than almost any action by another country could.

Overall, it seems that like many bad actors in the past, Trump, his Party, and his campaign are all paying the price for believing their own false propaganda. The tragedy lies in all the people that they will take down with them.

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