Donald Trump Jr. used real CDC data to draw an absolutely ridiculous conclusion

In the misinformation age, it's important to understand that not all misinformation is fake. Some of it fabricated out of thin air, but more often than not, it includes legitimate data that is either misread, misunderstood, or misrepresented.

Such is the case with Donald Trump Jr.'s ridiculous claim on Fox News that COVID-19 deaths are

"These people are truly morons," Trump Jr. said without a hint of irony, before explaining to Ingraham how we "went through the CDC data" and came to the conclusion that the COVID-19 death number "is almost nothing." He said, "We've gotten control of this thing, we understand how it works, they have the therapeutics to be able to death with this."

"Look at my Instagram," he added. "It's gone to almost nothing."

Anyone who pays any attention at all to daily death tolls from the virus knows that the idea that deaths are "almost nothing" is simply false on its face. We have regularly had between 500 and 1000 deaths per day for months, and those numbers have begun to climb again in recent weeks. In fact we had over 1000 deaths yesterday, the day he tried to make this claim. So what the hell is Jr. talking about?


We could just brush him off as an idiot and move along, but the problem is there are millions of people who will watch, listen, and believe him. He says his numbers are from the CDC, after all. So let's take a look at what he shared on his Instagram.

Looking at the first chart he shared of weekly death numbers, we see that deaths spiked, dropped, went back up in the summer, then have tapered off since—but with a huge drop in the past few weeks.

The second chart puts those weekly death numbers up against the weekly case counts. Judging by this chart, it appears that while cases have gone up (because of more testing, according to Jr., which is only very partially true) deaths have plummeted.

So what's going on here?

The data Jr. is using is the CDC's weekly provisional death count, not the current recorded death count. And that distinction makes his conclusion 100% wrong.

The CDC provisional death count only counts a death once death certificate paperwork is fully processed. That process can take anywhere from one to eight weeks, which is clearly explained on the CDC website that Jr. got the data from. So the most recent weeks in his chart aren't up-to-date at all.

There's even a big blue box at the top of the page that says, "Note: Provisional death counts are based on death certificate data received and coded by the National Center for Health Statistics as of October 30, 2020. Death counts are delayed and may differ from other published sources (see Technical Notes). Counts will be updated periodically."

In fact, if you look at the numbers posted today for the last two months compared to the numbers in his chart, they've all gone up, because more death certificates for those weeks have been processed. That's how this chart works. The data is incomplete, especially in recent weeks.

So yeah, Jr. is using real CDC data, but he's drawing completely the wrong conclusion from it.

Now, perhaps that's a result of not understanding it (which is a problem if you are going on national television as a mouthpiece for the White House during a pandemic). Perhaps it's a result of neglecting to read the whole web page and just pulling numbers from the chart (which is also a problem if you're trying to speak authoritatively while calling other people morons). Or perhaps it's an intentional misrepresentation (which is a problem for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that it could lead to more dead Americans).

While it's tempting to lean toward Don Jr.'s incompetence, there's one detail that makes me wonder if it was purposeful. Donald Trump Jr. shared this information on his Instagram, but not on Facebook (at least not that I could find). The reason that's suspect is that people can't click on links on Instagram. In fact, if they're using the mobile app, which is how the vast majority of people use Instagram, you can't even copy and paste the links, so it's very difficult to get to the website he cites. On Facebook, the CDC links in his share text would have shown up as clickable links, and maybe—just maybe—some of his readers would bother checking his accuracy for themselves.

People using the provisional death count erroneously isn't new. I wrote about it several months ago, when a claim kept going around that the CDC had lowered its death count. It hadn't. People were just confusing the provisional death count numbers with the real-time death count and running with their conspiracy theories.

So when Trump Jr. shares his charts and asks on Instagram, "Why isn't the ACTUAL data from the CDC being discussed?" he needs to know that it is. This data just isn't what he thinks it is.

And when he says, "I guess they can't rule you with fear if they tell you the truth," I just want to bang my head on my desk and then burn down the entire internet so that we don't have to be subjected to the Trump family's misinformation and absurd gaslighting any longer.

Happy voting, everyone.

This article originally appeared on 01.12.18


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