But the president and his campaign’s Twitter and Facebook feeds tell a different story. From the announcement of the first confirmed case on American soil, their narratives have illustrated and amplified a successful — if often inaccurate — picture of the response.
The seeming omnipresence of these narratives is by design. The campaign has spent $32.6 million on Facebook ads since January 2019, more than double the Facebook ad spending of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. And campaign officials spent the past four years rigorously building a digital infrastructure to connect with voters not only through on social media, but with online polls, email lists and rally registration forms.
In other words, when the 2020 election went online only, the Trump team was ready.
Trump and the White House often say they turn to social media because a hostile, left-leaning news media does not depict Trump’s achievements accurately. The Fact Checker video team analyzed thousands of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube posts and ads from Trump, his campaign and a long list of surrogates. The data revealed the backbone of a five-point strategy to tell their version of the coronavirus story: rewriting mistakes, highlighting achievements, deflecting blame, declaring victory and creating distraction.
Spin is to be expected from any political campaign. So how has the Trump campaign leveraged its massive digital infrastructure during the national crisis? And just what is the coronavirus narrative that it is portraying? Let’s dig in.
Nothing to see here
In the first phase of the outbreak, Trump and his allies consistently played down the threat of the virus. Trump held eight campaign rallies between Jan. 21 (when covid-19 was confirmed in the United States) and March 2. His speeches focused on just about everything else — at one point referring to concerns about the coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax,” akin to the Russia investigation and the Ukraine-related impeachment probe.
The Fact Checker collected data of social media posts from Brandwatch, a digital consumer intelligence company, Crowdtangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Facebook, and Nick Monaco at the at the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab. The data shows that Trump’s conversation about the coronavirus online was minimal in late January and February, even though Trump in late January announced that he would impose some travel restrictions on non-U. S. citizens traveling from China. His campaign and surrogates echoed the same trend.
Instead, analysis from Brandwatch revealed that Trump’s most talked about topics online included his impeachment trial, Nancy Pelosi, the Second Amendment, and 2020 Democratic primary candidates at the time such as former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Biden.
“When he was getting the intelligence on this back in … January, (if he) took the same level of seriousness about it that other nations were starting to do, had utilized the Defense Production Act fully, which still has not to this day been fully implemented relative to the things that we need and that the businesses in particular could do and have offered to do,” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “If all of those early pieces had been put in place, you’d have a very different narrative today.”
We’re doing a great job
In early March, as covid-19 cases and deaths started to increase in the United States, Trump’s tone on the virus changed. He started holding regular news briefings with his coronavirus task force and took more tangible steps to fight the spread of the disease.
The refocus on coronavirus was reflected in the Trump campaign’s online rhetoric, too. However, the ways in which he and his campaign talked about covid-19 online were often not based in facts or misrepresented the reality of the situation. For instance his most talked about topics at this time included the terms “Chinese virus” and “Fake News.”
The campaign apparatus promoted videos online that tried to rewrite the narrative. For example, this video, which bashed the media’s response, skipped over February, trying to erase a period of slow intervention by the administration. (Trump in February also kept saying that the virus would soon go away and praised China for its handling of the crisis.) The campaign also shared cherry-picked video clips on social media, highlighting Trump’s comments at news conferences that were inaccurate. Other videos clipped politicians and governor’s statements or used the wrong context for their quotes. The ads inaccurately made it sound as if these people were praising Trump’s response. Lastly, video ads deflected blame to China and used this talking point to attack political rivals such as Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in this year’s presidential contest.
“One of my biggest concerns about the way that the pandemic is already shifting and will continue to shift online political campaigning is that it will drive the discourse to be even more uncivil, to be even more provocative, to be ultimately potentially hateful,” said Rebekah Tromble, professor of media, politics, digital research and ethics at George Washington University.
In mid-April and early May, Trump and his team appeared to all but claim victory over the virus. Fearing economic downfall, they have called for the country to reopen, even while health experts warn of consequences from loosening shutdown restrictions too soon.
“If some areas, cities, states or what have you, jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I have been very clear in my message — to try, to the best extent possible, to go by the guidelines, which have been very well thought out and very well delineated.”
Despite these concerns, Trump’s incentives to reinvigorate the economy only continue to grow. His presidency and candidacy have centered on economic growth, which will become an even greater focal point in the upcoming election.
“He’s the businessman. He’s the person there to lead the economy,” Tromble said. “We’re now in a situation where we’re looking at Great Depression levels of unemployment, and we can’t deny that the economy is in a free fall. And so that particular message is lost unless the Trump administration reshifts to trying to reopen the economy. And that’s very clearly what they’re doing now.”
In addition to the economy, Trump and his team have moved on to discussing new topics online. Their posts and ads have often focused on controversial and inflammatory topics, such as charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn and attacks directed at the news media or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The campaign has also launched ads targeting Biden that include age-related attacks and conspiracy theories about his ties to China.
The White House and Trump campaign declined to comment.
The Bottom Line
It remains to be seen whether this messaging is effective with voters and will affect the way in which Americans remember the pandemic. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll from April 27 to May 4 showed 43 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak. While Trump pushes to reopen, some Republican governors are facing pushback for moving into that phase too quickly.
“We expect our presidents to be optimistic about the future,” Steele said. “But there’s also a level of realism in that optimism. Because we know real, we see that and we still see people getting sick and dying around us. And so I think perspective is really what people are looking for."
All presidential campaigns try to portray their candidate in the best possible light, but what is notable about the Trump campaign is that its social media reach allows the campaign to rewrite even the most recent history.
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The Washington Post Fact Checker is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.