fb-pixelFor Wu’s critics, a powerful tool: misinformation - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

For Wu’s critics, a powerful tool: misinformation

Mayor Michelle Wu outside City Hall.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Since taking office, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has earned her share of praise, but also faced significant opposition, from predictable pushback against outdoor dining policies to furious condemnations of her vaccine mandate — often delivered in shouts outside her front door. There have been racist slurs, indictments of her character, and swarms of negative comments on Instagram Live.

Beneath these very public blitzes, unseen Wu critics also pursued a stealthier, perhaps more insidious attack on Boston’s new mayor: weaponized misinformation targeting her mental health, and by implication her ability to lead.

Over the past few months, a false rumor questioning her stability has spread through online comment sections and right-wing whisper networks to reach local airwaves and even some in the city’s halls of power. The spurious narrative underscores a broader, worrying trend of malicious and personal misinformation, which can color perception of public figures even when it is not fully believed. It’s a timeworn political weapon whose potential for damage has multiplied with social media. The false claim about Wu, in particular, echoes familiar, long-discredited biases against women in government, who some try to paint as too weak, too emotional, or too unstable to lead.

The spread of the falsehood illustrates not just the risks of rumors, but another dark reality: They travel faster when people are primed to believe them.

Advertisement



“Questioning Mayor Wu’s mental health is a direct attack on her strength as a leader,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and works to advance women in politics. “Attacking a woman’s wellness really plays into an age-old sexist trope that women are too weak or generally unfit to serve in office.”

The story — and it is a false one — goes like this: Wu, overwhelmed by the pressures of her new office and the vehement protesters outside her home most mornings, experienced a panic attack (or several) and was taken by ambulance to a hospital. Most gossips say Brigham and Women’s; other variants of the rumor place her at the Faulkner in Jamaica Plain.

Advertisement



In fact, Wu has not been taken to either hospital. Records of January and February emergency calls show no ambulance was dispatched to her home to collect her for medical treatment. The mayor said she has never been hospitalized for a panic attack, nor has she suffered one while in office. And if she were in distress, Wu said, she would not hide it or hesitate to seek help.

The rumor never went truly viral online; it was pushed mostly by anti-Wu and right-wing Web accounts with limited reach. But chatter in a small right-wing universe soon came to the attention of the city’s political class, seeping implicitly and later explicitly into the media, and eventually — repeatedly — reaching the ears of some of her closest allies.

How effectively the false claim spread underscores the stigma surrounding even well understood mental health challenges, as well as the underlying biases against women and people of color in leadership.

There are those who believe this Globe story will worsen the problem. Experts say it can be a mistake to mention this kind of misinformation in a reputable newspaper; that even debunking a rumor grants it oxygen. But as this false claim spreads through the city’s power centers, it has already leaked into public discourse. And the mayor, who has been open about her mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, was glad to correct the record, saying it was important to call out both mental health stigma and misinformation.

Advertisement



“I want to be transparent about the presence of these tactics, even today, because we need to acknowledge it to be able to change it,” Wu said in an interview with the Globe. “It does feel connected to larger trends in politics and international politics: If you just repeat something that’s false enough times, at least you can sow a little doubt in the broader public’s mind. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.”

For experts in gender politics and misinformation, Wu’s experience tells a familiar tale.

“If there are people out there who are already motivated to be against her, one of the very classic techniques for discrediting someone of power is to make them seem unfit for office. And for a woman in particular and a woman of color in a position of leadership, emotional instability is a classic accusation,” said Emily Dreyfuss, an expert in disinformation and media manipulation at the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.

“This is a weaponization of a classic misogynistic trope and stereotype,” added Dreyfuss, who reviewed some online commentary about Wu at the Globe’s request. “It sounds like people who had a grievance with her COVID policies in particular were looking for [something] to use against her, and this is what they found.”

Advertisement



It’s proven impossible to pinpoint the rumor’s precise origin. Some speculate it was born online, in the dark corners of the Internet where female politicians are routinely tarred with the most disgusting possible slurs. Others believe, though have not offered evidence, that it came from Boston city employees, perhaps spread among public safety workers who resisted Wu’s COVID vaccine mandate. Or maybe it was fueled by true information, an accidental or intentional misunderstanding of long-ago episode detailed in the pages of The Boston Globe.

Wu herself first noticed the chatter in early January, on Twitter. On Jan. 9, one account questioned whether Wu “suffered anxiety attack and was brought to a Boston hospital?”

“Sources are first hand,” the user claimed.

Wu said she didn’t pay it much mind; there is a lot said about her online.

Then, on Jan. 15, the Globe published a feature story on Wu’s early tenure in which the mayor described experiencing a panic attack years earlier, as she confronted the anxiety of becoming a public figure. The anecdote was a decade old, but it nonetheless appears that it could have fueled the new falsehood about Wu. Online claims started to consistently parrot the story’s language, calling the recent fabricated episode a “panic attack.” That snippet of the article was mentioned in gossip and sometimes even screenshotted in text messages, included as if to bolster the credibility of the rumor: Look, it happened then — it must be happening now.

Advertisement



Panic attacks — episodes of acute anxiety, sometimes but not always triggered by a specific stressor — are not rare among American adults, and they are no cause for shame or secrecy. Panic attacks are treatable, brief, and need not disqualify someone from serving in a high-stakes job, especially if experienced rarely, said Dr. Edward Silberman, a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center.

But in this case, the claim was being used to question Wu’s ability to lead.

“I can’t help but wonder if she is fit for a high pressure job like mayor of Boston,” questioned one Twitter user, @AntiWuCoalition.

“Another panic attack huh,” taunted @MAGAchusetts in a tweet, when the mayor was a few minutes late for an appearance.

In mid-January, the day after the Globe published the story referring to the panic attack several years past, City Hall got its first formal inquiry about the rumor. Was this true? It was not.

No credible outlet ever wrote a story. But the rumor trickled into circulation nonetheless, gaining steam online throughout the month. Some who repeated it claimed they had photos, or had heard directly from nurses at the hospital.

Soon, it was more than Wu’s critics: Municipal employees, political operatives, state lawmakers, and city councilors were hearing it, according to several people who spoke with the Globe, though many asked to do so anonymously because of the false information. It swirled through political networks and public safety unions, reaching leadership and members of Wu’s security detail. Many dismissed it as worthless gossip. But others, including some close to the mayor, eventually grew concerned enough to ask her about it directly. Did she need anything? Was there something they could do?

“Their first reaction was also, ‘Well, that’s so silly,’” Wu said. “But they kept hearing it, and so finally at some point decided just to check in to make sure.” She got the question from prominent elected officials and close friends, she said — “the type of friends I probably would have shared with proactively, if I was going through something and needed support.”

Without being reported explicitly, the claim nonetheless seemed to leak into public perception, infusing some media coverage. In January, a Boston Herald columnist lamented that Harvard-educated Wu hadn’t had “an Ivy League seminar or class to learn how to grapple with these anxiety-inducing problems” she was confronting as mayor.

Then, in March, the rumor made it onto the airwaves. It came up during the sports-focused “Greg Hill Show,” when the conversation veered into city politics and Wu’s proposal to limit protests in residential neighborhoods.

“I feel for her — I know that she’s had several, apparently, had several panic attacks,” said Greg Hill, the show’s host, during a segment otherwise focused on the Patriots and cornerback J.C. Jackson.

“She’s had panic attacks?” asked Jermaine Wiggins, another host.

“Yeah,” Hill responded. “I don’t know if the whole scope of the job is understood by people who undertake the desire to have that job or not, but it’s kind of — the protesting, the negative comments on an Instagram Live — kind of comes with the job.”

Hill did not respond to requests for comment, and a representative for Audacy, the platform that publishes the show, declined to comment.

False information is likely to spread more widely when it is relatively believable, tied to some kernel of truth, and tracks with the listener’s existing biases, experts said — all conditions at play here.

“Misinformation is kind of a societal mirror,” said Rachel Moran, a researcher at the University of Washington. Typically, she said, salient misinformation “appeals to a worldview that a portion of society already holds. So a lot of misinformation becomes sticky because it reifies a lot of the problematic narratives that already exist.”

Misinformation frequently targets specific types of people with specific views. All too often, those victims are women and people of color. In her research, Moran has found that many local officials — Wu among them — have been hit with targeted misinformation campaigns because of their COVID-related mask or vaccine mandates, which have stoked fierce opposition among small but impassioned segments of the population. And female politicians who lead in policy areas such as climate change, migration, and women’s issues are more likely to be subjected to such attacks, said Kristina Wilfore, a George Washington University professor and cofounder of the Women’s Disinformation Defense Project.

Purveyors of misinformation can succeed even if their stories are not believed, experts warn, if the public is unwittingly influenced by false claims, or if the leaders targeted by them are too busy fact-checking to focus on other priorities.

Asked about the rumor’s impact, Wu struck a defiant tone.

“I don’t worry too much about those who might say that we’re not able to handle the job,” Wu said, “because we’ve been handling it and then some.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff.