Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
Here's how the right-wing media's obsession with conspiracy theories and the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine resulted in "demon sperm" trending on Twitter.
On Monday afternoon, Breitbart published a video featuring Houston-based pediatrician Dr. Stella Immanuel and other members of the conservative "America's Frontline Doctors" group making false and dubious claims about the novel coronavirus at a press conference organized by the right-wing political nonprofit Tea Party Patriots. Notably, during the event, Immanuel claimed hydroxychloroquine is "a cure" for COVID-19 and the numerous studies showing the drug is ineffective are "fake science." The video went hyper-viral and was repeatedly shared by President Donald Trump on Twitter before being removed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
The episode would have been a depressing but typical story about the inability of social media platforms to stop the spread of disinformation. But the next day, the Daily Beast revealed Immanuel's long track record of colorful comments about medicine, particularly regarding the medical use of alien DNA and the gynecological effects of having sex with demons and witches while sleeping -- facts that did not appear to give Trump pause, as he continued to tout her claims during a press conference later that day, calling her "very impressive."
The Immanuel affair marks a humiliating event for the conservative movement that demonstrates its obsession with conspiratorial thinking. But if you expected the leading lights of the pro-Trump media to recoil in horror from the spectacle of the president of the United States promoting a kook, you've greatly misjudged them. Instead, with a pandemic ravaging the country and a presidential election fewer than 100 days away, these figures spent Tuesday offering a full-throated defense of Immanuel from the reporters and social media companies purportedly trying to silence her.
Rush Limbaugh claims that his talk radio show reaches tens of millions of people. He has had a virtually unmatched influence on Republican politics for the last 30 years. In January, he received the Medal of Freedom during Trump's State of the Union.
On Tuesday afternoon, Limbaugh extensively defended Immanuel, playing her comments on his show and claiming that the Beast ran a "hit piece" and is "trying to portray her as some wacko, unbelievable kook out there" in order to "make sure nobody sees what she said" about hydroxychloroquine as part of "a systematic effort to kill this drug, to destroy its reputation."
Fox News' Tucker Carlson hosts the most-watched show in the history of cable news, boasting an audience of more than four million viewers. The president is one of those viewers, and frequently takes action based on what he sees on the program. Carlson's influence is such that he is shaping the 2024 Republican presidential field -- which he may end up joining.
On Tuesday night, Carlson suggested that while he could not "endorse" Immanuel's claim about hydroxychloroquine being a "cure" for coronavirus, the real problem was that she had been censored by tech companies and media outlets working to benefit the Democratic Party. He savaged the platforms that removed the video, calling them "toadies" who "did the clean up work" in order to protect Dr. Anthony Fauci, who he described as "a hypocritical buffoon." He also lashed out at the Daily Beast, falsely claiming the outlet had "attacked Dr. Immanuel for the crime of getting her medical degree in Africa and then suggested she believed in witchcraft because, you know, Africans do that, right?" (For her part, Immanuel praised the Beast report for doing "a great job summarizing our deliverance ministry and exposing incubus and succubus.")
Fox's Sean Hannity has the second most-watched program in cable news, with more than 4 million viewers, and one of the nation's most listened-to talk radio shows. He also serves as a Trump political operative, adviser, and back-channel to the White House. In 2018, the Washington Post reported that Hannity wielded so much influence that White House aides described him as a shadow chief of staff, while New York magazine detailed his near-nightly phone calls with the president.
On Tuesday night, Hannity criticized Twitter for temporarily suspending the account of Donald Trump Jr. after he shared the Immanuel video -- or, as Hannity put it, "he reposted a story touting the benefits of hydroxychloroquine." The Fox host went on to say, "I think people should decide themselves [whether] they want to believe things or not, and hear and decide -- hear all sides."
Laura Ingraham's prime-time Fox show reaches more than 3.6 million people. Her campaigning for the Republican Party primary candidates helped push the GOP to the right on immigration. She's made multiple trips to the Trump White House to advise the president and his top aides on the response to the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Ingraham slammed Twitter and Facebook for "censoring anyone now who dares tout potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine," suggesting that they are "costing lives." She then hosted Dr. Simone Gold, the leader of the "America's Frontline Doctors" organization that held the press conference, who told her audience, "The American people have been told that this is just something they need to have a lot of fear and a lot of panic over. And it's simply not true. There's a cure, there's treatment for early COVID disease, and that is hydroxychloroquine and zinc. It's very straightforward. It's easy." She added that social media platforms have taken down the video because "somebody is really afraid of getting the truth."
The right-wing media ecosystem is broken
While the most powerful and influential conservative commentators rallied around Immanuel, some substantially more marginal right-wing figures pointed out that it's not a great idea to make a doctor who believes in demon sex the voice of the movement.
On Tuesday night, Erick Erickson, a former CNN and Fox News contributor who has seen his influence shrink during the Trump era, tweeted that Immanuel's past views make her supporters a "clown show." He was quickly smacked down by Jenna Ellis, an attorney who represents the president and his campaign. Ellis also pointed to a recent tweet from Gold claiming her group had just "met with Vice President Mike Pence to request the administration's assistance in empowering doctors to prescribe hydroxychloroquine without political obstruction."
It's hard to overstate just how broken the right-wing media ecosystem is right now.