An obviously fallacious meme that purports to show a doctor downplaying coronavirus fears is spreading across the right-wing internet, convincing some Trump supporters that the coronavirus is just a hyped-up election year trick.
Despite being easy to disprove, the meme has won plenty of prominent adherents, including talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and mixed martial arts star Tito Ortiz.
In its most popular form, the meme claims to show a whiteboard photographed at an unnamed doctor’s office with the title “Posted at a Doctors office today.” The board lists a number of headline-grabbing diseases from the past two decades, including the novel coronavirus, SARS, Ebola, and swine flu, under the heading: “Every election year has a disease.”
Each disease is paired up on the left side of the board with a presidential or midterm election year, with the implication that coronavirus is being exaggerated to doom Donald Trump’s re-election chances.
“This is a viral-pneumonia being hyped as The Black Plague before an election,” the board reads on its right side, along with statistics about coronavirus purporting to show that the disease isn’t dangerous.
The claims made on the whiteboard fail to explain why Italy and China would lock down huge regions of their countries as part of some scheme to oust an American president. There are also elections at some level every year in the United States, meaning it wouldn’t be unusual if a disease emerged in a year that an election occurred. A PolitiFact fact-check that rated the meme as “false” also found that most of the diseases listed didn’t actually become major issues in the elections at the time, suggesting that the supposed decades-long “deep state” plot to sway every vote with fake diseases must not have been very successful.
The whiteboard message also fails at its most basic claim: saying certain diseases emerged in election years. The meme claims that SARS, for example, was linked to the 2004 presidential race. But SARS appeared and was contained by 2003, meaning it couldn’t have played a significant role in the electoral contest a year later. Meanwhile, the message claims that the latest form of coronavirus was found in 2020 but, as the designation “COVID-19” suggests, it was actually discovered in 2019.
The meme started to circulate in early March, as coronavirus cases in the United States grew and questions were raised about Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Despite earning debunkings and a “false information” warning on Facebook that makes it harder to view on that social network, the whiteboard meme and other screenshots making the same election-year claim have continued to spread.
The election-year meme has crossed over to talk radio, where Limbaugh, a mega-popular talk radio host host and recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, appeared to quote from it on his show Monday.
“You know, every election year has had a disease as part of it,” Limbaugh said. “Are you aware of this? No, you’re not, because you’re living in the moment and thinking about the future, which is responsible and reasonable. That’s what everybody does. You just can’t change the past anyway. In 2004, we were all told about SARS; in 2008, the Avian flu. Remember that? The bird flu! In 2010, it was the swine flu.”
Limbaugh continued to list the diseases, falsely tying them to particular election years.
“All of these things, now you remember them?” he added. “Every election year has one of these.”
The meme has also spread online, embraced on pro-Trump Twitter accounts, conspiracy-minded Reddit forums, and anti-vaccine Facebook pages. Google searches for related terms, like “election year virus” and “every election year has a virus,” shot up this month, according to Google Trends.
Ortiz, the Trump-supporting MMA star, posted the graphic on his Instagram page on Tuesday.
“Wake up #America!” Ortiz wrote. “Don’t believe the hype!”
The whiteboard meme that so many have attributed to a medical professional actually appears to be a mash-up of two tweets by Trump supporters with large followings on Twitter. On Feb. 27, Twitter user @BillyBoysDaddy, a conspiracy theorist who has more than 13,000 Twitter followers, posted what appears to be the first mash-up of the incorrectly dated diseases with election years.
“Every election year has a disease,” the anonymous user wrote. “Coincidence?”
The right half of the whiteboard appears to come from a tweet from Bill Mitchell, an ardent Trump supporter who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory. On Feb. 26, Mitchell sent the tweet claiming that the coronavirus is “being hyped as The Black Plague before an election,” the same language that was later written on the whiteboard.
Mitchell, who visited the White House for the president’s “Social Media Summit” last year, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
It’s not clear who first wrote and photographed the whiteboard image, or whether it was actually posted in any doctor’s office.
The election-year meme has popped up in connection to at least one actual event that could be connected by coronavirus. The organizers of a California motorcycle gathering assured rally-goers that they wouldn’t cancel their event in a Facebook post illustrated with a picture of a monkey flipping the middle finger, citing the claim that diseases in an election year aren’t a concern.
“This whole thing will be a memory real soon and then the media will find something else to scare everyone with!” they wrote on Monday. “Remember it’s an election year.”