Conspiracy theories already spreading ahead of Trump-Biden presidential debate

Accounts associated with the conspiracy group QAnon have been amplifying rumors about Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Facebook and Twitter ahead of the first presidential debate with President Donald Trump on Tuesday night.

The accounts make claims that Biden will be wearing an earpiece for the debate — ostensibly to be fed answers — as well as other claims involving performance-enhancing drugs.

Politicians and supporters have long used the earpiece conspiracy theory to undermine opponents ahead of debates.

The Trump campaign said Tuesday it had requested an inspection for any electronic earpieces and asked for assurance that Biden would not be using any drugs to help his performance. The campaign sent out a push notification to its app users saying, “Joe Biden REFUSES to take drug test and DECLINES to undergo inspection for electronic ear pieces before debate.”

New push alert on Trump campaign app pic.twitter.com/ncpm5jVQSr

— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) September 29, 2020

There is no evidence to suggest that Biden will wear an electronic earpiece, and the Biden campaign told reporters that the new earpiece rumor was “completely absurd.”

trump versus biden
Getty Images/Digital Trends Graphic

Tuesday’s claim originally stemmed from a tweet from New York Post journalist Ebony Bowden, who reported that the Biden campaign denied Trump’s ear inspection demand.

The tweet was soon picked up by popular far-right figures like commentator Tomi Lahren and activist Charlie Kirk, as well as conservative websites like Brietbart and The New Revolution II.

However, it wasn’t until the mysterious “Q” — the faceless figure behind the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory that claims the world is run by “deep state” satanist pedophile elites made up of Democrats and liberal celebrities — regurgitated the claim on the dark web message board 8kun, along with a close-up photo of Biden’s ear, that the rumor picked up steam on Facebook and Twitter.

By Tuesday afternoon, hours before the debate, the earpiece conspiracy was everywhere on social media.

QAnon accounts known for spreading misinformation suggested that hackers should hack their way into Biden’s hidden earpiece, and that Trump should just walk up and stick his finger in Biden’s ear himself. Others questioned whether Biden was purposefully hiding something, and speculated about whether he should be tested for performance-enhancing drugs before the debate.

In a tweet, Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said, “We’re reducing distribution of false claims that Biden has worn an earpiece in debates or is planning to wear one tonight. This is a step we take to reduce the spread of a claim while it’s pending review by third party fact-checkers when there are indications it is false.”

In another tweet, this time sent by the former vice president, Biden said, “It’s debate night, so I’ve got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready” and posted a photo of a pint of ice cream and iPhone headphones.

It’s debate night, so I’ve got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready. pic.twitter.com/EhOiWdjh1b

— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 29, 2020

Digital Trends reached out to Twitter and both the Trump and Biden campaigns for comment. We will update the story when we hear back.

It is not uncommon for misinformation to spread before a highly anticipated debate. However, most of the more popular posts on Facebook and Twitter touting the rumor had not been fact-checked or labeled as potentially misleading, despite containing unsubstantiated claims.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter remain meccas for misinformation and conspiracy theories, and it has only gotten more difficult for them to fact-check claims tied to QAnon because of the group’s close association with members of the Republican party.

Right-leaning publishers like the Daily Caller, which reposted the speculated claim about Biden, are registered as one of Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers, further complicating the situation.

The debate has yet to begun, and social media has already been whipped up into a conspiracy frenzy with little to no moderation. Tuesday’s moderator, Fox’s Chris Wallace, said he plans to be “as invisible as possible” — so don’t expect tonight to go any differently, fact-check wise.

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