Social media giants are under fire for allowing COVID-19 misinformation. Fox News' standards are even lower.

simone gold

YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook recently took action to curtail the spread of a hyperviral video of a group of fringe doctors holding a “press conference” that touted the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” for COVID-19. In the video, a doctor with a history of promoting bizarre conspiracy theories and homophobia echoes many of the unscientific talking points regularly heard on Fox News, which has been pushing the drug for months without evidence

But while social media giants took steps to curtail the spread of the misinformation (albeit with mixed results), the same cannot be said for the most-watched cable news network in history.

The video of a group called “America’s Frontline Doctors” was originally posted to Facebook by Breitbart on July 27 before it took off across social media, and it was shared multiple times by President Donald Trump and his son. This high-profile situation has brought significant attention to the need to curb the spread of public health misinformation online, particularly when the president is a major factor in pushing it.  

However, Fox News’ prime-time lineup took the position that the video’s removal amounts to “censorship” and rallied around Dr. Stella Immanuel, the figure in the video who touted the combination of hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and zithromax as a “cure” for COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine has been disproved as an effective treatment in separate randomized studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the government of the United Kingdom, and the World Health Organization.

Fox News personalities have much in common with Immanuel. They’ve been relentlessly pushing hydroxychloroquine for months, including one two-week period in the spring when the network promoted the drug nearly 300 times. And since the Food and Drug Administration revoked the emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in treating COVID-19 in mid-June, they’ve continued to push hydroxychloroquine despite overwhelming evidence that it is not effective in treating or preventing the disease. But unlike on the social media giants, where there are (admittedly less-than-perfect) content moderation policies, no such stopgap exists at the network to limit the harm of its unscientific, politically motivated coverage.

On June 15, the day the FDA reversed its policy Fox News host Laura Ingraham questioned why the FDA would “even inject itself into a debate over a drug it approved decades ago,” and later asked if people will “actually die because of the FDA’s emergency withdrawal.”

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Citation From the June 15, 2020, edition of Fox's The Ingraham Angle

Other than this bad-faith attack, the FDA’s reversal went almost entirely unremarked upon on Fox in the days following the action -- a stark contrast from the hundreds of times the network has promoted the drug.

Instead, defying science, public health policy, and common sense, Fox News personalities continue to promote hydroxychloroquine. The day after the FDA issued a safety warning about use of the drug, Ingraham Angle regular Dr. Ramin Oskoui said the agency’s warning was “unfounded.”

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Citation From the July 2 edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle

These segments pushing the use of hydroxychloroquine against FDA guidelines are not isolated incidents -- the drug has been promoted on the network again and again unabated, even as the scientific consensus against it has consolidated. Here’s just a handful of examples of how Fox covered hydroxychloroquine after the FDA revoked the emergency use authorization and before the video with Immanuel’s false claims about the drug went viral:

  • On July 10, Dr. Simone Gold, the founder of “America’s Frontline Doctors” and a repeat guest on Fox News, appeared on The Ingraham Angle and called hydroxychloroquine a “cure,” said evidence for use of the drug is “coming in like a tsunami,” and blamed the media for politicizing it.
  • On July 14, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity said “Trump was right” about promoting hydroxychloroquine, claiming it was “very effective.”
  • On July 16, The Five co-host Jesse Watters attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci in part for accurately communicating the evidence that the drug is not effective in combating the coronavirus, claiming, “He was wrong about the travel ban and the masks and hydroxychloroquine.”
  • On July 20, Ingraham asked why the FDA had not rescinded its safety warning against the drug, calling it “complete bunk” and suggesting the agency should “get out of the way of the relationship between doctor and patient for off-label use.” Later in the segment, the Fox host questioned whether “thousands of lives could be saved going forward if they release that hydroxy stockpile and even gave it as a prophylactic.”
  • On July 22, Ingraham attacked CNN for covering current scientific research against hydroxychloroquine treatment for COVID-19, then bragged she hasn’t “dropped” the issue “because I actually know the science on this, I think pretty well at this point.”

Even after the dust-up about Trump retweeting the Stella Immanuel video -- which was removed from major social media platforms that same day -- Fox chief White House correspondent John Roberts repeated Trump’s false claims about hydroxychloroquine during a July 28 report without fact-checking or adding any context to clue the audience in on the truth about the drug.

The latest in this obsession is the network’s promotion of a recent study whose validity has been questioned by experts. 

Tucker Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham, and others on the network have been touting a study published by the Henry Ford Health System that found hydroxychloroquine helped patients survive the disease. A report in Stat News explains that the study was not randomized, and “patients who received hydroxychloroquine were also more likely to get steroids, which appear to help very sick patients with Covid-19. That is likely to have influenced the central finding.”

But Fox figures still promoted the study during prime-time coverage (and predictably, Carlson’s coverage resulted in a tweet from the president):

  • On July 6, Ingraham said the study found hydroxychloroquine cut mortality in half among COVID patients without noting its flaws, claiming the findings “smashed back at all the doubters.”
  • On the July 6 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox medical contributor Dr, Marc Siegel called the flawed study “groundbreaking” and attacked the FDA for reversing the emergency use authorization. Carlson said critics are letting “politics drive science, the Soviet model.” This segment prompted a tweet from the president demanding the FDA “act now.”
  • On July 9, Ingraham cited the Stat report on the flaws in the Henry Ford study, but then erroneously suggested that the reason for the widespread criticism of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus is because “it’s a generic drug and it doesn’t cost $4,000 a course like remdesivir.” (The FDA has granted emergency authorization to use remdesivir to treat COVID-19, and it has been described as “somewhat effective.”)
  • On July 28, Hannity attacked Twitter after it suspended Donald Trump Jr. for sharing the video of Immanuel, and then touted the Henry Ford study to back up her claims.

Additionally, the fixation with hydroxychloroquine has cost the scientific community as it attempts to fight the pandemic. Stat reports that disorganization and overlapping studies resulted in “huge amounts of energy [that] have been expended on haphazard efforts” to study drugs that are ineffective, and it highlighted hydroxychloroquine as an example. More than a third of the expected population of clinical trial patient volunteers have participated in research related to hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, costing other research efforts the opportunity to study the efficacy of other therapeutics. Stat describes patient volunteers as “one of the scarcest resources in medicine.”

The obvious question arises: Why is Fox so obsessed with promoting this drug? The answer is simple: in the myopic Fox pro-Trump worldview, hydroxychloroquine fails to treat COVID-19 not because rigorous scientific research has disproved its effectiveness, but because an anti-Trump conspiracy has coalesced to undermine it's success. It's the continuation of the “witch hunt” narrative they've pushed for years -- Mueller, Kavanaugh, impeachment, hydroxychloroquine. The president's failures can never be understood or acknowledged as his own, but instead must be the fault of the “medical deep state” and the efforts to hold him accountable for them are simply sabotage.

The key difference between Fox News hosts and snake oil salespeople like Immanuel is that the latter’s false claims to the public were met with online attempts to limit their spread. The same is not true for misinformation about the pandemic being pushed on Fox News, where anything goes and there are no standards.

There are consequences for this constant stream of disinformation -- multiple studies have shown that Fox’s coverage may have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus among the American public.

Experts are not recommending using hydroxychloroquine to prevent or treat COVID-19. But for the purpose of inoculating the Fox audience against the truth -- that the pandemic is out-of-control in this country -- hydroxychloroquine is a silver bullet.