On Saturday, Lara Trump appeared on Fox News to claim that fentanyl will somehow end up in the baskets of trick-or-treaters, who might die from simply touching it.
“If one child dies from this on Halloween, I gotta tell you, we have to take action to stop this right now,” Trump said from behind a chyron that screeched “‘RAINBOW FENTANYL’ WARNINGS AHEAD OF HALLOWEEN.” “Parents are terrified, and we have no answers. What are we supposed to do?”
A male host interjected: “So Democrats ruin Halloween, too.”
Fearmongering stories about drugs in Halloween candy are nothing new, but this year has presented conservatives with a unique opportunity to mash together unfounded fears about contact overdoses from a highly potent synthetic opioid and opposition to Democrats’ immigration policies. In 2022, their panic-machine is being aided by the midterms news cycle, social media bots, and even the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The poison candy myth
The progenitor of the Halloween candy panic was a man named Ronald O’Bryan, who killed his own son with a poisoned Pixy Stick for life insurance money. But no evidence exists that a stranger has ever tainted kids’ Halloween candy, said Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. Best, in his survey of press coverage since 1958, hasn’t found a single instance of a child being killed or seriously hurt from candy they got trick-or-treating.
Best dubbed this annual fear “Halloween sadism.” It’s only natural for parents to want to protect their children, but they can’t save their kids (or themselves) from rising sea levels, nuclear war, or possible asteroid strikes. Halloween vigilance presents the illusion of control, even though it makes no sense at all. “There’s somebody in your neighborhood who is so crazy that they poison little children at random, but they’re so tightly wrapped they only do it one night a year?” Best said. “What an incredibly manageable fear.”
This year, the news cycle gave fearmongers a new gift at precisely the right time.
On August 30, the DEA issued a press release announcing that it had seized brightly colored fentanyl pills in 18 states and claimed that the “trend appears to be a new method used by drug cartels to sell highly addictive and potentially deadly fentanyl made to look like candy to children and young people.” About a month later, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) held a press conference where he repeated the unsubstantiated claim that drug dealers were targeting kids, holding up a roll of Sweetarts and saying the pills resembled the candy. Bot accounts leapt into action the same day, widely circulating the tenuous connection between Schumer’s warning and Halloween.
“There’s a kind of thing where, if it’s in the news in September, it becomes a candidate for a Halloween scare,” Best said. In recent years, for example, the freakout was that trick-or-treaters might come home with cannabis edibles, which are famously expensive; handing them out to random kids would cost a fortune. This panic was tied to dispensaries opening in states that had legalized marijuana and stories of kids finding edibles in their own homes—not getting them from strangers.
Best called the DEA’s framing of rainbow fentanyl this year “idiotic,” since drug cartels don’t target people that young. “Elementary school kids are not really the age group that has the disposable income to buy an addictive product,” he said.
Besides, the government is seizing increasing amounts of fentanyl at the border, thereby preventing it from being sold here. But that doesn’t fit conservatives’ “open border” narrative. Last week, 13 Republican senators released a PSA “warning parents about the dangers of rainbow fentanyl ahead of Halloween.” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) made the political connection explicit, telling the Daily Caller that, “because of Joe Biden’s open border policies, illicit fentanyl is wreaking havoc in communities throughout the U.S. and killing Americans at record rates. As such, every state is now a border state.”
Overall, “there’s approximately zero chance” rainbow fentanyl will poison kids on Halloween, according to Best. But the panic industrial complex takes irrationality as confirmation. “If you say, ‘Why would they do that?’ the response is, ‘That’s just the kind of thing they do.’ That is the classic motive behind all urban legends,” Best said. “It doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, the very fact that it doesn’t make sense is proof of how reasonable the story is.”
Some spread the myth on purpose
The story isn’t just spreading on partisan outlets and through politicians and party figureheads. It’s also being covered in local and national news, though fact-checks are starting to emerge.
The reach of this misinformation isn’t surprising to Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, and faculty director of the Health in Justice Action Lab. He was the lead author of a 2020 research paper about the myth of contact fentanyl overdoses spreading on social media; he and his co-authors noted that the DEA kicked off the contact-overdose panic in 2016. Their analysis found that, between 2015 and 2019, misinformation about fentanyl contact overdoses had 15 times greater reach on Facebook than correct content did.
“The unfortunate sort of function and dynamic of social media is that things that go viral oftentimes are not the things you want to go viral,” Beletsky told Jezebel. “They’re the information that’s not correct and sort of pulls at people’s emotional strings.”
Different actors have different reasons for spreading fentanyl myths, Beletsky said. For the media, it’s clicks and engagement. He sees twin benefits for groups like the DEA, local law enforcement, and certain policymakers in warning of rainbow fentanyl lurking in candy, Halloween or otherwise.
“One is to center themselves in a crisis situation,” he said. “The related one is to secure more resources and more support for their work, for the work of law enforcement…to sort of challenge or push back on efforts to reinvest [those] resources.” It’s not unlike the police-supported myth of sex trafficking at the Super Bowl, he said, which results in greater police presence and sex workers being unfairly arrested.
This attempt at self-preservation happens at the individual level, too. Beletsky pointed to San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins as someone who seems to be using the fentanyl panic to try to boost her reelection campaign. Jenkins, who was appointed after the successful recall of progressive Chesa Boudin, claimed in September that dealers are using rainbow fentanyl to target kids, and said her office would pursue second-degree murder charges for drug dealers linked to an overdose death. “All that [tough-on-crime rhetoric] does is further marginalize people,” Beletsky said. “It diverts public resources from treatment and support and harm reduction to failed approaches that are a major reason why we’re there in this crisis in the first place.”
He also noted that “immigrant panics” are often connected to drug laws. “If you look at the history of how cannabis became prohibited in the United States—I mean, it literally carries a Mexican name—same with opium being attributed to Chinese immigration,” he said, “there’s a long and very sordid tradition of tying particular drugs to particular immigrant groups, and then using that as a cudgel to shape policy.”
And that policy, more often than not, is increased police budgets. “There’s certainly winners from the spread of this information online. Unfortunately, the losers are all of us,” Beletsky said.
On September 18, former President Bill Clinton warned a CNN interviewer that Republicans always “close well” in elections. “They find some new way to scare the living daylights out of swing voters about something. That’s what they did in 2021, where they made critical race theory sound worse than smallpox,” Clinton said, referring to Glenn Youngkin’s win in the Virginia governor’s race.
Two days later on Fox News, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel responded by saying that it’s actually the Democrats who scare voters, before introducing a boogeyman of her own: “Newsflash, Bill…you’re scaring voters everywhere with the open border. I mean, just last month, 2,000 pounds of fentanyl came across our border—that could kill 500 million people. We’re coming into Halloween. Every mom in the country right now is worried. What if this gets into my kid’s Halloween basket?”
Tellingly, right before she started ranting about rainbow fentanyl in kids’ candy pails, the segment’s chyron had read: “Dems gain momentum on abortion and voting rights.” As Best said, “If there’s one thing Ronna McDaniel doesn’t want to talk about, it’s abortion.”
The ritual Halloween candy panic has become a joke in certain circles. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation recently tweeted about finding invasive carp inside a Milky Way.
But for every person poking fun at the rainbow fentanyl candy panic, there are no doubt more who believe it’s real. And they’re helping bolster those who want to weaponize this manufactured fear.