Tesla CEO Elon Musk's viral coronavirus tweets are spreading right-wing disinformation to millions

Elon Musk recently promoted debunked claims that coronavirus isn’t as dangerous as previously thought, in the latest example of the Tesla CEO pushing right-wing misinformation related to coronavirus online.

Musk, who recently overpromised on a pledge to send ventilators to hospitals, has jumped into the coronavirus conversation in recent weeks, flirting with coronavirus disinformation on Twitter that often coincides with popular right-wing media narratives. 

In one of the latest examples, Musk pushed an inaccurate claim made by two doctors from Bakersfield, California, who have said they have statistical evidence showing that the coronavirus is no more dangerous than the flu and claimed that the state’s shelter-in-place order is no longer necessary.

In a press conference that went viral on social media platforms after it was reported by local news, Drs. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, “who tout their support of President Donald Trump and refuse to wear masks in public,” claimed that they had statistical evidence to show that coronavirus isn’t as dangerous as previously thought. The doctors based their conclusions on the results of 5,213 COVID-19 tests they had conducted at their urgent care centers and private testing site.

Health experts immediately debunked the viral claims, pointing to issues with the assumption that the doctors’ sample group is representative of the larger population. University of Washington biologist Carl Bergstrom explained the various problems with the doctors’ claims:

The American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine also issued a joint statement on April 27 directly rebuking the doctors’ claims:

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) jointly and emphatically condemn the recent opinions released by Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi. These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.

COVID-19 misinformation is widespread and dangerous. Members of ACEP and AAEM are first-hand witnesses to the human toll that COVID-19 is taking on our communities. ACEP and AAEM strongly advise against using any statements of Drs. Erickson and Massihi as a basis for policy and decision making.

Musk, who currently has a platform of 33.4 million followers on Twitter, joined right-wing media in promoting the study on April 26, tweeting a YouTube video of the doctors speaking about their findings and writing, “Docs make good points.” His tweet received more than 3,000 retweets over 16,000 likes. (The YouTube video, which was posted by a local news outlet, was ultimately removed by the platform, which stated that the video “explicitly disputes the efficacy of local healthy authority recommended guidance on social distancing that may lead others to act against that guidance.”)

In addition to Musk, the video was promoted by far-right blog The Gateway Pundit and conspiratorial, pro-Trump One America News Network. Fox News host Laura Ingraham also hosted the two doctors on her show, where they pushed their claims and branded themselves as “advocates for the average American.” After YouTube removed the video, Fox & Friends hosted Fox contributor Mike Huckabee, who said that “these guys are medical doctors” and “scientists” who are “giving facts, figures.” Co-host Brian Kilmeade agreed, saying, “I can't underline this enough how alarming this is. These are doctors that came up with hard number and stats.”

This isn’t the first time Musk has tweeted misleading coronavirus disinformation that’s popular among right-wing media. He also recently tweeted “interesting” alongside an article claiming that hospitals “get paid more if patients listed as COVID-19.” Coronavirus skeptics Rush Limbaugh and Candace Owens and Fox host Tucker Carlson have pushed similar claims to suggest that hospitals have an incentive to inflate the number of coronavirus patients.

In an early-March tweet, Musk joined right-wing media in downplaying the virus, saying, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” On March 16, Musk again argued that the response to coronavirus is overhyped, tweeting that the “danger of panic still far exceeds danger of corona.” On March 19, Musk boldly predicted that “based on current trends,” there will be “probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April.” (On April 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported over 23,000 daily new cases.)

Musk also falsely claimed that children are “essentially immune” from the virus, an argument similar to Trump’s claim that “young children have done very well in this disaster,” which the president used to push for states to reopen schools against the advice of medical experts. 

Musk has also promoted chloroquine, the antimalarial drug that Trump and right-wing media obsessed over until the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against its usage, causing the drug’s biggest promoters to backtrack. 

In another recent tweet, Musk joined the growing chorus of conservatives calling on states to reopen their economies against the advice of medical experts, writing “FREE AMERICA NOW.” Musk’s tweet has received more than 39,000 retweets and over 216,000 likes. On Facebook, Fox News and Fox Business, whose personalities have been among the loudest voices pushing for Trump to reopen the economy, promoted Musk’s comment.

Musk’s erratic and arrogant behavior is nothing new, but the Tesla CEO's platform presents a unique danger in the era of coronavirus, in which misinformation is being weaponized across the internet in an attempt to undermine medical experts and sow confusion and doubt about COVID-19.