The Kaiser Family Foundation has a new poll out this week, also reported on by The Washington Post, showing the alarming extent to which COVID-19 misinformation has penetrated among American adults, but particularly Republicans and people who consume right-wing media. The really scary thing: A lot of people actually believe the things they see on Fox News and further right networks like Newsmax.
The poll found that Republicans’ No. 1 most trusted source for information is Fox News. Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between trusting Fox News and believing one or more pieces of COVID-19 misinformation, with 36% of people who trust Fox believing or being unsure about four or more pieces of COVID-19 misinformation.
And while Kaiser made clear that it could not “disentangle” the complex issue of whether these news sources are causing their viewers to believe misinformation — or if instead people who are predisposed to such misinformation are flocking to Fox News and other right-wing media outlets — that kind of chicken-or-the-egg question does not simply acquit Fox from its responsibility for encouraging these apparently widespread misconceptions among its viewers.
Even if this is a vicious feedback loop between media outlets that push misinformation and an audience eager to hear it, Fox is still choosing to be part of the problem rather than the solution. The network is enthusiastically spreading misinformation — and looking to make a buck from it, since according to Fox insiders, the COVID-19 lies have been “great for ratings.”
Fox News during the Trump era: Playing down COVID-19 deaths
The poll found that a whopping 84% of Republicans either believe or are unsure about whether the government has exaggerated the number of COVID-19 deaths. By contrast, researchers have said throughout the pandemic that the numbers are likely undercounted. But there is a reason so many Republican voters believe this: Right-wing media, especially Fox News, mounted a full-scale push to spread doubt about the COVID-19 death count during the first year of the pandemic— that is, while former President Donald Trump was in office.
Very early on during the pandemic, Fox senior political analyst Brit Hume claimed in April 2020 that “we're going to get a very large number of deaths” attributed to COVID-19, but which he said would not be an “accurate count” due to comorbidities. Fox host Tucker Carlson replied, “There may be reasons that people seek an inaccurate death count, but we can address that later.” At that point, the official death toll in the United States was only 13,000, but Fox news anchor Harris Faulkner also argued even that was too high a count: “How many of those people had other health risks at play, though? And maybe it wasn't, in fact, COVID-19 that caused their death.”
As the death count kept climbing, network figures pushed a full propaganda campaign arguing that the numbers were too high, and siding with the Trump White House in “pushing back” against the official reports. Polling then showed that Fox viewers believed the conspiracy theory about supposedly inflated death tolls, even as public health experts argued that the official numbers were actually too low. By December 2020, Fox host Laura Ingraham argued that “the virus is a lot less lethal than previously thought,” even as the official death count reached 300,000.
Fox News under Biden: Imagining mass vaccine deaths
The poll also found that 28% of Republicans believe the government is hiding vaccine-related deaths — while another 16% have heard this claim but are unsure about it, and only 8% know it is false. And here, too, Fox News has done its part to spread the lie.
While Carlson and other Fox hosts set out to claim that COVID-19 deaths were being overcounted in 2020, they have set out to paint a frightening picture of the vaccines in 2021. Carlson claimed in May that nearly 4,000 people had died from the vaccine, and that “the actual number is almost certainly higher than that — perhaps vastly higher than that.” Those claims had circulated online for months before Carlson picked them up, and the online chatter has only picked up since then.
The claims are based on the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a government-run public database where individuals can self-report side effects or other incidents following a vaccination. The problem, however, is that the information in VAERS is unvetted and does not always differentiate negative health events from their normal frequency in the population — or even confirm whether they happened at all. As Meredith Wadman of Science notes, “One of VAERS's strengths — its openness — is also a potential weakness in the politicized COVID-19 era.”
Earlier this year, for example, a VAERS report that a 2-year-old allegedly died after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine during clinical trials was later removed from the system for being “completely made up” — in fact, vaccine testing for children that young had not even begun at the time of the report.
Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch stood by Carlson’s escalating series of claims. “He basically just went into the CDC data, right?” Murdoch said. “So there's nothing the CDC itself isn't saying.” (In fact, a disclaimer on the VAERS site actually makes clear: “The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”)
By now, Carlson’s show and other Fox programming have used these claims in order to argue that the vaccine is deadlier than COVID-19 itself. Fox News could not possibly believe all of this at the company level, though — despite Lachlan Murdoch’s public support for Carlson — because the company also practices a strict vaccination and testing mandate at its company offices, as well as at its upcoming corporate shareholder meeting.
Republican viewers are looking for the easy drug — but not the vaccines — with Fox’s help
The poll also found that 28% of Republicans believe that the antiparasitic drug ivermectin is a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19, while another 17% were familiar with the claim but unsure of its validity, and only 6% know it is false. Fox News has promoted ivermectin for about a year, in something of a sequel to the network’s earlier promotion of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine.
Going by the same playbook, Fox hosts have denounced the “medical establishment” for purportedly lying about the drug because it is a “threat” to the adoption of the vaccines; claimed that researchers “will never develop a drug that is more effective than ivermectin”; and that it is a “miracle drug” with “little to no side effects.”
Following a warning in August from the Food and Drug Administration, which highlighted the drug’s “highly dangerous” side effects if taken to excess or in combination with other medications, the network has continued to advocate for the drug. One Fox guest imagined the rest of the media thinking, “If we could have just maybe stopped some people from taking ivermectin, maybe we can get more people to take the vaccine.”
What this really did, though, was expose via psychological projection the entire right-wing influence operation to keep pushing any possible drug except the vaccines on their audiences.