To White House aides, the wholly fictional Biden-will-ban-hamburgers story line was in part an amusing flare-up perpetuated by Republicans who have struggled to find ways to successfully attack the president. They joked privately that White House press secretary Jen Psaki should start her daily press briefing by eating a burger.
But the not-quite-red-meat attack also offers a case study in how a falsehood can rapidly metastasize among Republicans — pushed not only by the party’s fringe but also by more mainstream voices, like former South Carolina governor and potential 2024 hopeful Nikki Haley. The argument dovetails with a common claim on the right that Democrats are out to ban meat-eating, whether for reasons of health or climate.
And the episode underscores how the shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency — rife with misinformation and mistruths and lies — still lingers, providing Republicans with a mendacious road map for demonizing a political rival. The nation experienced 30,573 false or misleading claims over Trump’s four years in office, according to The Washington Post Fact Checker — culminating in the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen, which ultimately helped provoke the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Daniel A. Effron, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School who studies the psychology of lies, said that even if people don’t believe a specific falsehood, its mere existence can still help perpetuate a damaging narrative.
“One of the things misinformation can do is signal to people that there’s a deeper truth to what’s being claimed, even if people know it’s not literally true,” Effron said. “So you see a bunch of people sharing this thing about the burger and you may not think, ‘Biden is going to literally take away the burgers,’ but you may start to believe the broader point this misinformation is making — the broader point in this case being Biden is super liberal, he’s going to infringe on our liberties, he can’t be trusted.”
The falsehood began with a Daily Mail article Thursday, titled, “How Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH.” While noting that Biden has “yet to release any firm details” on his plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, the article speculated on some ways Biden could achieve his goals. It cited a University of Michigan study that found that Americans reducing their meat consumption would help lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The academic study does not mention Biden and was published before he was inaugurated, but that didn’t stop the Daily Mail from baselessly asserting that Biden’s climate plan “would require Americans to only consume about four pounds of red meat per year, or 0.18 ounces per day.”
With that, the conservative stampede began. Larry Kudlow, a former top economic adviser to Trump, warned on his Fox Business show Friday that Americans would have to forgo meat on the Fourth of July if Biden gets his way.
“You got that? No burgers on July Fourth. No steaks on the barbie. I’m sure middle America is just going to love that. Can you grill those Brussels sprouts?” Kudlow said. “So get ready: You can throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts and wave your American flag. Call it July Fourth green.”
Several Fox News hosts also picked up the false claim. The network even ran an “Up In Your Grill” graphic, featuring a burger on one side and several false claims about Biden’s climate plan on the other, including, “Cut 90% of red meat from diet,” and “One burger per month.”
Haley, meanwhile, retweeted a meme that her Stand For America political action committee pushed out, featuring Texas’s iconic “Come and Take It” flag, now repurposed to show a burger dripping cheese instead of the cannon. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought this was America,” read the caption on the group’s tweet.
As a result, by Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack found himself debunking the false claim during a virtual briefing with reporters.
“There’s no desire, no effort, no press release, no policy paper — none of that — that would support the notion that the Biden administration is going to suggest that people eat less meat,” Vilsack said. “Or that USDA has some program designed to reduce meat consumption. It’s simply not the case.”
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said the challenge for Democrats is that even seemingly inconsequential falsehoods can consume valuable time and detract from an administration’s strategic message.
“This is where Democrats misunderstand the right-wing media machine,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s not that swing voters are going to believe that Biden wants to ban hamburgers; it’s that it makes it harder to get your positive message out on other things because you’re busy responding to this.”
Pfeiffer said Democrats are left with something of a Hobson’s choice: Respond, and help fuel a bad news cycle, or don’t respond and let your opponents define the cycle for you.
“This is the dilemma of anyone dealing with such obvious disinformation: Do you ignore it or do you respond to it?” he said. “If you respond to it, you risk giving it additional oxygen, but one of the lessons of recent years is that it’s going to get oxygen no matter what, so you have to arm your allies with the facts so they can share them.”
Effron said that even silly or implausible falsehoods can have corrosive effects long-term.
“We know from psychology research that people make moral judgments about others based not just on what the others have actually done, but based on what we imagine they would do if given the chance,” Effron said. “And in this case, it doesn’t matter if Biden has actually proposed this. As soon as you start to imagine this is the sort of thing Biden might do, you can start getting just as outraged as if he’s actually done this.”
White House spokesman Andrew Bates made light of the kerfuffle around lunchtime on Monday.
“I’m literally eating a West Wing Burger right now,” he said.
Indeed, a review of the White House Mess menu reveals a “West Wing Burger” — a “house blend” beefy patty with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and a pickle for $7 — or, for an additional $1, with cheese.