Donald Trump’s campaign has suggested that Joe Biden will have an earpiece feeding him answers at their first presidential debate – following a conspiracy playbook among Republican figures and right-wing media over the past two decades accusing Democratic candidates of relying on back-room aides.
In a text to supporters, the Trump campaign promoted the conspiracy that the former vice president has “declined an earpiece inspection” before the debate.
It was already a familiar strategy in 2016, when Infowars and Drudge, and, eventually, Fox News, suggested Hillary Clinton wore an earpiece at a candidate forum, and again at her first debate against then-candidate Trump.
Widely circulated chain emails in 2012 accused Barack Obama of wearing a device in a debate against Mitt Romney. Conservative bloggers suggested he did the same at a debate in 2008.
But this year, the president’s latest attempt to undermine his opponent arrived before the debate, not after, along with claims that his rival’s campaign had refused to allow a third party to inspect the candidate’s ears before the debate.
That story quickly dominated social media, joining a growing list of baseless conspiracies spread by right-wing media and amplified by the Trump campaign and his allies, including unfounded allegations that Democrats are “cheating” through vote-by-mail efforts in the 2020 race.
A modern earpiece-conspiracy phenomenon erupted in 2000, when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh broadcast to his millions of listeners that then-Democratic candidate Al Gore received answers via earpiece during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Those conspiracies continued in 2004, after images of then-president George W Bush appeared to show a “bulge” in the back of his suit jacket during a debate.
Conservative blogger Ann Althouse stirred similar conspiracies involving Mr Obama when he faced John McCain in 2008, which she later doubted.
The “earpiece” conspiracy returned in 2012, when then-president Obama was accused of wearing a device while debating Mr Romney.
In 2016, right-wing website Infowars linked to a website called True Pundit, alleging that the then-candidate Clinton wore a “secret earpiece” during an election forum on 7 September of that year.
Images from the event debunked the story, which relied on a cropped photograph with a light source temporarily shining on her ear.
Donald Trump Jr shared a link to the Infowars story on Twitter, while Drudge picked up the story with the headline “HILLARY AND THE EAR PEARL" and the idea spread across right-wing media.
Later that month, right-wing websites accused her of wearing another device at her first debate matchup with then-candidate Trump. Charisma News ran the headline "Has Hillary Been Caught Cheating (Again)?" while World Net Daily asked "Was Hillary Wired for Trump Debate?"
Despite photographic evidence, the rumours persisted.
The latest efforts from the Trump campaign follow attempts to question the former vice president’s mental competency – including the president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani alleging without evidence that Mr Biden "has dementia" – while Mr Trump has routinely faced scrutiny throughout his time in office for the state of his health.
Mr Trump’s campaign also has released ads compiling his rival’s perceived gaffes or stutters, and his campaign’s social media accounts routinely mock the candidate.
And the president has accused his opponent of using drugs and suggested the candidates be screened before the debates.
A headline leading Fox News on Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the debate was due to start, read “Biden campaign rejects Trump's call for inspector to check candidates for listening devices at debate.”
Weeks earlier, the conspiracy was bubbling on social media and far-right message boards, including QAnon-related platforms, while prominent conspiracy theorists suggested that Mr Biden’s ears be checked before the debate in posts that were shared thousands of times.
Last week, more than 300 people shared a post, liked more than 1,000 times, from the page We Love President Donald J Trump that links to a story suggesting that "someone is helping" Mr Biden with an earpiece.
On 29 September, a reporter with The New York Post claimed that a “source familiar” with the campaign said that Mr Biden had agreed to an ear inspection but has now declined. She later reported that his campaign said that was false and had also denied claims that he had asked for “breaks” during the 90-minute debate.
Versions of the story from Breitbart and other right-wing Facebook pages were shared thousands of times on Tuesday.
Mr Trump’s campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh issued a statement that said Mr Biden’s "handlers” had agreed to the inspection “several days ago” – claims that Mr Biden’s campaign shot down.