A conspiracy theory that Joe Biden would wear an electronic device in his ear during the first presidential debate went wildly viral Tuesday in the hours before the debate, and the theory was later amplified by mainstream conservative news outlets that claimed without evidence that Biden had backed out of an ear "inspection."
The conspiracy theory, which was pushed in a text message sent by the Trump campaign after it went viral on Facebook and YouTube, claimed that Biden had declined to "undergo inspection for electronic ear pieces before debate."
The Biden campaign has denied it ever agreed to such an inspection, and there is no evidence that Biden has ever used such a device during a debate. Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign's communications director, later said in a statement that Biden's team had agreed to an inspection and later backed out.
The earpiece conspiracy theory is an example of what disinformation experts call "trading up the chain," where the sheer virality of a meme or conspiracy theory forces mainstream outlets to cover it, giving it a patina of credibility it otherwise would not have.
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"When rumors start to circulate, they can easily become fodder for a disinformation campaign when politicians and the news pick them up in tandem," said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. "This creates a feedback loop -- trading misinformation up the media chain until we all have to reckon with it."
On Facebook, memes insisting Biden should have his ears inspected for electronic devices before the debate saturated the platform on Tuesday. One meme that simply said "Joe Biden should be inspected for a hidden ear piece as well as submit to a drug test before the debate. Share if you agree!" was posted by a network of conservative sites early Tuesday morning.
The meme was pushed at the same exact time by a series of coordinated Facebook pages with names like "US Conservative" and "The Unhinged Left" and received thousands of shares. It was the most recent push of a viral talking point that's been floating around the far-right internet for weeks.
Fox News published a story hours later claiming that "President Trump's re-election campaign wants the Biden campaign to allow a third party to inspect the ears of each debater for electronic devices or transmitters" and that Biden had not yet agreed to the rule.
The conspiracy theory that Biden was set to wear some sort of electronic device was then pushed by believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Q, an anonymous account on an extremist message board that QAnon believers think is secretly tipping off the president's plan to save the world, posted close-up pictures of Biden's ear, along with a link to the Fox News story just minutes later.
The conspiracy theory exploded on Twitter shortly after noon when a tweet by a New York Post reporter, citing a single anonymous source, claimed Biden had agreed to some sort of ear inspection weeks ago before backing out on Tuesday.
Two hours later, the Post reporter tweeted a denial by the Biden campaign. By that point, the conspiracy theory had gained further traction on Facebook, with aggregators citing only Bowden's tweet.
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign's communications director, later said in a statement that Biden's team had agreed to an inspection and later backed out.
Two separate Breitbart stories received tens of thousands of shares, likes and reactions on Facebook, both citing Bowden's tweet. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany shared the allegation, receiving tens of thousands of interactions on her own page.
It is not the first time those in pro-Trump media outlets and surrogates accused a presidential opponent of wearing an earpiece during a debate. Donald Trump Jr. posted an InfoWars article titled "Was Hillary Wearing an Earpiece During Last Night's Presidential Forum?" after a presidential debate between his father and Hilary Clinton in September 2016. The article cited a meme from the actor James Woods as its source.
Accusing political opponents of receiving secret help with hidden recording equipment during a debate is a bipartisan conspiracy theory that goes back to at least 2004. After a debate that year, bloggers accused President George W. Bush of having been "wired,", overanalyzing screenshots from the telecast that showed creases on the back of his blazer.
Donovan said she had heard the earpiece conspiracy theory this week on YouTube, where some videos about the theory have hundreds of thousands of views.
"Tonight's debate is shaping up to be the Olympics of disinformation," Donovan said.