California Gov. Gavin Newsom, absent from public life for nearly two weeks with little word from his office on his whereabouts, defended his handling of the situation and said Wednesday he was puzzled by those who took to social media to criticize and spread falsehoods about him.
To encourage others to get coronavirus booster shots, Newsom invited the media to watch him get one on Oct. 27, just a few days before he was scheduled to fly to Scotland for the United Nations’ climate conference. Two days later, Newsom abruptly canceled his trip, citing unspecified “family obligations.”
He then held no public events for the next 11 days. For a week his office did not provide information when asked about where he was and what he was doing. With no official comment, people on social media began to fill the information vacuum with their own theories — including some who questioned the governor’s health following the booster shot.
On Monday, Newsom's office issued a brief statement saying he had spent the prior week working at the Capitol.
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Newsom said Wednesday he had absolutely no side-effects from the shot. He said the claims posited on social media about him were another example of misinformation campaigns “that are going on across the spectrum in this country.”
“I was sort of bewildered," he said during a visit to a coronavirus vaccination clinic in Los Angeles. “I drove into the office every single day, into the Capitol, walked the halls of the Capitol with my kids, spending time with my team, quite literally every single day,
“And then I started seeing some things bubble up on social media: ‘Where’s the governor?' I'm at work. I'm doing work."
Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University who focuses on politics, ethics and governance issues, agreed Newsom was a victim of misinformation spread online but said it was in part his own doing.
“I mean, ‘family obligations’ is almost synonymous with ‘no comment.’ ... It's become code for, ‘I’m not giving you an answer,'" Levinson said. “It was 110% predictable that an information vacuum was going to be filled with half-truths and blatant rumors and lies.”
She said Newsom “is a voluntary public figure" in a powerful position and “giving the people just a little bit more information and transparency would have solved this whole thing."
Tuesday, in his first public appearance since getting the coronavirus vaccine booster shot, Newsom said he chose to cancel his trip to Scotland so he could watch his four young children play in a weekend soccer tournament and take them trick or treating on Halloween. Newsom said his children had staged “an intervention” during dinner one night, saying they couldn't believe he was going to miss their favorite holiday.
Newsom's explanation was met with praise from his allies in the state Legislature, many of whom issued statements of support on Tuesday and urged society at large to “normalize” family time. But the response among some others was confusion over why it took Newsom so long to say something.
“One can position oneself as a world leader in one breath and then haughtily dismiss any duty to inform those one leads in the next, but only at the risk of inviting confusion,” wrote Josh Gohlke, a deputy opinion editor at the Sacramento Bee, the daily newspaper in the state's capital city.
Newsom said Wednesday the problem wasn't how his office communicated but instead an example of the larger issue of the “firehose" of lies and misinformation permeating social media.
“If you want to go down that rabbit hole of conspiracies, it's a challenge. And that's nothing to do with the governor's office," he said. “It's much more profound than that. We're seeing misinformation weaponized.”