As Washington followed the rapid-fire news Friday of President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and his eventual hospitalization at Walter Reed Medical Center, national security and disinformation analysts watched as American adversaries sought to exploit the unfolding situation to their advantage.
Trump’s diagnosis was announced around 1 a.m. Friday morning with a tweet from his personal account. Over the following hours, the White House put out piecemeal statements that gradually became more concerning. Prior Administrations facing uncertainty at the top of America’s government have favored full briefings for the media by subject matter experts and advisors. Trump’s White House opted instead for sporadic announcements through non-traditional media channels over the course of the day which only fueled speculation.
This approach created a significant opening for misinformation by foreign adversaries and bad actors at home, analysts say. “What the White House has been sharing with us has been lacking in detail and fragmented, and whenever there is a gap in the information that’s shared there are conspiracy theories and misinformation,” says Samuel Woolley, who leads propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. “There’s a massive credibility gap.”
This distrust was exacerbated as details emerged that Trump had gone ahead with campaign events on Thursday despite knowing that his close aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the virus. Trump traveled to several events in New Jersey after her diagnosis, which he downplayed in a television interview. Adversaries were quick to seize on the series of conflicting messages. “The propaganda ecosystem is going into overdrive,” Woolley says. “We should expect it to cause a massive cascade of misinformation from all quarters.”
Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2020
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Some arms of government attempted to deploy the traditional approach to information in times of uncertainty. The Pentagon moved to reassure the public that there has been no change to U.S. armed forces’ level of alert since the President received a positive test. “The U.S. military stands ready to defend our country and interests,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces. Our national command and control structure is in no way affected by this announcement.”
But foreign adversaries have already been at work on harder to patrol fronts, like propaganda outlets and cyberspace. Last month, FBI Director Chris Wray testified to Congress that Russia has been using “proxies, state media, online journals” and other mediums to influence U.S. elections and specifically damage the Democratic nominee,