Heading into his third statewide election, it’s no secret that U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has been trafficking in misinformation.
From stating mouthwash has been proven to kill COVID-19 to suggesting “Fake Trump protesters” helped organize the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol violence, Wisconsin’s most prominent Republican has often peddled fringe theories that undermine government efforts to combat the pandemic and downplay the insurrection.
The Oshkosh Republican is not alone. Websites like the Gateway Pundit — a site popular with conspiracy theorists — are pushing many of the same whoppers, including a recent false claim about athletes dropping dead after taking COVID-19 vaccines, which the NFL and health officials told The New York Times has no basis in fact.
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It’s hardly news that politicians — of all stripes — stretch the truth. And in his second term, Johnson has embraced his identity as a contrarian at war with establishment thinking, asserting in his reelection announcement last month that, “I will need the support of every Wisconsinite who values the truth and refuses to allow lies and distortions to prevail.” But those fights often end up being battles against reality.
Asked about his recent fabrications, Johnson’s office said he has been trying to emphasize that “our federal health agencies should be concerned about reports on adverse reactions related to COVID-19 vaccines, and they should fully investigate and make their findings available to the American people.”
After health officials and the company that makes Listerine rebuked Johnson’s suggestion about mouthwash, Johnson said he was not promoting mouthwash as a vaccine alternative.
Johnson spokesperson Vanessa Ambrosini also pointed to several studies suggesting mouthwash can affect COVID-19, including one that found mouthwash may reduce viral load in the mouth, though the study did not find that it kills the virus in the nose or lungs, nor did it say it is a cure for the disease.
What Johnson may be doing, University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism assistant professor Josephine Lukito said, is filling an information void created by the rapidly changing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We do see this a fair amount where conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media make their way into perhaps digital outlets like Gateway Pundit and Breitbart and then come out the mouth of a politician,” she said.
On the insurrection, Johnson read a Federalist article at a 2021 congressional hearing stating that “fake Trump protesters” were among those committing the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, adding, “I think these are the people that probably planned this.”
There is no evidence that people pretending to be supporters of former President Donald Trump planned the insurrection. In fact, hundreds of those charged with crimes from trespassing to sedition are known, vocal supporters of the former president.
Johnson later walked back his speculative statement, telling the New York Times, “It might be a flawed part of the evidence, but why exclude it?”
In a 2010 study, Dartmouth College government professor Brendan Nyhan said the widespread circulation of non-truths “especially among sympathetic partisans” reinforces what he called a “partisan divide in factual beliefs.”
“Once such beliefs take hold,” Nyhan concluded, “few good options exist to counter them — correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last July said health misinformation can cause confusion, increase mistrust and harm people’s health in a 22-page call to action for Americans to curb the spread of misinformation.
“Lives are depending on it,” he said to reporters at the White House when he issued his advisory, which referred to a study that found exposure to scientific-sounding misinformation reduces the chance that someone will get a COVID-19 vaccine.
In the report, Murthy encouraged tech firms to reduce the spread of misinformation, educators to teach media literacy, journalists to fact-check misinformation and public health experts to provide more context and answers to a sometimes confused public.
In November Johnson’s YouTube account was suspended for one week because he posted vaccine misinformation. His video cited information from the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System, a self-reporting system that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned is not an accurate gauge of a vaccine’s risks, but which some conservatives have used to spread skepticism about the vaccine and government.
Such misinformation has been blamed for higher COVID-19 death rates in pro-Trump counties.
Facts as opinions
Brandon Scholz, a longtime Republican strategist, has fallen away from the party during the Trump era. But even he has become resigned to the idea that truth has become a muddle.
“I don’t share your position that he’s spreading misinformation because, number one, I’m not a scientist or doctor,” he said, referring to Johnson’s COVID-19 comments. “So I can’t make that claim, that what he’s saying is right or wrong.”
In Scholz’s view, calling Johnson’s remarks misinformation constitutes taking sides on something that is a matter of opinion.
“The country’s in a tough position because there is such a difference of opinion on what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s treatable, what’s not,” he said. “That’s a really different position that we’ve been in as a country, as voters (and) as people who have elected representatives” from any issue in the past, he added.
In 2007, several university professors, including a Yale Law School professor and a University of Oregon psychology professor, teamed up on a study about the “American culture war on fact.”
In the study, the researchers found that people often find conforming to their groups’ values to be more important — and far safer, socially — than dissenting when the facts would set people apart from their groups.
“As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” the study states.
“Statistically and factually, health experts have come out and said (mouthwash) does nothing to combat COVID-19,” Lukito said. “When it comes to politicians, or when you’re doubling down like this, you will reframe it as an opinion.”
Sen. Kathleen Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, one of the first Republicans in the state to acknowledge Biden won the election and a defender of the state’s election process, declined to comment on Johnson’s specific points.
But Bernier said his exploring alternative medical options is common among conservatives, who tend to be distrustful of bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci, who has served as the nation’s top infectious disease expert under seven presidents, including four Republicans. Democrats, she said, think the government has the answer to everything.
“I’m not discouraging anyone from getting vaccines,” she said. “I’m not discouraging anyone from using mouthwash or taking vitamin C or zinc or ivermectin or whatever is available out there that your medical professional will tell you to do. You know, do it all.”
A poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov found that 52% of Republicans considered hydroxychloroquine an effective COVID-19 treatment despite the CDC finding that the drug did not reduce viral load or demonstrate clinical efficacy. Among Democrats, that figure was 13%.
UW-Madison journalism professor Mike Wagner, who studies political communication, said a likely reason for Johnson’s approach is to rally his base.
Some of Johnson’s comments promoting misinformation and critiquing trusted news sources are signs of “the culmination of a decadeslong project on the right to try to discredit the media,” Wagner said.
If Johnson were only to recommend vaccination and not suggest disproven alternative treatments, he would be subject to criticism “that he’s being captured by the system,” Wagner said.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, has also made numerous false statements about COVID-19, including that there have been “extremely high amounts of COVID vaccine deaths” and that COVID-19 was not dangerous.
Before her 2020 win, Taylor Green had been a promoter of the fringe online clique QAnon. While her comments earned her a permanent Twitter ban, they almost certainly endeared her to her Republican constituents. She is seeking reelection in 2022.
Trump, too, has repeatedly pushed false COVID-19 conspiracy theories. His rallies are still full, and his chances of regaining the presidency in 2024 should he choose to run — with Biden’s approval rating down and the national deficit up — appear hopeful.
Scholz said Wisconsinites have become far too partisan these days for a single issue to separate supporters from voting for a person in their party.
“If you want to get right down to the crass facts, Democrats hate Ron Johnson and Republicans like him,” he said. “And from here to November, that’s not really going to change.”