Rumor Control is Critical and Time-Consuming for States

By: - April 24, 2020 12:00 am

Among the false rumors on social media is that the National Guard will enforce stay-at-home orders at gunpoint. That’s not true. Here, members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard fill emergency food boxes in Oklahoma City. Elsewhere, National Guard troops have helped with drive-thru testing sites, delivered equipment to nursing homes and answered calls for state unemployment offices. Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press

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In addition to battling the coronavirus, states and localities are spending time and increased effort batting down rumors and myths — everything from President Donald Trump’s suggestion yesterday that injecting poisonous disinfectants might help to rumors that National Guard troops are enforcing stay-at-home orders at gunpoint.

Do 5G cell towers spread the virus? Nope. Can cats give you COVID-19? Unlikely, though some felines have it. Are police in Salisbury, North Carolina, conducting random checkpoints to test for coronavirus? No, again.

These and other rumors are landing on state and local rumor control websites, which officials have ramped up during the pandemic. Police, health officials and emergency management teams are spending valuable time fending off the falsehoods that have neighborhoods in a tizzy and gun sales on the rise.

But debunking the rumors is absolutely essential for state and local governments, said Bob Griffin, dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York Albany. Untruths, he said, undermine critical information from official governments at a time when people need to be listening to experts and following instructions.

“The problem isn’t the boy who cried wolf, it’s the president who is crying wolf,” Griffin said. “The governors’ experts are spending their precious time debunking the fact that the wolf doesn’t exist. The problem is when the wolf does exist, nobody’s going to believe it.”

Many cities and states had rumor control sites and hotlines before the pandemic. Now they have converted them into landing pages for COVID-19 information or are using them to connect residents to facts about the virus.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.