New Jersey’s top homeland security official received nearly nonstop calls in early March from grocery chains, trucking companies and other logistics firms wanting to know if rumors of an impending national lockdown were true.
They weren’t, and Jared Maples soon learned the companies were reacting to misinformation stemming from text messages shared widely across the country.
Federal officials debunked the messages, but Maples said the whole episode was a “whoa” moment for him and other state officials. Weeks later, New Jersey launched a website aimed at debunking misinformation and rumors about COVID-19.
“Misinformation is out there. You can’t take everything at face value,” Maples, director of the state’s homeland security and preparedness office, told The Associated Press in an interview. “If you hear a rumor, we want people to realize that there’s a place to go (to check it out.)”
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New Jersey’s effort mirrors a rumor-control site set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and is part of efforts underway in other states to combat conspiracy theories, hoaxes and bogus treatment claims that have erupted during the pandemic.
Washington state, for example, created an online guide to identifying and avoiding coronavirus misinformation. Other states and municipalities have set up hotlines that offer information about symptoms and testing, while also dispelling rumors and false claims.
“The next time your friend texts you, or you see something up on Facebook, you can point them to the truth,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said last month when his city announced two new websites designed to offer accurate information about the outbreak.
The many still unanswered questions about the coronavirus and its origins have fueled a number of misleading and false claims about the outbreak and the government’s response to it, state leaders and misinformation experts say.
“We have a unique moment in time when everyone is thinking about the same thing,” said Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina in Canada. “It’s the sort of thing that breeds falsehoods....People’s lives are being disrupted. You can create things that people want to believe. … so there’s a lot working towards a market for (misinformation).”
The text messages that led to confusion in New Jersey and other states warned of a national lockdown or military takeover. They claimed to be from a “friend of a friend,” and said that within 48 to 72 hours the president would order a two-week mandatory quarantine overseen by the National Guard. “Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two week supply of everything. Please forward to your network,” said one.
There’s no indication of who created the texts, though State Department officials have said individuals linked to the Chinese government helped spread them.
At times, President Donald Trump himself has helped circulate false claims about the virus. He’s suggested untested treatments, musing aloud about the idea of injecting disinfectants, overstated the availability of tests and contradicted his administration’s own experts.
The lack of consistent, accurate information from the White House has put further pressure on state leaders to confront what misinformation experts have termed “an infodemic” surrounding the outbreak.
“We need transparency and fact-based communications from our elected officials and from officials across government,” Nina Jankowicz, a misinformation expert at the Wilson Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said at a recent Congressional panel on virus misinformation. “I fear that it’s all being undermined when we have this inconsistent messaging and disregard for the facts coming from certain parts of government.”
Misinformation about a public health emergency can be especially dangerous if it causes people to try sham cures or ignore guidance from health experts. Following Trump’s comments at a White House briefing about the possible curative effects of disinfectants, Maryland’s emergency hotline received hundreds of calls from people asking if it was safe to drink bleach.
The state was forced to issue a warning against the idea, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan urged Trump to “make sure these press conferences are fact-based.”
“They listen when the governor holds a press conference, and they certainly pay attention when the president of the United States is standing there giving a press conference about something as serious as this worldwide pandemic,” Hogan said on ABC News. “And I think when misinformation comes out or you just say something that pops in your head, it does send a wrong message.”
Companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have implemented new algorithms, rules and warnings in an effort to knock down harmful claims. New Jersey's new anti-misinformation website has a similar goal: debunking misinformation that could have an impact on the actions people take.
“We’ll continue to publish only accurate and timely information,” Maples says in a video clip on the state’s website. “Because that’s how we’re all going to get through this together.”