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The metamorphosis of the disinformation peddlers

How do we have that essential dialogue so necessary to a robust democracy if the president, his political party and their base traffic in conspiracies, disinformation, distorted realities, and find comfort in delusions. How do we agree if we cannot agree on the facts? To journey with them into their alternative universe requires a suspension of disbelief, for this is the stuff of fantasy, fairy tales and unicorns.

It has become evident that this is where we find ourselves as a nation, and those who find truth in truthiness no longer inhabit the political fringe, but have been embraced not only by Trump but by the Republican party, made manifest when Trump and his cohort set out to convince the electorate that Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election, one deemed free of any hint of systemic irregularities; rather the result represents massive, conspiratorial fraud, constructed by the Democrats and therefore should be overturned.

There was of course the stunning Texas lawsuit, purposed to go to the Supreme Court and argue that the election was illegitimate and therefore should be nullified. The suit was joined by 17 Republican Attorneys General, with 126 House Republicans filing briefs of support. When it failed to find traction, the purveyors of disinformation made an almost seamless pivot from the disenfranchisement of 7 million voters to sowing the seeds of suspicion regarding the coronavirus vaccine.

Sidney Powell, a member of Trump’s legal team who promised voluminous evidence that Trump won by a landslide, recently tweeted that all vaccinated Americans would be split into two groups: the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, and the unvaccinated would be surveilled. Her shift mirrors a wider effort by right-wing websites, such as ZeroHedge, to disseminate disinformation about the vaccine. One claim, steeped in paranoia, that found space on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is that the vaccine is delivered with a microchip or barcode allowing the government to keep track of the vaccinated. And there’s this: when people get vaccinated, they will be issued an appointment card, a simple reminder, telling them the name of the vaccine administered and when they should return for their second dose. The purveyors of COVID-19 conspiracies insist that the card is evidence of the government’s intention to surveil the vaccinated as well as using the cards to create a nefarious database. Compounding this assertion is the conviction, cherry-picked from those rare allergic reactions, that the vaccine will damage people’s health. There is also the lie that Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder, is responsible for the coronavirus and now will profit from the vaccine.

Such reckless distortions are amplified by anti-vax activists who have railed against childhood vaccines for decades, linking them to autism, a theory soundly debunked by science, yet posed by Trump in 2007 and again during his 2015 presidential campaign, a deep state fantasy that reenergized the anti-vax movement. Trump, who was quick to take credit for the vaccines quick development, with 95 percent efficacy, has yet to step forward and publicly and fulsomely endorse the vaccines or be openly vaccinated, his absence reinforcing the suspicion of the vaccines while conservative media — Breitbart News, Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network — nurture the disinformation theory that the pandemic (some 300,000 Americans have died) has been blown out of proportion, anecdotally likening it to a mild cold.

Clearly, and disturbingly, election fraud and vaccine fraud are seedlings dropped on a ground made fertile by Trump’s birther movement to his railing about deep state conspiratorial witch hunts and hoaxes. Both have the potential to do profound harm to our democracy and to the nation’s health. The consequences of significant numbers refusing to take the vaccine because of disinformation would be catastrophic. “The vaccines are the key to ending the pandemic,” said Dr. Shila Doron, of Tufts Medical Center. “We are not getting there any other way.”

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.