Trump’s False Hydroxychloroquine Tweet Led To Spread of COVID-19 Misinformation

A tweet from former President Donald J. Trump was linked to a surge of false information about hydroxychloroquine as a potential COVID-19 treatment, according to a study.

On July 27, 2020, Trump, who was one of the early proponents of hydroxychloroquine therapy for COVID-19, retweeted a video that was posted on Breitbart, a conservative media outlet, stating that the combination hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and azithromycin to cure COVID-19. The video featured Stella Immanuel, a doctor from Houston, who was addressing a group called America’s Frontline Doctors outside the Supreme Court.

The tweet has since been removed by Twitter, which also suspended Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, for sharing the same false information as his father.

Even though Trump’s tweet was removed, the damage may have already been done, the study authors suggest. They collected tweets from July 21 through July 30 using the keywords “hydroxychloroquine” and “chloroquine” in order to compare the available information before (pre-period) and after Trump’s tweet (post-period); an unsupervised machine learning approach called the biterm topic model (BTM) was implemented to identify the tweets’ themes.

Overall, 2,771,730 tweets related to hydroxychloroquine were identified—but 2,523,766 tweets (more than 90%) were from the post-period. When using the BTM and identifying the top 100 retweeted items, there were 174,600 tweets and retweets from the pre-period and 1,063,399 from the post-period available for review; these tweets collectively made up 44.7% of the entire set of tweets.

Most tweets—more than 84% of them—included hydroxychloroquine misinformation topics; the proportion was lower in the period before the Trump tweet than after it was posted (78.4% vs. 85.4%).

“In total, these misinformation tweets and retweets were liked (via a heart symbol) 2 193 021 times by 283 055 unique Twitter users, indicating social sharing and support of misinformation across hundreds of thousands of Twitter users,” the researchers observed.

The tweets were grouped into four main categories, with several subcategories:

  • Rumors (subcategory, treatment)
  • Prevention and treatment (subcategories, clinical treatment and folk medicine)
  • Authority action and policy (subcategories, medical measures, media management, and general)
  • Conspiracy

Several hashtags associated with conspiracy tweets included #FauciTheFraud, #HCQWorksFacuiKnewIn2005, and #BillGatesBioTerrorist.

Meanwhile, only 5% of hydroxychloroquine misinformation tweets were questioning whether falsehoods pertaining to the drug were spreading. “Most of these tweets questioned the credibility of President Trump and Dr Immanuel, highlighted possible hydroxychloroquine side-effects, or provided factual statements or links to information about the scarce evidence of the drug’s efficacy,” explained the researchers.

The study was published in The Lancet Digital Health.

“Although Twitter permanently suspended President Trump’s account on January 8, 2021, due to concerns about him inciting violence, the misinformation he generated about COVID-19 will undoubtedly persist,” the researchers concluded.