Donald Trump’s allies in conservative media have a new villain in the coronavirus fight: contact tracing, the rigorous efforts to track the virus’s spread that public health experts say is essential to safely restarting society.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham devoted much of her show Thursday night to raising questions about contact tracing, the process where interviewers try to figure out who has been exposed to the virus by literally figuring out whom the infected had contact with. As a Fox News chyron warned that contact tracing should “concern all Americans,” Ingraham claimed that calls for more contact tracers were just an “excuse” to keep businesses closed, and compared being interviewed by a contact tracer to being groped by a Transportation Security Administration agent.
“Instead of rummaging through your luggage, these contact tracers will be prying through the most intimate details of your life,” Ingraham said.
A wide range of public health officials and experts have insisted that the country needs to vastly expand contact tracing, with one Johns Hopkins study calling for the hiring of at least 100,000 additional contact tracers. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said earlier this month that coronavirus deaths will “of course” increase without additional tracing and testing. Workplace contact tracing is included in the White House’s own reopening plan.
But Ingraham isn’t alone on the right in sowing doubts about contact tracing. Conservative columnists Andy and John Schlafly—best known as the sons of late right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly—co-authored a column at Townhall.com criticizing Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) for budgeting nearly $300 million for contact tracing. The Schlaflys laid out a dystopian vision of contact tracing, comparing it to a “dark episode in the history of the communist Soviet Union” and claiming that contact tracing could be used to separate children from infected parents.
They even imagined contact tracing details being used to embarrass Republican candidates.
“The real goal of the contact tracing is to use COVID-19 as a pretext to monitor the whereabouts of every American, perhaps through our smartphones, and take away our liberties,” the Schlaflys wrote. “Republican political candidates will be tracked and leaks of their private information to the media would be inevitable under this scheme, while Democrats such as Joe Biden are given a pass on their far greater misconduct.”
Instead, the Schlaflys called for Abbott to flood the state with hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that’s become a darling of Trump supporters as a potential coronavirus treatment—even as clinical studies suggest it has no effect on the virus and actually increases mortality.
“The $295 million that Abbott is spending on contact tracing could have purchased HCQ treatments for half of the entire State of Texas, to reopen the state without the need for oppressive monitoring,” the Schlaflys wrote.
Emerald Robinson, the White House correspondent for conservative Newsmax TV, which is run by a close Trump confidant, compared contact tracing to “mandatory vaccination” and 5G towers, which conspiracy theorists have claimed spread coronavirus.
Pro-Trump activist Tom Fitton, the head of conservative activist group Judicial Watch, put contact tracing on a list of his coronavirus grievances, declaring: “I’m done with it.”
Other concerns on the fringe right about contact tracing have been driven by outright hoaxes about H.R. 6666, legislation from Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) that would put $100 billion into coronavirus testing and contact tracing.
The bill’s number alone puts it perilously close to the supposedly Satanic number “666,” right as conspiracy theorists have become convinced that any coronavirus vaccine would be the “Mark of the Beast.” Prominent conspiracy theory outlet InfoWars declared that the bill was the “Bill of the Beast,” while rumors spread on social media claiming that the bill would authorize contact tracers to abduct children.
Privacy watchdogs have raised legitimate concerns about how contact tracing data could be used, especially when the data is collected through apps. On Monday, the ACLU called for additional safeguards to protect contact tracing data. A report on a North Dakota contact tracing app found several privacy flaws.
But much of the fearmongering about contact tracing seems to be driven by ignorance of what it actually is. Failed Republican congressional candidate and QAnon conspiracy theorist DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero, whose call to “#FireFauci” Trump retweeted in April, has urged her fans to not get tested for COVID-19. She also appears to misunderstand contact tracing, claiming that contact tracers go through phone “contact” lists, rather than in-person contacts.
“I don’t want people to get tested, because I don’t want to be in their phone, in their contact list, and if you guys are all following me on Twitter and following me on YouTube, then I’m probably going to be in your contact list,” Tesoriero told her fans in a video. “So I would prefer not to be there. They specifically said if they find one person, then they’re going to make sure they call all of that person’s contacts, whether they have 5,000 contacts or 5 contacts. And I really don’t feel like being called, I want to get off the grid of this system.”
On her Thursday night show, Ingraham positioned herself as perhaps conservative media’s leading contact tracing skeptic. But her guests went even further than her, with Claremont Institute senior fellow John Eastman adopting what was meant to be a German or Russian accent to imitate a contact tracing interviewer.
Ingraham guest Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism, claimed that contact tracing meant that the “French revolution is attacking the American revolution.” Ingraham agreed, comparing contact tracers to radical French revolutionaries.
“The Jacobins, they’re back,” she said.